Think different

December 12, 2011
in Company
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There’s a classic Apple commercial from the late ‘90s (yes, the era before iPods, iPhones and iPads) that inspires me every time I see it. It’s from their Think Different campaign and it came at a critical time in the company’s life. In many ways it set the stage for Apple and its explosive growth in the decade-plus that followed. The ad features images of world thinkers, shapers, artists and dreamers with a narrated toast:

Here’s to the crazy ones. The rebels. The troublemakers. The ones who see things differently.

While some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius.

Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.

Think different. It’s inspiring. It’s challenging. And it’s so applicable to the credit union system today. As a credit union family, we’ve often said we need fresh ideas and new solutions to how we cooperate and partner. While there can be many different ways of doing this, here’s one idea that has proven to work. We call it the First West model.

If you are not familiar with our story, First West was created through the merger of Langley-based Envision Financial and Penticton-based Valley First in 2010. But unlike many mergers of this size that end in mega-organizations, we did something different. We intentionally stayed small while working big.

Here are the basic tenets of the model:

Work Local

Keep your local identity
No name changes. No brand overhauls. No member confusion. Drive past any one of our branches in the Fraser Valley and you ’ll see Envision Financial—just as you did 10 years ago. The same thing is true for the Okanagan—Valley First remains the name members see and identify with.

Keep your local leadership
Each of First West ’s local brands is led a by a president who works with his or her own executive or senior leadership team. These leadership teams have local accountability and autonomy. They know that with First West, they’re backed by a strong organization that supports their efforts to do what’s best for their members and communities.

Keep your local representation
How can a credit union grow in size and scope yet meaningfully maintain that cherished principle of local representation? First West uses regional councils—a unique team composed of directors (who hold a place on the First West board) and special advisors. Working with their region ’s presidents, these teams provide insight on matters ranging from business development to strategic planning, and regional issues to community investment.

Keep local decision making
Decisions are made as close to the member as possible. Right at the branch level, employees are equipped and empowered to make good common-sense decisions in the best interests of the member.

Keep local corporate citizenship
Enhancing our communities through corporate citizenship is part of what defines the First West model. Within the model, local leaders and employees take the lead in all corporate citizenship activities.

Work Big

Grow your business
With the backing of a bigger financial institution, Envision Financial and Valley First have been able to pursue business they couldn’t in the past. This includes business clients whose own growth exceeded the smaller credit union’s lending caps and municipal accounts that required a larger asset size to be considered for RFPs.

Access instant back-office expertise
First West’s model takes the headaches out of winning local markets. From treasury to government relations, subordinated debt financing to benefits and pension management, technology to Lean, the First West model offers solutions that smaller organizations can access yet couldn’t necessarily provide on their own.

Retain relationships through an extensive network
One of the main reasons small- and medium-sized credit unions lose members is because the members move away. First West is laying the foundations for a broad network of credit union branches and electronic banking services to serve members wherever they might go.

Diversify and thrive
Too often, credit unions find their growth hindered by geographic or regional economic risk. Through a multi-regional model like First West’s, local organizations can diversify these risks and better weather downturns in their local economic environments.

Hold on to your talent
Being part of a larger organization means greater career growth for talented employees. There’s something special, though, at First West. Leveraging technology and communication systems, First West uses a distributed work force model, with teams spread out through communities in our regions. In short, employees in small towns don’t need to relocate to urban centres for career growth.

But does it work?

With any new idea or approach, there are always skeptics that question whether doing things differently will actually work. First West’s results speak for themselves—the answer is a resounding “Yes!” The model not only works, but excels.

In fact, our first year performance far exceeded our business plan expectations. In 2010, we achieved record earnings, a return on assets before taxes of 0.89%—the highest among major credit unions in B.C., and a net interest income increase of 37.3% over the previous year. With our model, net income before taxes rose 17.3%—another record high. Deposits and loans last year also outperformed the previous year by 5.8% and 9.8% respectively. For 2011, the forecasts look even stronger.

When it comes to member satisfaction, the results also speak for themselves. There have been none of the service-level dips that are so typical with traditional mergers. In fact, our member satisfaction index has increased—as more time has been spent enhancing the member experience rather than expending energy on the distractions associated with traditional mergers that create no value for members.

Finally, in our communities we’ve advanced our social responsibility efforts. Valley First, for instance, continued with its dozens and dozens of community outreach efforts—including its signature Feed the Valley initiative—which raised $150,000 and five tonnes of food for local food banks in 2010. And, through the First West Charitable Foundation, Valley First also set up a $1 million endowment to build healthier communities for generations to come. Both Envision Financial and Valley First now have regional endowments whose funding focus is stewarded by the regional councils who know their communities best.

Be the change

It hasn’t been easy for us to strike out on a new path—to go against conventional thinking on how organizations should partner. But our efforts have proven successful and the journey has been rewarding. We’ve learned to view things differently, to try and fail and try again, to win when naysayers said we couldn’t, to know what it means to truly trust our people and to relish the incomparable experience of succeeding together.

It’s a partnership model we believe in. It’s a partnership model that works. It’s true to our credit union values and respects our heritage. We’re energized to share our co-operative approach every time we’re asked—in B.C. and across the country. All because we see the possibilities it holds for credit unions everywhere. We’re excited about others being part of this model with us—to partner with non-conformists and innovators like us who are passionate about changing our small part of the world through co-operation.

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