Canada’s first female bank CEO leads with her youth in mind

In her 17 months as CEO of Laurentian Bank of Canada, Rania Llewellyn has seen about a third of the company’s 3,000 employees transform.

She sees this upheaval not as a problem but as a chance to rebuild the long-struggling bank once again. If she pulls off a turnaround at Laurentian — a minnow in an industry dominated by a six-company oligopoly — it would be just the latest notable twist in a career that has challenged much of the traditional Canadian banking model.

Llewellyn is betting on Laurentian’s comeback by departing from the orthodoxies of big rivals. She has embarked on a work-from-home-first model in the age of Covid-19 and has halved the company’s office space, ruled out loans to oil and gas companies and is focusing on diversity and inclusion efforts so that talented women, minorities and immigrants face an easier rise than her.

It is a responsibility that occupies an important place in his thinking. Her appointment as the first female CEO of a publicly traded Canadian bank has garnered support from women and others who rarely see people like them in the upper ranks of the industry.

“I’m building the bank I’ve always wanted to work for,” Llewellyn said in an interview at Bloomberg’s offices in Toronto on Thursday. “I feel like my years of experience really prepared me for this opportunity in terms of the added pressure.”

Llewellyn, 46, was born in Kuwait to an Egyptian father and a Jordanian mother, and immigrated to Canada from Egypt in 1992. She got her start in banking as a part-time cashier at the Bank of Nova Scotia after graduating from college and finding herself unable to land a professional role – something she attributes in part to a lack of connections in Canada and a foreign-sounding maiden name.

She landed her first senior position with the company after meeting Scotiabank’s senior vice-president for the Atlantic region at his citizenship ceremony and urging him to get a new job. over the next few weeks. She ended up spending more than two decades at Scotiabank, holding roles as varied as Head of Global Corporate Payments, CEO of Roynat Capital’s Commercial Banking Unit, Head of Multicultural Banking and Senior Vice President of Commercial Banking and Growth Strategy.

His projects in this direction included developing the infrastructure and energy industry team in capital markets and helping to fund a nuclear power plant in Ontario.

Now that she heads Laurentian, which has offices in Montreal and Toronto, she wants to see its managers appoint women to lead large and complex business portfolios where they can demonstrate their ability to generate revenue. for the bank and where their bosses can “see them in action,” Llewellyn said.

“Let’s give them the juicy projects,” she said.

Even before his appointment, Laurentian had already distinguished itself by not requiring Canadian experience for new hires, which made it easier for immigrants to get started in the industry. Llewellyn said she wants to build on that reputation, which could be a significant advantage in Canada, where there is broad political consensus that attracting skilled newcomers should be at the heart of the country’s economic strategy.

Across Laurentian’s workforce, Llewellyn also looks to some unconventional perks. For Laurentian’s 175th anniversary last year, employees were given a day off on their birthday. On top of that, the bank gave its employees a half day off on three Fridays during Canada’s short summer season. The extra leave has been so well received that the bank is extending the program, Llewellyn said.

Llewellyn even tells some of Laurentian’s more junior recruits that the company’s relatively small size means they’ll have opportunities — like pitching projects directly to the board — that they wouldn’t get elsewhere. Such perks can help differentiate cost-conscious Laurentian in cases where it cannot match salaries offered by larger rivals.

“You can leave your mark on this institution and be part of the success,” she said. “You can’t just boil it down to salary. People don’t leave because of the salary. Salary should obviously be competitive, but that is not the only deciding factor.

Of the staff departures that have occurred since Llewellyn took over, “some were voluntary, some were involuntary, because when new leaders come in, a lot of them say, ‘You know what, I’m out’ . And that’s OK,” she said. The bank has also cut some jobs, announcing in December that it had cut 64 positions and booked C$9 million in severance pay as part of its plan to simplify the organizational structure.

“I took the opportunity to flatten the organization,” Llewellyn said Thursday.

While his changes have helped Laurentian’s employee engagement scores, which could pay off in the longer term, investors are starting to look for more immediate progress in Laurentian’s income statement, starting with his personal banking activities.

Under Llewellyn, Laurentian launched its first mobile banking app after just seven months of development and is rolling out contactless payments on debit cards, fixing two major gaps in its offerings. The bank is working to reduce the time it takes to approve customers’ mortgage applications and speed up the process of signing up for new credit cards and deposit accounts.

The plan is gaining momentum. The bank has beaten analysts’ estimates every quarter. Llewellyn served as CEO after missing projections in eight of the 11 quarters before taking office. And the bank’s shares are up 56% since taking over, the fourth-best performer in the eight-company S&P/TSX Commercial Banks Index, an improvement from last place in the previous 12 months. .

Beyond concrete measures, Llewellyn points to culture as a driver of improvement so far. This has included a cost-conscious mindset, breaking down silos and implementing a more relaxed atmosphere, with employees not required to wear ties unless they encounter customers who will be dressed in the same way, she said. Those moves would be harder to make at one of Laurentian’s biggest Bay Street competitors.

“The culture was more that our height was a detractor versus my opinion where height is our advantage,” Llewellyn said. “Ultimately culture and tone start at the top.”

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