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Not afraid to ask

Rob Paterson, BA'90, never dodges the tough questions he learned to ask at Western

by Jason Winders, MES’10, PhD’16

From his earliest days on campus in the 1980s, to revolutionizing Canadian banking practices today, Rob Paterson, BA’90 (Philosophy), has never backed away from answering the hard questions he first learned to ask at Western.

“Think of all those global consulting companies where everyone went to biz school. What are you looking for in those companies when you hire them?” asked the CEO of Alterna Savings & Credit Union. “You are looking for people with problem-solving skills – the ability to frame problems, solve problems, resolve problems.

“Biz school is fine. But I am a big proponent of arts degrees because of the critical-thinking skills they instill. Spending four years in Philosophy classrooms at Western set me up to be a critical thinker and effective communicator who can sell ideas across an organization, get a board onside and demonstrate that when you, say, decide to get into the medical cannabis space, it is not an off-the-cuff decision. You can go to the points of reason and rationale why.”

Rob Patterson, BA'90 (photo by Mark Sommerfeld)
Rob Patterson, BA'90 (photo by Mark Sommerfeld)

More on that in a moment.

Growing up in Paris and Hong Kong, Paterson was tech-literate before we knew what that meant. Between the computer lab at his international school in Hong Kong, the computer his dad brought home as CFO for IBM Asia, and an early Wozniak-days Apple in his bedroom, he was plugged-in long before he arrived on campus.

At Western, he used that knowhow to start a consulting company to help small London area businesses automate operations. He sourced equipment, built a curriculum for employee training and installed the hardware himself.

“When I saw the difficulties these smaller companies were having automating, I knew I was able to come in and help them. And it wouldn’t just be one company; there were quite a few companies in London who needed this type of help,” Paterson said. “It was a great opportunity.”

Given a passion for debate, he embraced the free flow of ideas in his Philosophy classes. “It was there where I developed my own views and outlook on life. I was able to conflict with and debate with other students my age, as well as professors. The professors encouraged that even as debates ended in class and often continued in The Elbow Room.”

Following graduation, he spent his early career in massive organizations – CIBC, JP Morgan Chase, Aon Corp. and McKinsey & Co. But he longed for a challenge to define himself.

“When you are in large corporations, you can get by never knowing how much of success is you versus the infrastructure, the power of your brand or the big budgets they can put behind you.”

That was the attraction of the top post at Alterna. Among the oldest credit unions in the country, the organization was struggling to find its place in the modern banking world.

“There was this opportunity to come in and redo the entire organization from culture to capabilities,” Paterson explained. “I saw it as the ultimate test of myself. This was returning to my roots of running my own business – it was going to be up to me.”

Since taking the top spot in April 2012, Paterson has led a revolution in his organization and industry. He has radically altered fintech – financial technology – by shedding old thinking, developing creative partnerships and asking tough questions of his operation. He leverages the credit union’s nimble nature to create change; he embraces a loyalty to customers, not shareholders or analysts.

His successes are numerous, but it was his company’s decision to back a small medical marijuana company that woke up an entire industry.

Three years ago, an entrepreneur wanted to turn an abandoned Hershey chocolate plant in Smiths Falls, Ont. into a medical marijuana factory. Despite the almost limitless opportunity within the sector, and a firm legal foundation, big banks wanted no part of the business. Exhausting those options, the entrepreneur approached Paterson.

He passed. Then he paused. Why had he passed?

“On surface, you hear ‘marijuana’ and people say, ‘Why would I want to be in that?’ But when you spend the time to problem-solve around it, you see this is something for Canadians who are in critical care. This was a real company with real objectives,” Paterson explained.

This was a business fully vetted by government, fully secured by law enforcement, and a needed product and service by customers. The Big Banks saw saying ‘yes’ as putting their other profitable areas at risk. Paterson, however, saw saying ‘no’ as going against everything a credit union stands for.

“Who am I to say I am not going to provide them services when I know that the people who are going to benefit are the people in critical care,” he explained.

“When I look at what our roots are supposed to be – to exist for the benefit of our community, to aid and help our members from birth to death – there is not an ethical way to rationalize not providing these services. I had a problem if we didn’t do this. This was exactly what a credit union was to do.”

His board agreed – and what a success story they have to tell.

Today, Canopy Growth Co. is the world’s largest publicly traded marijuana producer, with a market value of more than $6 billion.

On top of that, Paterson prides himself on the economic hope and life the company has injected into the once-fading town. “They are providing quality jobs. The schools are filling up. The homes are filling up. That is what good banking is supposed to be. I am happy to say I had a part in that.”

As for Alterna, that initial ‘yes’ has grown. The company now has $750 million in pot-related loans and deposits and relationships with two-thirds of the 100 licensed producers.

It is a success Paterson attributes to asking himself and his company the hard questions.

“This was the true test to see if we could be true to our roots. Here was something where we had to stand up and say, ‘Yes, all those things we said we are, here we are demonstrating them on an actual hard issue.’”


This article appeared in the Fall 2018 edition of Alumni Gazette
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