Global Banking Comes to Burnaby

What HSBC’s new nerve centre might mean for Metro Vancouver’s IT industry

There’s a cold drizzle falling in Burnaby, where the sky has been overcast all day. Now, with almost theatrical gloom, crows have started circling, climbing in menacing gyres above HSBC’s brand new global software development centre, the five-storey, 146,000-square-foot building it has dubbed Discovery Green.

But despite the ominous portents outdoors, inside the atmosphere is anything but bleak. The alphabet soup of HSBC CEOs, CTOs and VPs are all smiles as they assemble for the ribbon cutting, preparing to unveil the global nerve centre where nearly 900 software designers will co-ordinate the technology infrastructure of the global banking giant.

“We’re developing a worldwide suite of software that we’re putting in 87 different countries,” Ken Harvey, HSBC’s chief technology and services officer, says after the ceremony. “It was important for us to pick an air traffic control centre for design, and Burnaby is that centre.” The new building is part of a five-year, multibillion-dollar effort by HSBC to integrate all data and applications into a seamless set of programs. A holy grail of global IT, the integration promises to cut costs and put more power in customers’ hands.

But IT wizardry aside, the shining star today – despite her sombre winter vestment – is Metro Vancouver. HSBC runs 26 software development shops in India, China, Brazil and elsewhere. The decision to make Vancouver the epicentre for all of those operations was less about dollars and cents than about the city’s significant geo-cultural cachet, which remains strong even in an era of continued outsourcing and economic downturn.

“In Vancouver it’s very easy to recruit people who are really proficient on the technical side and also able to speak multiple languages,” Harvey says. “And we can get people to move here very easily.”

The city’s strong international disposition, plus a workforce equipped with both IT and business sense, ensures a uniquely competitive profile, concurs Ron Cenfetelli, who teaches information technology at UBC’s Sauder School of Business. “Sure you can outsource coding and programming, but good use of IT requires people who know how to bridge business needs with IT capabilities,” he says. “That’s a lot harder to outsource to India.” 

IT insiders are hopeful that other players will follow HSBC’s lead. “Our tech sector is solid, and we’re growing despite the recession,” says Cenfetelli’s Sauder colleague Thomas Hellmann, a professor who monitors B.C. technology companies. “HSBC clearly looked around the world before setting up this centre, and the fact that we can attract that kind of operation means we’re moving up the quality ladder.”

The move further cements Vancouver’s position as a Pacific Rim hub for the world’s fifth-largest bank, whose origins can be traced back to Hong Kong and Shanghai in 1865. Bucking the common perception of Toronto as the centre of Canada’s financial universe, HSBC chose Vancouver for its head office when it established a Canadian subsidiary in 1981.

Back at the ribbon cutting, bands of rain are lashing the gleaming new windows. Impervious to the dreary weather, a pair of HSBC managers visiting from Scotland since last week gets teary-eyed about their impending departure. “Vancouver’s recognized worldwide as one of the best cities in the world to live in,” says Bryan Leitch, who runs credit and debit card operations in the U.K. “You could get anybody to come here.”

– Remy Scalza