In a market with a small population and many competitors, Glen Friesen, CEO of Steinbach Credit Union, says it’s the customer service that really sets its three locations in Manitoba apart from the rest. With just under 80,000 members, ranging from everyday consumers and small businesses to agriculture and high-level commercial businesses, Steinbach Credit Union’s 420 employees are kept busy at each of its full-service locations. Here, Friesen explains how his unusual start in business has helped him lead Manitoba’s largest credit union.
Advantage: Rumour is, you haven’t always been involved with finance. Where did you get your start?
Glen Friesen: I was a meatcutter at a small, locally owned grocery store. One day I got a call from the owner asking me to come to his office. At the time, I hardly knew him, but three hours later, I was the office manager. He also said he would pay for my courses, if I would take them. I didn’t know the difference between debit and credit, so I took the courses and earned my CMA degree. As the store grew, so did I. I went from office manager to comptroller to CFO to president. When I started, we had about $8 million a year in sales; when we sold, we were doing $100 million.
So from there, how did you eventually end up at Steinbach Credit Union?
The owner [of the grocery chain] was experiencing some health problems, and his children weren’t really able to take over. I told him maybe he needed to consider selling. We were at the top of our game [and] very profitable. Then, in September of 1997, he walked into my office and said, “I’m ready.” I negotiated a deal with the family, and I applied to the open CEO position at Steinbach. That was 13 years ago.
How has your background at the grocery chain helped you at Steinbach?
Well, I have my CMA, so I was good at numbers. But really, we’re dealing with people—whether we’re dealing with grocery people or members here at the credit union. [At Steinbach], we’re buying and selling money; [at the grocery chain] we were selling pork and beans. You have to do that in a way people want to come do business with you. Although, the biggest difference I’ve found is that people take their money a lot more seriously than they take their pork and beans.
You have such a wide variety of members. How do you go about reaching them?
We have a referral program, and it’s amazing to see how many people come in through that. Our members love the service they get, the friendliness, and the product line, and they tell their neighbours. Of course, we do use television, radio, and newspaper, too.
In what ways is Steinbach involved with the community?
We are probably one of the largest community builders, I would say. We do believe it’s appropriate to give back. For example, when the hospital needed a new wing, we were there to help get the ball rolling. We’ve also kick-started the development of a local soccer park and have the naming rights to the centre field.
Why do you think it’s so important to be involved in this community?
Well, we are the community. They build Steinbach Credit Union, and we’re just helping them back.
Is it tough to stay competitive with only three branches?
We have very good rates and very good service—we probably have some of the best rates in Canada. We may only have three branches, but they’re large and very efficient to run, as opposed to 13 little branches. With the introduction of electronics, people don’t need to go see their financial institution every week. You don’t need as many bricks and mortars to serve people well.