The Hub Curtis Stange—From farmhand to the frontier of fintech

Curtis Stange—From farmhand to the frontier of fintech

Custis Stange, Master of Business Administration, 2000
Based in: Edmonton

Curtis Stange began his working life as a farmhand in Saskatchewan and aspired to one day run a farm of his own. Then an encounter with a recruiter from one of Canada’s big banks upended all that. 

Instead he went on to a career in banking that started with supporting farmers with their financial needs and later led to the very cutting edge of fintech—from pioneering international blockchain transfers to Apple Pay and virtual banking assistants. Now 54, Stange was named CEO of ATB Financial last summer. He says his journey from farmhand to bank whiz might never have happened without his Athabasca University (AU) Master of Business Administration (MBA), which helped leverage the leadership skills he needed to get it all done. 

“That learning moment was a big enabler at a pivotal time, he says. 

“I see my MBA at Athabasca as a key part of my development and learning journey to get to where I am today— and I am loving it!”

– Curtis Stange, MBA graduate

Stange was studying agriculture at the University of Saskatchewan’s College of Agriculture in Saskatoon when he met the recruiter, who was from CIBC. 

“He wasn’t a Bay-Street, pinstriped-suit banker, he was an agrologist himself,” Stange says of the man whose career pitch changed his life. 

“Work with farmers but do it as a banker,” the man advised. “Lend them money; know their businesses. That’s how you can stay connected to farming.”  

After he returned to his summer job as a hired hand on a grain farm south of Swift Current, Sask., CIBC reached out to offer him a job. The farmer he was working for was an older man who had grown preoccupied with the question of who’d take over the farm after his retirement. Stange was intrigued by CIBC’s offer, and told the farmer he intended to accept the position. 

“A few days later, one night after dinner, he called me to the porch,” Stange says. “He slouched down in his chair, put his hat over his eyes, and offered me an opportunity to buy into the farm.” 

Stange very nearly did. “It was a defining moment,” he says. Yet the banking world beckoned, and he followed its call. At CIBC, Stange worked his way from Kelvington, in northern Saskatchewan, to Regina and Saskatoon, followed by Kelowna, and Edmonton. Understanding CIBC’s size and the breadth of opportunity available there, he diversified, from agriculture to wealth management to leadership.  

“It was meaningful. The types of courses I was taking, on strategy, marketing, human resources, I'd ask different questions than other branch managers—the right questions.”

– Curtis Stange, MBA graduate

It was while he was a branch manager in Edmonton, in 1997, that he started his MBA at AU. 

“I don’t want to undersell this one iota, it was meaningful,” he says of the program. “The types of courses I was taking, on strategy, marketing, human resources, I’d ask different questions than other branch managers—the right questions.”  

As a result, he was singled out, and ultimately given responsibility for 15 CIBC branches across Edmonton.  

From there the bank sent him to Toronto (where he finished AU’s online MBA program), then Ottawa, where he ran all of CIBC’s eastern- and northern-Ontario operations. Later, in Calgary, he was put in charge of CIBC Alberta. It was there, after 23 years at CIBC, that Stange got the call from ATB Financial. 

He was soon leading the world’s first “big bang” replacement of a core banking system—the underlying tech that banks rely on for most transactions—and in one fell swoop moved ATB from a “mainframe” to a more malleable and technologically advanced “distributive” system. That put ATB ahead of even Canada’s largest banks and as its Chief Strategy and Operations Officer, a brand-new role designed just for him, Stange exploited the disruptive opportunities that this giant shift made available to him. He moved money from ATB’s books to a German bank via the blockchain in 2015, launched Apple Pay in concert with Canada’s largest banks, and helped create a bot in Facebook Messenger that today helps ATB customers do their banking on social media, a global first.  

“We were being super disruptive, and we were showing off a little bit based on our new core,” says Stange. When Curtis looks back on his nearly ten years with ATB he points to three enablers. 

“I’ve lived through three quotients that have increased in importance over the years,” as he puts it. “IQ gets you in the game, EQ, or emotional intelligence, keeps you there, and nowadays it’s AQ, the adaptability quotient—the ability to constantly be curious, hungry for information, always looking at disrupting. That resiliency allows you to fail and understand failure. AQ differentiates you and can differentiate companies.” 

It differentiated Strange. 

I see my MBA at AU as a key part of my development and learning journey to get to where I am today— and I am loving it!” 

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  • September 1, 2019