Three decades of commitment

March 30, 2016
in People
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Local business icon Shelley Besse celebrates remarkable 30-year career with the same organization

In a dynamic job market where an increasing number of Canadians hop between employers, it’s rare to encounter an individual whose career spans more than three decades with the same organization. For a senior-level executive, it’s even more unusual.

But Shelley Besse is not your average senior-level executive.

The long-time Fraser Valley resident and chair of the Surrey Board of Trade has recently been appointed chief operating officer of Langley, B.C.-based First West Credit Union—a fitting milestone for an extraordinary 30-year career at the same company where she got her first “real job” as a teenager.

“My story is far from common in the workplace today,” says Besse, reflecting on a trajectory that took her from temporary part-time teller to being among the top leaders at what is now one of Canada’s largest co-operative financial institutions. “As a young person, my interest was fashion design, but I didn’t see the value of pursuing it as a career. That’s when someone suggested to me that I should look into banking, because I liked numbers. The rest is history.”

The journey began in 1984, when an ambitious Besse approached the local credit union where she banked—then known as First Heritage Savings—inquiring about job openings. There weren’t any.

Undeterred, Besse set about creating a role for herself at the credit union through a partnership program with Employment Insurance Canada. In short order, she got what she wanted—a job on the other side of the teller wicket, processing withdrawals and deposits for the credit union’s members in the community of Hope.

However, her budding career was soon threatened by a vicious opponent with whom Besse would fight a lifelong battle. She was diagnosed with a debilitating case of Crohn’s disease, and the job she’d worked hard to land was quickly interrupted by a six-week hospital stint followed by a seven-month absence.

“I lost a frightening amount of weight during that time,” says Besse. “The credit union was so understanding, though—they stood by me in a difficult time.”

With hardened resolve and a will to overcome, Besse eventually returned to work with more drive than ever. “When I first got sick in my early twenties, I made the decision that I would never let my condition stand in my way,” she says.

Indeed she didn’t. Through several mergers, multiple degrees including an MBA, and as many as 15 different roles in the same credit union—from branch manager to head of financial planning to director of marketing to president of First West’s Envision Financial division—Besse persisted and finally assumed the chief operating officer role at First West. As COO, she oversees First West’s operations province-wide from Victoria to Kelowna and multiple consumer-facing brands, including not only Envision Financial but also Valley First, Enderby & District Financial and Island Savings.

Besse’s path was far from easy. In 2009, during a particularly demanding season that saw her successfully lead the merger transition process through which First West was born, Besse’s battle with illness returned in full force. Multiple surgeries, a stint in intensive care, several months in hospital, and 18 months on intravenous feeding saw Besse’s career interrupted yet again.

“I was forced to find creative ways to deal with my health issues, and I worked hard to recover,” says Besse. “For example, when I needed to travel for work and I had to be connected to an IV, my husband made me a mobile IV pole that I could use on the road. I guess you could say I was a real fighter.”

“Having a serious illness teaches you to strive towards what’s important and never give up,” says Besse. “Now, when someone says something can’t be done, I try to reframe it and challenge them to search harder for a creative way to get it done.”

When asked what it is about First West that made her want to stay for a remarkable 30 years, Besse credits three things: the people, the constant growth and innovation, and the opportunities and challenges she’s been given.

“I like to be challenged and learn something new every day,” she says. “We tend to underestimate ourselves, but you need to trust in yourself that you can make a difference. It might take time to reach the point where you feel like you’re making a meaningful contribution, but that’s part of the process.”

Besse’s hunger for learning new things and challenging herself has infected every area of her life—when she’s not at work, she can be found riding motorcycles with her husband or sculpting art projects with clay.

“I even taught myself how to create a fireplace facing. I took up silversmithing not long ago. I’m up at five o’clock even on weekends, because I have to feel that I've accomplished something every day. I’m just passionate about living life."

“There are lots of exciting changes ahead in the financial services industry over the next few years and I’m excited to lead our team through that process,” says Besse. “I have a huge passion for developing people; empowering them, giving them the tools they need and then standing back and watching them succeed.”

Besse’s advice for others, after 30 remarkable years of career success?

“Do what excites you,” she says. “Too many people choose their career based on what’s going to make someone else happy, and you spend way too much time at work to do something you don’t enjoy. Live your life with passion.”

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