Varcoe: Neo Financial’s move into downtown ties past to tech future

Neo Financial CEO Andrew Chau hopes the company’s presence in the downtown, along with other tech firms, will accelerate the community’s ability to attract top talent into the sector

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It only seems fitting that one of Calgary’s newest and fastest-growing technology companies is set to expand into one of the most historic commercial buildings in the city’s downtown.


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Neo Financial will announce Wednesday it is moving into more than 110,000 square feet of office space in the core.

The company will soon occupy 62,000 square feet of converted empty retail space on the fourth floor of the venerable Hudson’s Bay building on 8th Avenue S.W. It has also leased more than 50,000 square feet over three floors in the nearby Edison office tower on 9th Avenue S.W.

The Calgary-based fintech company has been expanding rapidly since it was established in 2019, with more than 400 staff and another 100 open job postings. It previously had offices in East Village, before it began shifting workers into the Edison.

Neo Financial CEO Andrew Chau hopes the company’s presence in the downtown, along with other tech firms, will accelerate the community’s ability to attract top talent into the sector.


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“For us, it’s really around how do we create this ecosystem — or what we like to call a campus for technology companies — so we can essentially anchor it and build more things around it,” Chau said in an interview.

“When you think about Calgary and the direction we are heading, it’s really around being a catalyst to something that is much larger.”

Neo Financial expects to move fully into its new space during the first quarter.

The company’s open workspace will be able to accommodate 800 workers between the two buildings, with room for further hires.

“It is a strong indication the vacancies that we have downtown can be occupied by non-traditional businesses,” Mayor Jyoti Gondek said in an interview.

“When we think about tech, it has such a (role to) play in so many different sectors. As a city that is trying to diversify its economy, it’s incredibly critical that we stay focused.”


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The presence of Neo Financial and other tech companies in the core is a welcome sign for an area that’s in flux. The Edison is already home to local technology firms, while the Hudson’s Bay building has been a central retail hub in the city for more than a century.

Built in 1913, the six-storey structure was touted to be the largest building in Calgary when it opened, becoming “the first of HBC’s original six modern flagship department stores,” according to the company’s website.

Now, the face of brick-and-mortar retail in downtown Calgary is also about to become an essential part of the home turf of a burgeoning technology firm.


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Neo Financial was started by Chau and Jeff Adamson — who both co-founded Winnipeg-based SkipTheDishes — and Kris Reid, and the company has raised $114 million in two funding rounds since late 2020.

The fintech firm offers a no-fee rewards Mastercard and it teamed up last year with Hudson’s Bay Co. to provide a store-branded credit card.

While the company has ambitious plans for the future, attracting enough skilled workers is a challenge facing technology firms across North America.

Chau said operating downtown and being close to restaurants, stores, transit and residences will make it easier to entice potential workers to its campus, noting more than half of the staff already live within biking or walking distance of the offices.


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“When we think about the downtown area, it really comes to how do we expand from where we are today with 400 people to a team of over one-, two-, three thousand people, and that’s just Neo alone,” he added.

“When you can combine that with other companies that are bringing in several hundred people, 50 people, even 10 people, you start to create these natural collisions that, from an innovation standpoint, start to become really valuable.”

Neo Financial CEO Andrew Chau was photographed in the company’s Calgary offices on Tuesday, January 11, 2022.
Neo Financial CEO Andrew Chau was photographed in the company’s Calgary offices on Tuesday, January 11, 2022. Photo by Gavin Young/Postmedia

Calgary’s downtown has struggled mightily with a high vacancy rate and falling rents since oil prices slumped last decade. There were 32 fewer head offices in the city last year than in 2016 amid energy industry consolidation.

Downtown office buildings lost $1.1 billion of their value over the past year, according to new city assessment data, although the tech sector remains an area of growth. A report by Alberta Enterprise Corp. last year found 1,627 technology companies were based in the city, more than double the number operating in 2018.


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Several firms are beginning to take up significant amounts of office space in the central business district, such as Symend and mCloud Technologies Corp., which moved its head office to Calgary from Vancouver and recently leased two floors in Stephen Avenue Place.

“A lot of the companies we saw a year or two ago that were just getting off the ground are starting to become material enterprises with hundreds of employees and a potential path to 1,000-plus employees,” said Jobs and Economy Minister Doug Schweitzer.

The rapid evolution of companies such as Benevity, Neo Financial, Symend and Shareworks by Morgan Stanley highlights the importance of Calgary’s tech sector on fuelling future employment.

Such firms operating in close proximity within the downtown should start to create a type of “hive effect,” building on each other’s strengths, said Brad Parry, interim president of Calgary Economic Development.

“It’s a harbinger of the future,” he said.

At Neo Financial, Chau expects the growth to continue in 2022. And with a new corporate base of operations, he’s anticipating it will become a part of downtown Calgary’s transformation.

“One of the reasons we chose to build Neo here was to really go against the grain,” he added.

“We wanted to disrupt the banking industry and build something from scratch . . . Calgary was a perfect place for that. And it has the talent and the culture to do that.”

Chris Varcoe is a Calgary Herald columnist.

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