How Kootenay Savings Credit Union finds longevity by serving its community

The historic company offers six ways to become a benevolent agent

MEET KOOTENAY Kootenay Savings Credit Union came into existence in 1969 through the merger of three small, independent, community-based credit unions. “It was the first merger of its kind in British Columbia where three successful credit unions voluntarily joined forces to better serve their members and communities,” says Kootenay CEO Brent Tremblay (left; Forrest Drinnan, right). Over the years, it has grown to encompass 13 branches spread across the rural, southern stretches of British Columbia, known as the Kootenays. “We cover as large a geographic area as a branch network as any other credit union in the province,” Tremblay says. The company maintains wealth management and insurance subsidiaries, as well as a self-funded community charitable foundation.

1. Emphasize company values

Kootenay consistently communicates its strong commitment to community, teamwork, ethical values, and cooperative philosophy to all of its 260 employees. “We sit down and present new employees with our vision and values on their first day,” says CEO Brent Tremblay. “We tell them, ‘If these values don’t match your own, then this is probably not where you want to be.’”

2. Deliver financially

With Kootenay, the power of membership has a real advantage. For 11 years running, the credit union has paid its 40,000 members a 10 percent annual profit-sharing dividend. “There’s not another credit union in the province—or the country, for that matter—that has shown that kind of return to their member-owners,” Tremblay says. He notes that even during the past several years of economic uncertainty, Kootenay has paid the dividend. Since the introduction of profit sharing in 1992, the credit union has returned a remarkable $65.2 million back to its member-owners. Profit shares are paid annually and are based on the amount of business each member conducts with the credit union.

3. Delegate power locally

“We give our local branch managers and our three regional managers the power to make decisions in their areas,” Tremblay says. “And they advise us about issues affecting their communities.” In several of the markets served by Kootenay, chartered bank branches have closed, leaving the credit union as the only local financial institution. “Local decision-making means that approvals on important products like a home mortgage can be made the same day and often within the hour,” Tremblay says. “Chartered banks have to report back to their corporate headquarters, which may be located across the country, in order to get approval—and that takes time.”

4. Provide effective customer service

Kootenay relies on outstanding customer service to maintain its business. “Given our size, we can’t afford to be price leaders,” says Tremblay, noting that the company’s financial products and interest rates are in line with chartered banks. “Since we can’t be price leaders, we compete by offering superior service.” To meet the changing needs of its customers, Kootenay has been an early adopter of new technology. “We beat the banks on Interac e-Transfers, and we were one of the first to introduce a mobile banking application,” Tremblay says. And while Kootenay has an effective marketing program, it attracts most new members through word-of-mouth recommendations. “That comes from our reputation for providing excellent service, strong community support, and an overriding goal of improving each member’s financial life,” Tremblay says.

5. Engage employees

“We truly believe that encouraging employee commitment furthers all of our other goals,” Tremblay says. Kootenay takes steps to insure that its employees feel that their service and ideas are appreciated. “Our senior managers get out across our network so employees get face-to-face time with them,” Tremblay says. “Our branch managers do a very good job of involving employees in things that affect them.” Kootenay offers an internal leadership program that focuses on coaching employees to achieve better performance, by identifying member needs and recommending sound solutions. “Leaders aren’t just found in the management levels of an organization; they exist at every level,” Tremblay explains. “We believe the stronger leadership skills we can develop in our employees, the stronger our organization will be.”

6. Contribute to the community

Investing in the local communities it serves is part of Kootenay’s corporate DNA. “Our board chair, Forrest Drinnan, recognized an opportunity to help stimulate the growth of local nonprofit groups and projects,” Tremblay says. In 2009, Drinnan’s idea took shape, and Kootenay proudly distributed one million dollars from the Kootenay Savings Community Foundation to several smaller community organizations. The groups are now prospering and bringing a positive effect to the region as a whole. The credit union also sponsors a variety of special events each year, including golf tournaments, which specifically benefit healthcare initiatives. Another successful initiative is Family Movie Nights in the Park, which attracts thousands of people. The movie is free to the whole community, and moviegoers are asked to bring nonperishable food items to support the local food banks. “One of the expectations for all our employees is that they will be involved in some way in their local communities,” Tremblay says. “In fact, that’s part of how we measure their performance.”