05 December 2006

TD Green Machine Debut 30 Years Ago

The Globe and Mail, Rob Carrick, 5 December 2006

In the beginning, there was the TD 3600.

Fortunately for the people at Toronto-Dominion Bank, someone with a bit of marketing savvy came up with a better label for its first series of bank machines. The name used was Green Machine and, in the years after its debut 30 years ago, it became almost synonymous with automated teller machines, or ATMs, in Canada.

"Although TD was one of the last banks off the mark on ATMs, its step-by-step introduction of the machines on a city-by-city basis has resulted in the Green Machine name becoming almost the generic description for ATMs," said a Globe report from February, 1983.

Today, TD has just finished installing a brand new fleet of 2,503 Green Machines across Canada that offer some notable customer service improvements. Ironically, though, Green Machine's name brand ascendancy is history, partly the result of a proliferation of no-name, or white-label, bank machines in the marketplace.

"The technology has become so commonplace," said Alexander Morley, vice-president of bank machines at TD. "It's an interesting fact that bank-owned machines in Canada represent 30 to 35 per cent of the total."

Thirty years ago, bank machines had just begun to trickle into Canadian cities and free people from the tyranny of bankers' hours. Mr. Morley is a collector of anecdotes from those early days.

My own recollection is being 16 years old back in 1978 and seeing one of TD's first machines at Fairview Mall in Toronto. I decided that it looked like the best toy I'd ever seen and promptly set up a TD account, even though the money I earned at part-time jobs never actually made it into the bank.

Mr. Morley recalls being impressed by the JohnnyCash machines that Canada Trust introduced in 1983 with the help of a marketing campaign featuring the country singer. TD eventually bought Canada Trust and turned the JohnnyCash machines green.

"Can I just share my ABM story?" Mr. Morley said. "As a younger person, I was in university in Kingston and travelled a long distance out of the downtown core in order to get to a Canada Trust branch, just because of the Johnny Cash thing. I thought it was so cool."

Today's green machines are notable because they represent a step forward from the basic services provided by TD's previous generation of ATM. For example, they'll add up the total amount of your deposit if you've got several cheques in hand, and they offer a consolidated receipt instead of one for each transaction. If you deposit a cheque, you'll be told how much of the money will be held back by the bank. There's also a step-saving "My Favourite Withdrawal" option, where you preprogram an amount and account for your withdrawals, and your preference for receiving a paper receipt or not.

Mr. Morley considers the biggest breakthrough to be in the area of accessibility for people who are visually impaired. "They can plug their headphones into an ATM -- there's a jack there -- and a voice will actually talk them through the transaction." The new machines also offer a choice of five languages -- English, French, Italian, Portuguese and Mandarin.

For security purposes, the new machines have a kind of shield over their keypads and mirrors that let you clearly see if there's someone standing close to you. The idea is to prevent shoulder-surfing, where someone spies your PIN.

Today's Canadian bank machines are fairly staid by international standards. In other countries, you can buy lottery tickets at an ATM, load prepaid cards and buy stamps and gift certificates.

At TD, they're looking at innovations that could include mobile services using wireless phone technology, and cash and cheque acceptance without stuffing things in one of those deposit envelopes. As for selling stuff, Mr. Morley said it's TD's view that bank machines are strictly for banking. "You have to be careful here because you can end up with lineups," he said. "You don't want to add so much functionality that you end up with people surfing the ATM."

When TD installed its first bank machines bank in 1976 -- they were located in the TD Centre in downtown Toronto as well Fairview Mall -- a busy month would have seen 1,000 total transactions. Today, TD's machines process 21 million transactions monthly, two-thirds of them cash withdrawals.

Numbers like this show Canadians are among the world's most avid users of ATMs, even though the golden age of bank machines in this country ended several years ago. A move by the big banks to slap surcharges on non-customers who use their machines took care of that, as has the growth of no-name machines. If TD were to rebrand the green machine as the TD 3600, would anyone notice?