The Facilities Make the Company at Symcor

Just like the suit makes the man, Tim Hocking believes that Symcor’s evolution as a company mirrors the evolution of its physical spaces

Back-office functions—nobody notices when they’re running perfectly, but everybody notices when they’re not, especially when it comes to money. Dozens of back-office functions are required for a financial institution to provide smooth service to its customers, and while some banks prefer to care for these functions on their own, many would rather outsource them to a service provider. In Canada, that service provider is most often Symcor.

The company was founded in 1996 when TD Bank, Royal Bank of Canada, and Bank of Montreal created a joint venture to consolidate their processing into one common platform that would accept each bank’s unique system. Rather than duplicating their efforts in check-processing services, mail and distribution, electronic file transfer, and other functions, these banks wanted to share the load and increase capacity. Hence, efficiency was the core of the business model.

At the time, Tim Hocking was managing a regional corporate real estate portfolio of retail branches for the founding bank, TD Bank. His time in the industry had provided him a long view of business, and his background in project design gave him a creative approach to problem-solving. That, plus his experience and knowledge of bank operations, made him a natural fit for Symcor. In 1997, he joined the team as manager of real estate operations and was later promoted to vice president of corporate real estate.

One of Hocking’s first tasks was to tour all nineteen existing data centers and operations facilities across the country. Many were housed in first- and second-level basements, warehouses, and literal back offices with little light. They tended to be furnished with a hodgepodge of eclectic, thirty-year-old branch office hand-me-downs. The conditions were not inspiring. Hocking had his work cut out for him.

By 1999, those nineteen facilities had been consolidated down to nine, and real estate costs had been reduced by 25 percent. In the early 2000s, one of Symcor’s parent banks was acquired, which created an increase in processing volume and subsequent organic growth for Symcor. In 2004, Symcor welcomed its first client outside of the original three, which meant that the company was now servicing nearly 80 percent of the banking market in Canada. What was originally projected to be a three-year consolidation project had grown into an organization with substantial influence in the banking industry.

When Symcor’s parent banks decided to extend its financial services into the United States, Symcor expanded as well. Between 2006 and 2007, facilities were opened and renovated in the United States, and Symcor’s footprint grew to more than thirty sites. With the financial crisis in 2008, however, Symcor decided to exit the United States and focus on its Canadian operations.

Since then, Symcor has evolved in other ways—breaking into different markets and developing innovative products. The company now provides not only payment processing and document services, but also secure data-processing for the wealth management, brokerage, insurance, telecommunications, and retail industries through a network of business centers. They have built one of the largest digital archives in the country and continue to explore the best way to service paper check processing while developing support for digital and analytical services. “Our capability to straddle both the electronic and physical payment industry has been a key for us in the last several years,” Hocking says. “But it’s our proven expertise in trusted, secure, complex processing that sets us apart from competitors.”

Moving into web- and image-based processing has involved significant equipment and infrastructure adjustments in Symcor’s facilities, which are constantly in flux. Because digital processing requires less space, it has created a unique opportunity to redeploy space—for another business line, for example—or a new customer. “In an environment that is constantly changing, we provide creative and cost-effective solutions to adapt to transitions as they come,” he says.

As important as the transformation of services has been, so too has the transformation of Symcor facilities. “I believe the evolution of Symcor’s physical space has closely mirrored the growth and development of the company,” Hocking says. “At many companies, back-office operations are not the prime business, but at Symcor, they are our whole business.” The company takes its work and its workers “out of the basement.”

Existing buildings have been remodeled, hodgepodge furniture replaced, technology updated, and once forgotten back-office employees are now empowered and appreciated. Today, Symcor has consolidated to eleven production facilities and two corporate locations across Canada, and it maintains consistent, functional operations from coast to coast. Just as the company prides itself on transparency, the employees are proud to display their workspace. Much like how Symcor provides safe, secure services that protect its clients, its facilities supply a well-lit, safe, environment. “Seeing how things have transformed is quite rewarding,” Hocking says. “I am proud of the work and the people who made it possible.”

Over his nearly twenty years with Symcor, Hocking has gained a thorough understanding of operational efficiencies and developed the ability to adapt the long-term investment of real estate to a fast-paced business. Hocking has honed his awareness of industry trends in real estate and facility use, as well as those inside and outside the financial industry. In many ways, his work is still cut out for him, but he is now focused on striking the balance between low costs, flexible facilities, and a resilient infrastructure. This balance is key to efficiency, which is still at the core of the company’s model. Fortunately, those back-
office processes have come a long way from the basements where they started and are now illuminated as the operational backbone that they have always been.