The Women to Watch: No. 2, BMO Harris Bank's Ernie Johannson

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Group Head, U.S. Personal and Business Banking, BMO Harris Bank

BMO Harris Bank has made significant strides in recent years attracting retail and small-business customers, and now it's up to Ernie Johannson to keep the momentum going.

Johannson took over as the Chicago bank's head of personal and business banking in February, following a two-year stint as chief risk officer and head of North American retail credit at the BMO Harris' Toronto-based parent, BMO Financial. Her mandate is to accelerate growth and improve profitability in this crucial business line, while speeding up the unit's digital transformation.

Johannson replaced Alex Dousmanis-Curtis, who was credited with driving growth in retail customer acquisitions and profits by focusing largely on improving customer service and satisfaction. (Dousmanis-Curtis is now head of sales and distribution for Canadian personal and business banking.)

Still, the $112 billion-asset BMO Harris is best known as a commercial bank, and Johannson said its strategy for signing up more retail and small-business customers is strengthening its digital capabilities. On the retail side, that could include building more advice-driven capabilities into its digital platforms and customizing the experience so that users decide what they want to see first when they click on the bank's website or open the mobile app.

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On the small-business side, the bank is looking to build its own online lending platform to compete with fintechs that typically approve and fund loans in a day or two. The bank also needs to improve its business payments' capabilities if it hopes to attract more small-business customers, Johannson said.

"What you do on your phone as a small-business customer should be the exact same thing you do as a retail customer," she said. "They all have to take and make payments, and the process has to be simpler and more seamless."

Johannson has more than two decades of experience in financial services. Before joining BMO Financial in 2012, she held a number of leadership posts at Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, including senior vice president of marketing and strategy for its retail bank.

Outside of banking, Johannson has served on a number of nonprofit boards over the course of her career, and she recently mentored a youth-led startup that presses local and national governments to focus on issues important to younger generations, including poverty and climate change.

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Commercial lending Small business lending Ernie Johannson BMO Harris Bank Women in Banking