An enlightened approach to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people is good for the bottom line, but it’s also the right thing to do, says TD Bank CEO Ed Clark.

Clark gave key speech at the WorldPride Human Rights Conference in Toronto on Wednesday in recognition of TD’s early advocacy of LGBT issues.

TD first began embracing Pride publicly in the 1990s and it's taken a while to change the corporate culture.

“You have to start and say this is just the right thing to do. This is about human rights, this is about being a good corporate citizen, this is about being a good person citizen,” Clark said in an interview with CBC’s The Lang & O’Leary Exchange on Thursday.

Clark said he regards TD’s approach to the LGBT community as a cornerstone of its business strategy rather than a way of cultivating a particular community or building the TD brand.

'When you push ahead on the inside, there will always be an element of skepticism. ‘Is this for real. Do these people really believe in this?’  That’s why it’s important to accompany it with taking public stands'- TD CEO Ed Clark

“You want to run an institution where people feel comfortable, in fact are excited to go work there,” he said.        

“The only way to make people their best, is to allow them to be their true selves. If you let prejudices to get inside the organization, then you inhibit people being everything that they can be. So it’s actually core to our whole business strategy,” he added.

Clark said he consciously began trying to make the culture at TD inclusive for all employees in 1994 by offering same sex benefits to his employees. He said he was shocked when only 55 signed up, a startlingly low number for an institution with 55,000 employees.

Toronto Church Street rainbow ATM

A TD ATM near the intersection of Toronto's Church and Wellesley Streets, the epicentre for World Pride celebrations, gets the rainbow treatment. (John Rieti/CBC)

Clark said he was upset to realize that people were afraid to reveal their sexuality to colleagues and began a personal initiative to change the culture inside the bank.

Clark said he learned that in order to change the culture internally, the bank had to also present a public face in support of LGBT issues.

“When you push ahead on the inside, there will always be an element of skepticism. ‘Is this for real. Do these people really believe in this?’  That’s why it’s important to accompany it with taking public stands,” he said.

“People say ‘they’re prepared to put the whole bank’s brand and Ed’s prepared to put his whole personal brand in favour of this. Then they must be serious....’”

Clark recalled that one executive told him the bank was losing customers to rivals because it was so openly supportive of gay issues. He said he told him to go work for a competitor if that's what he felt.

Similarly, the change in culture was not negotiable when customers complained.

“Of course when we started this we got pushback. Frankly, people would mark it against us and say ‘look, they’re supporting Pride Parade. Do you really want to bank with someone who supports Pride Parade?’” Clark said.

“That’s when you have your moment of truth. You either back off or you forge on? And we said ‘if that customer doesn’t want to bank with us because we support Pride Parade, we’ll show them a bank that they’ll feel more comfortable with.’”

Clark said ultimately the way the bank embraced diversity has been good for business.

“If you’re going to build a great company, not just building a company that might do well for one or two years, but will do well in the long term, because you are producing a great franchise – what I say internally ‘start with the people’  Build the company around them and the shareholders will be well taken care of.”

With files from Canadian Press