Joanne Gassman: Bank role

BMO's newest senior vice-president for B.C. and the Yukon is focused on building community relationships and customer loyalty

Joanne Gassman was attending BMO Financial Group's annual executives' conference in Toronto as the Vancouver Canucks were preparing to face the Boston Bruins in Game Seven of last year's Stanley Cup finals. Watching the game with colleagues, she grew increasingly disheartened as the Bruins continued to score against the Canucks. Rather than watch the game to the disappointing end, she went to bed.

When she checked her BlackBerry messages in the morning, her disappointment turned to heartbreak. By six in the morning, she had seen the wreckage of the riot, including pictures of the shattered windows and broken glass walls of the BMO branch at West Georgia and Homer.

"[The riot] was a black mark for us as a city," she said. "Someone had texted me the pictures [of the branch], and it broke my heart. I felt for the employees, because the branch is their home."

One of the first things Gassman did when she flew back to Vancouver the day after the game was visit the staff at the damaged branch. While the employees were among the victims, Gassman said they were more concerned about their neighbours, particularly the employees at the nearby coffee shop who had been trapped while their café was being ransacked. Even though the branch was boarded up awaiting specially ordered glass to replace broken windows, staff were intent on opening it the day after the riot.

"It was boarded up, but they cleaned it up and opened it. The employees wanted to do that. They were amazing."

Gassman is especially proud of how the bank has cultivated that camaraderie and community bond, and they're among the areas she hopes to develop as BMO's newest senior vice-president for B.C. and the Yukon.

Connecting with people of all walks of life and circumstances is not new for Gassman.

Barbara Mowat, president of Impact Communications and chairwoman of three Vancouver chapters of the Women Presidents Organization, noted that Gassman's most notable strengths are her approachability and willingness to support entrepreneurs at all levels.

"She has a dedication to see everyone succeed; it doesn't matter if you're male or female, owner of a large or tiny business," Mowat said. "She's always looking for ways to connect and bring key people together. I totally admire what she's doing already."

Gassman's appreciation for the opportunities she's had at BMO might explain her willingness to support people inside and outside the bank. Growing up in Summerland, Gassman didn't intend to pursue a career in banking after starting as a teller in Penticton 37 years ago.

She saw herself more as a nurse.

But new opportunities within the bank continued to maintain her interest. Soon after fulfilling her goal of moving to Vancouver by getting transferred to a BMO branch at Main and Hastings, she became a branch manager. In 1985, she took on the Toronto-based position of corporate auditor of personal banking. Over the next six years, she travelled to BMO's offices all over the world, including Tokyo, Singapore, London, New York and Chicago. The international exposure deepened her financial experience and broadened her global perspective. It also increased her self-confidence.

"I was given a great opportunity to learn different skills and interact with very senior people. It gave me a huge amount of confidence and made me realize that if I applied myself, my network, common sense and good judgment would serve me well."

By the mid-1990s, Gassman wanted to return to the West Coast, a move that many thought would limit her career potential. But after a few years managing MasterCard's call centre in Vancouver, she moved into commercial banking and other BMO management positions in Metro Vancouver.

Toronto beckoned again with more senior roles; however, Gassman was willing to forgo those opportunities to stay in Vancouver.

Then an executive position opened up on Vancouver Island, and she became vice-president of the Island region in 2005. She later returned to the Lower Mainland in 2008 as vice-president of personal banking for suburban Vancouver, an area that excludes Vancouver and Richmond, but includes every city and municipality north to the Sunshine Coast and east to Chilliwack.

Since becoming BMO's top executive in B.C. last February, Gassman has focused on increasing the size of the bank's personal and commercial lines of business by deepening the bank's relationships with its clients. One of her key goals is to establish the district as the bank's best for customer loyalty.

"I don't want to jinx it, but we've made some good positive inroads. Both in our retail and commercial banking."

Two years ago, B.C. was the pilot region for a new strategy to strengthen the bank's relationships with its small-business clients. It involved having 60 relationship managers support several hundred BMO clients in the Lower Mainland and Vancouver Island. The move, which was rolled out across the country in the fall of 2010, has already generated dividends by establishing closer connections with small-business clients and strengthening customer loyalty.

"Our retention of small-business accounts has been greater than it was before, and we found that a lot of these customers were able to satisfy their personal banking needs, too. That showed us that there's definitely a need out there for business owners to have a relationship manager that cared about their business, even though they weren't a borrowing customer."

Gassman is one of a number of women to join BMO's executive ranks in recent years, and she takes her position as a role model seriously.

"[But] I don't believe for a minute that I got here because I'm a woman. I believe I got here because I demonstrated skills and capacity. Our company supports the advancement of women, and I believe strongly in making sure our branches reflect the communities we serve. But I think there's a need in the marketplace to shine a light on [the issue] because not every company may feel the same way." •

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