Bruce Edgelow’s career spanned ATB Financial’s transition into the big leagues

Bruce Edgelow. Image: JWN

Here’s the gist of what ATB Financial’s former vice-president of strategic initiatives, Bruce Edgelow, had to say to the audience at his April 13th retirement do:

“The biggest issue that I see, and I talk about it all the time, is the notion that society, through a variety of dynamics—whether it’s how we communicate with each other, social media or for other reasons—seems to be moving to the polar ends of issues. That’s where we dig in our spears, and that’s where we camp. Whether it’s climate change or politics or faith, we seem to be celebrating the uniqueness of our disparities.

“But that’s not how we can advance the issues. We can celebrate our differences, but we also need to allow ourselves to come together for the common good. The challenge for all of us is to move from the ends of the spectrum and find the way to the middle ground. It’s from this middle that things get done.”

Finding the middle ground is also what true leadership is about, Edgelow says. This middle ground is inclusive, yet doesn’t pander to interests that lead away from the common good. Citing former prime minister Brian Mulroney speaking at an industry event, Edgelow says, “Sometimes, leaders have to be prepared to have tomatoes thrown at them.”

By that, he means leaders need the wisdom and backbone to make decisions that may not be popular with some people but that are right decisions for the country, province, company or family.

No, this isn’t Edgelow’s opening bid for a life in politics after ATB. It’s an expression of his personal beliefs, which happen to parallel those of the institution he served for 13 years. ATB today stands on level footing with its international competitors, such as RBC and CIBC, but its focus on western Canada and serving Albertans as a provincial Crown corporation sets it slightly apart from its peers.

One difference becomes apparent during the inevitable downturns in the Alberta economy. When people are in a state of panic, ATB tries to be the calming voice that says, “Just breath.”

“We have to lend through the cycles and be patient,” Edgelow says. “We hire for that so that our people step into those situations and stand tall and make a difference and do the right thing. Think client first. Don’t overreact. Have honest but earnest and respectful conversations with clients through the downturns.”

Heading into year three of this oil and gas trough, those conversations are still taking place.

“But thankfully there are low interest rates in this downturn, and we’re not hyperinflationary,” Edgelow says. “There’s also a fair amount of capital ready to come into the business. But that capital is anxious and still very wary to come in.”

Commodity prices are double what they were last year, but the industry expanded recently on the back of much higher prices, so it’s still difficult. There is also a more onerous regulatory environment today, with new rules around liability management ratios, licensee liability ratings and carbon constraints.

“So 2017 is still going to be very choppy,” Edgelow says.

So financial institutions are treading carefully as oil and gas companies adapt to significantly new market realities. ATB faced similar challenges and opportunities in the early 2000s, when the oilsands came of age and people from all over Canada poured into Alberta.

Edgelow joined ATB in 2003. He was part of ATB’s transformation from regional lender, hiding behind the province’s triple-A credit rating, to full-service financial provider. The institution grew its capabilities to include a mergers-and-acquisitions advisory, gave its clients access to equity markets by taking a 30 per cent interest in AltaCorp Capital and expanded its syndication structure to handle much larger loans.

Today, it’s not uncommon for ATB to lead on $900-million syndications. It’s an institution that can grow with its clients through every stage of development. Provincial stalwarts, such as the mid-streamer Secure Energy Services, call ATB their agent bank.

“We’ve created the DNA of a shop that allows us to say to our customers, ‘Bring us your talent and your passion’—or as my wonderful boss, Ian Wild, used to say, ‘Bring us your fire in the belly,’—and let’s see what we can do,” Edgelow says. “The biggest legacy for me is to look back at the depth and breadth of the team at ATB now compared to what we started with. It’s humbling.”

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