Scott Tannas of High River leads growing financial empire

Most stories about High River’s Scott Tannas stress the fact he didn’t finish college (Calgary’s Mount Royal College, as it happens).

But today, the long-limbed, slow-talking, small-town entrepreneur could teach MBA courses at university.

“Naaaw, I doubt they’d let me in the gate,” cackled the soon-to-be gentleman banker of the Highwood.

Some dropout. Truth is, high school and college bored Tannas. But he makes up in chutzpah and street smarts for what he may have ducked in lecture hall.

This is a man who walked into an insurance company known as Hi-Alta in the mid-1990s, invested every dime he had, then asked to learn the ropes from ground level.

Bruce Masterman photo
Scott Tannas of High River hopes to start up a chartered bank offering mortgage and long-term deposit services.

In 1994, he was waiting on customers. In 2002, he’s the 40-year-old president and CEO of Western Financial Group Inc. (née Hi-Alta Capital Inc.), a chain of 44 branches serving 124,000 customers across three provinces. Last year’s revenue: $22.5 million.

This is a one-time travel agent who, at age 26, was peeved by the dreadful service he and visiting clients received at the Banff Springs Hotel.

So the kid wangled a meeting with a CP Hotels vice-president. He flimflammed the VP into hiring the wannabe consultant from the country to sort out the problem.

(Result: success. The rookie rounded up a bushel of new Canadians who happily beefed up staff ranks depleted by the annual back-to-school exodus of summer students hired by the hotel. To this day, many of those refugees and immigrants hold down supervisory positions at the Springs).

Yep, the man’s got maximal cojones. He may speak slowly but his ambition’s in perpetual overdrive. To date, he has always delivered.

Most recently, Tannas delivered a hefty application to the federal government. It cost the company $1 million to prepare the package and, if it’s approved, Western Financial Group will become a High River-based chartered bank that promises to answer its own phones.

Ottawa policy-makers have come up with a new Bank Act designed to (gasp) encourage competition. Its wording leaves a window of opportunity for insurance companies to apply for full charter status, and Western Financial Group (the name change took effect May 28) was among the first to go for it.

Tannas is careful not to rip the Big Banks. He simply says that a “necessary evolution” has forced them to centralize their services.

This has left many customers yearning for a more personal touch.

Bruce Masterman photo
Scott Tannas holds a binder containing his 1,500-page application for a bank charter.

“There’s a demand for that service and we think we’re in a position to deliver it,” he shrugged.

In Tannas’s view, the chartered banks have grown gun shy about doing mortgage business in smaller centres, for a variety of practical reasons. Liquidity concerns, for example.

“I think the banks say: ‘Why do I want to put out a mortgage in Turner Valley, when I know if the guy goes under, I’m gonna have trouble selling the building?’ ” Most banks now work on a scoring system. And commercial loan applications under $250,000 are generally first to get the cold shoulder.

“When the computer says no,” Tannas said, “that’s it.”

This low-end commercial market isn’t being well served and it’s precisely the market Western Financial Group (WES-TSX) aims to pursue.

And though Tannas has a reputation as a fast mover, WFG’s banking service will put its best foot forward one careful step at a time.

Should the company receive the regulators’ blessing, Tannas hopes to be up and running by the first quarter of next year.

There are no plans to offer transactional banking services, however. No chequing accounts, no ATMs – only long-term deposits and mortgages, both commercial and residential.

Tannas credits a WFG director, Calgary investment banker Rob Jennings, for initially putting him in touch with the old-money Montreal backers who have helped drive the company since it began attracting investor interest in the mid-to-late ’90s.

Since that time, as fiscal genealogist Peter C. Newman helpfully points out, insurance/banking biggies such as AXA SA of France, Royal & SunAlliance Group PLC and Wawanesa Mutual Insurance Co. have also bought in.

And although Tannas cracks “you always wear short pants in your own home town,” he suspects most town and country residents are quietly pulling for him to succeed.

OK, nobody REALLY loves a banker, large or small.

But by basing itself in High River, and committing itself to do business in small towns, Western Financial Group is expressing a significant vote of confidence in the economic future of the rural West.

That has to count for something.