Friday, December 28, 2007

Banks Compete for Business of New Immigrants

  
Rita Trichur, 28 December 2007

Bank of Montreal snagged new immigrant Jun Yuan as a client even before the Chinese shipping agent set foot in Canada.

Like other savvy newcomers, 35-year-old Yuan wanted to avoid the hassle of waiting to open a new account and began shopping around for a Canadian bank while still in his native city of Shanghai.

"After a comparison, I chose Bank of Montreal," said Yuan, noting his short list also included Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce and Bank of Nova Scotia.

But fees and products were just part of his assessment.

What really sold him on BMO was positive word of mouth and an information seminar the bank held in Shanghai – a primer on life in Canada. Basic banking, it seems, was just part of the agenda.

After walking Yuan through the basics of applying for a social insurance number and provincial health card, BMO's staff also advised him on what financial pitfalls to avoid when starting a new life in Canada.

"When I decided to immigrate to Canada, I knew nothing about what to do after landing," Yuan said. "This lecture is very helpful."

He was also impressed with the bank's ability to set up his account and transfer his savings to a branch in the heart of Toronto's Chinatown even before he boarded a plane for Canada.

"I didn't need to carry the money with me," Yuan said.

After arriving, BMO activated his account and gave him a reference so he could secure an apartment in Scarborough. Immigrant settlement services are the latest twist to Canada's retail banking war.

Roger Heng, managing director and BMO's country head for China, said prospective clients pepper his staff with a wide range of queries about Canada – most of which have nothing to do with banking.

The most popular questions are about where to reside and the best schools for their kids.

"The Chinese population migrating to Canada is getting more affluent," Heng said. "Therefore, the need, the wealth and the knowledge that they bring in are very much different than five or 10 years ago."

Faced with an aging population and a ban on big-bank mergers, Canadian lenders are falling all over themselves to court and poach new-immigrant clients as they represent a rare source of growth for their mainstay personal and commercial operations.

"Really, the primary growth in the Canadian population is going to be fuelled by immigrants. And we're not just talking about the general population, but our workforce as well," said Rania Llewellyn, Scotiabank's vice-president of multicultural banking. "Obviously, that is a huge opportunity for the banks to tap into that market."

Statistics Canada does not track how much money new immigrants bring to Canada annually, but one 2005 estimate by Royal Bank of Canada pegged the potential new-immigrant banking market at about $3 billion a year.

Canada accepts about 250,000 new immigrants annually.

With China and India the top source countries, banks are in hot pursuit of those Asian-born arrivals.

No one knows that better than 25-year-old Apurva Talsania. When the Indian immigrant approached Royal Bank about opening a new account in 2006, he also ended up getting a job.

Now an account manager, Talsania said the branch staff directed him to RBC's career site the very same day he opened his account. Won over by that "personal touch," he said the experience stands in sharp contrast with banking practices back home.

"The (Indian) banks do not really bother about talking to the client and finding out they want, what their needs are," Talsania said.

And that "different banking experience" starts with the first point of contact, he said. That's because a new chequing account could eventually lead to a new mortgage, credit card, loan or lucrative wealth-management investments for growth-hungry Canadian banks.

According to a 2006 Ipsos Reid report, new Canadians are "prolific investors" and are "more likely to be heavy credit card users in terms of total dollars spent." The findings are based on 2,005 telephone surveys with first-generation Chinese and South Asian adults.

And it seems the banks' own research suggests that new immigrants have different financial priorities. While 70 per cent of new immigrants – those here 10 years or less – are still focusing on having enough money to cover daily expenses, new arrivals are "more likely" to cite saving for their children's education than other goals, according to a recent RBC study.

"This doesn't entirely surprise us as new Canadians are likely to have more education than the overall population," said Mark Whitmell, RBC director of cultural markets. About two-thirds of new immigrants have some university education.

He says a big obstacle facing new immigrants is their lack of Canadian credit history. To get them started, RBC, like other banks, offers a secured credit card. "A credit card is something that someone needs just to participate," Whitmell said. "You can't rent a movie, you can't get your phone hooked up, you can't do any of those kinds of things without a credit card."

As part of its effort to woo clients, RBC launched a pilot referral program with the Canadian Society of Immigration Consultants last month. Consultants are rewarded with points for each new client that is referred to a participating branch. Points can be redeemed for travel and merchandise.

CIBC, meanwhile, is investing $280 million to expand its branch network to reach immigrants in major cities, while "leveraging" the diversity of its front-line staff.

"When you get into more complex investments, mortgages or transactions like that, those clients would prefer, in some cases, to talk about that in the language they are most comfortable with," said Christina Kramer, executive vice-president of retail distribution. Meanwhile, all CIBC bank machines across Canada will be enhanced with Chinese-language capabilities in 2008.

Capitalizing on the rising popularity of remittances, Scotiabank launched a pilot agreement this month to offer the Western Union money-transfer service. It is also sponsoring a wide array of "grassroots" initiatives to drum up business. Banking on Bollywood star power, it recently sponsored a preview of the highly anticipated Sony Pictures movie, Saawariya (Beloved), in the GTA and Vancouver.

It seems, however, that Toronto-Dominion Bank remains tops with South Asians, according to a new report scheduled for release in January by Solutions Research Group.

"We were surprised to some extent by the magnitude of the lead that TD had," said Solutions Research spokesperson Kaan Yigit. "Fundamentally, I think it speaks to having started marketing to various ethnic consumer segments a little bit earlier."

Tim Hockey, TD's group head of personal banking, said the big reason for TD's success is longer hours and better service: "The least international of the banks, which would be us ... is by far the favourite."

His explanation: banking is local. "In the new-to-Canada communities, we find word-of-mouth advertising is much more powerful than traditional means," Hockey said.

And it is the little things that count. That means accommodating Chinese clients who may ask for safety deposit boxes and bank account numbers with the number "8" – a sign of prosperity – while avoiding the number "4", which is associated with death.

But some critics say the big banks' multicultural marketing is just "tokenism."

"It is just so completely patronizing," said David Innis, creative director of Fat Free Communications Inc., a Toronto-based advertising agency.

"Most of them use brown people in their ads and the headlines are translations of what they are either doing in the mainstream," he said. "To merely have shots of brown people shows a complete lack of imagination."

Innis, who is of Indian origin, was part of a recent campaign for the 2007 Dodge Caliber that plays off the theme of arranged marriages with the tag line: "If your parents are going to choose your fiancé, don't let them choose your car."

In contrast, he says Canadian bank advertising in ethnic media is "completely devoid" of personality.

"Okay, TD is green, CIBC is red and yellow (and) BMO is blue, but if you take away the colours, one is interchangeable with the other."
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