Gillian Riley, CEO, Tangerine Bank

Gillian Riley, president and CEO of Toronto-based Tangerine Bank, has achieved success and recognition throughout her 25 years in the financial services industry.

Riley has headed Tangerine, a digital-banking subsidiary of Toronto-based Bank of Nova Scotia, since December 2018 – making her one of a small group of female top bank executives in Canada. She is also a two-time recipient of the Women’s Executive Network (WXN) Canada’s Most Powerful Women: Top 100 award.

Regardless of these distinctions, what keeps Riley coming into the office is simple. “I’ve always been very interested in the importance of serving customers,” she says. “Every role that I’ve had has been about being impactful, either on a one-to-one basis or [toward] a broad segment.”

Riley first became interested in finance when, as a university student, she worked as a summer intern on the foreign-exchange trading floor of a major bank in London, U.K.

“I liked the idea of being in banking; [that job] was really my trigger point. [The atmosphere] was exhilarating,” Riley says. “I was taking economics and business [courses], and was really enjoying them. I thought banking was something I could make a difference in.”

The experience inspired Riley to pursue a master’s degree in business administration majoring in accounting and finance from Connecticut-based University of Hartford.

Riley joined Scotiabank as a commercial banking relationship manager in the mid-1990s. “I spent time putting deals and transactions together that clients needed – to grow and buy businesses, buy machinery, manage their receivables,” she says.

Riley progressed to more senior roles, overseeing services and product development for all types of clients, including retail and corporate clients. As head of Scotiabank’s deposits, payments and lending division in 2009, she was involved in the bank’s launch of TFSAs after their introduction in the 2008 federal budget.

Whether or not Riley is working on the front line, she says, “My core goal is to help customers of all types get ahead.”

Riley received her first WXN award in 2016 while serving as Scotiabank’s executive vice president of Canadian commercial banking, the role she held for three years before joining Tangerine. Her second win, announced this past November, was in the “CIBC Trailblazers and Trendsetters” category, for being what WXN calls “a force in the Canadian banking industry.” She was specifically honoured for pioneering a business funding program for female entrepreneurs called the Scotiabank Women Initiative (SWI).

If you ask Riley, that success is shared. The SWI, launched in 2018, has grown, thanks to the efforts of teams throughout Scotiabank, she says.

“[The SWI] is having an economic impact,” Riley says, “and is helping create a lot more vibrancy and employment for this country by [helping] more women build, grow and start their own businesses.”

Scotiabank has committed $3 billion in capital to the SWI program since 2018, and more than 500 women have gone through the program within the past 12 months.

SWI offers access to capital, education and mentorship to budding entrepreneurs. While developing the program, Riley worked with front-line staff “so the people in commercial and small-business banking would have the tools to help women become more successful,” she says.

Riley says women were otherwise being overlooked by financial services institutions.

“It became very apparent to me after research and speaking on panels [as head of Canadian commercial banking] that women [entrepreneurs] could be helped in much greater ways in Canada,” Riley says. “They receive only 4% of venture-capital dollars in this country.”

Between 2016 and 2018, rates of early-stage business activity by women increased steadily while activity by men decreased, according to a Canada-focused report from U.K.-based research consortium Global Entrepreneurship Monitor. The report, released in October 2019, also notes that the positive attitudes of women running businesses were contributing to Canada being among the most innovative G7 countries. But, the report adds, “gender-based challenges” must be addressed.

When Riley moved to Tangerine, she brought her passion for the SWI program with her; she is working to integrate the SWI program into Tangerine.

“We’re figuring out how to use the [SWI] program for recruitment and encouraging women in leadership,” says Riley, “and, looking at our customers, for providing [planning tools] that are unique.”

Further, accepting the new role gave Riley an opportunity to broaden her experience, she says.

Although Tangerine is a subsidiary of Scotiabank, the digital arm has a character all its own. Launched originally as ING Direct Canada in 1997, the digital bank was acquired by Scotiabank in 2012 and rebranded as Tangerine in 2014.

As of May 2019, Tangerine serves more than two million customers and has assets of slightly less than $40 billion, up from $38 billion a year earlier. Those assets include investment fund assets of more than $3 billion as of Nov. 30.

Tangerine doesn’t employ financial advisors in the same way as a retail or brokerage firm, but does have a small team of people registered with the Mutual Fund Dealers Association of Canada to answer investors’ questions. Says Riley: “There’s potential for transformation. We want to move from being a deposit-gathering bank to a full-service, everyday digital bank.”

That transformation won’t include adding more advisors, but there will be more products and services for what Riley refers to as “digitally-savvy” Canadians. That target demographic includes millennials and young families, she says, although Tangerine’s customer base is “diverse.”

New features already in use on the bank’s website and mobile app include simple goal-setting and monitoring tools focused on saving for a home or retirement, and cash-flow planning tools to track monthly expenses.

Leveraging client data will be key, Riley says. “I really like customer research [to better] understand customer needs, whether that’s conducting research or doing interviews. We get more than 10,000 pieces of feedback per month.”

However, Riley adds, the challenge is in “figuring out how to get insights from the data, for varying segments. That’s going to be really important.”

So far, the digital bank’s presence is strong. For eight years running, Tangerine has been ranked highest among Canada’s mid-sized banks in J.D. Power’s Retail Banking Satisfaction Study for Canada. (Next on that list is Edmonton-based Alberta Treasury Branches’ ATB Financial and Lévis, Que.-based Desjardins Bank. Toronto-based Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce’s Simplii Financial arm, a main competitor of Tangerine, was ranked fifth [two spots lower than a year ago] and below the national satisfaction average.)

The year to come may be rough for Canada’s banks, with possible central bank rate cuts and volatile markets, but digital players probably are well positioned.

“Tangerine is No. 1 among online banks in terms of high-interest savings account balances, and No. 6 – after the Big Five banks – when all deposit-takers are included,” says Carlos Cardone, senior managing director with New York-based research firm Strategic Insight.

Further, Cardone says, as non-digital mid-sized banks try to diversify their balance sheets away from traditional advisor assets, the low-cost structure of Tangerine and other digital banks will be competitive.

No matter what challenges come along, Riley says, customers will always come first – and welcoming positive change is crucial to that aim.

“You can’t assume you know what [customers] need,” Riley says. “It’s all about listening and asking questions. The more you can be curious, the more successful you’ll be.”