Calming the Waters

St. Joseph’s Credit Union helps stabilize a community after its cod-fishing industry closes

General manager Michael Boudreau has helped revitalize Isle Madame.

Picture the Gorton’s fisherman in his yellow rain gear and you’ve got a good idea of the workers inhabiting Petit de Grat, located on Isle Madame, an island off the southern coast of Cape Breton Island, in Nova Scotia. Isle Madame is a small community of just 3,000 whose predominant industry is fishing. The island has two fish-processing plants and two boat-building facilities.

Yet, today, while the fishing business is thriving, Michael Boudreau, the general manager of St. Joseph’s Credit Union Limited, would like to see the community doing better. “The population is down about 17 percent over the past 10 years,” he says.

In the mid-1990s, 500 people out of a population of 4,000 lost their jobs when the government put a moratorium on cod fishing. “Our main employer closed its doors, and that severely impacted the community,” Boudreau says. In addition, there aren’t many opportunities for youth, and when they’re old enough, those not interested in pursuing a fishing or maritime career move to the mainland. Meanwhile, the older generation is slowly aging out.

But for those who live there, Isle Madame remains a close-knit community, and catering to its culture is part of the credit union’s mission. Founded in 1936, St. Joseph’s serves its 2,400 members and 300 organizational accounts from a single branch and drive-through ATM, and is one of just two financial institutions physically located on the island (the other is also a credit union). “Without our presence, our residents would have to travel quite a distance to do their banking,” Boudreau says.

For people who don’t want to make the trip to the branch, St. Joseph’s also offers complete online banking and has a Facebook page with more than 250 fans. “That’s very important for us, especially for reaching the youth,” Boudreau says. “Today’s consumer is all about ease and convenience. They want to bank online or through their smartphone. They demand and deserve the best services.”

Most of St. Joseph’s business comes through word of mouth and radio marketing. “We conduct four marketing campaigns a year,” Boudreau says. Beyond that, most of the credit union’s business comes from referrals, with the friends and children of members coming in and opening accounts.

In addition, St. Joseph’s is very involved in the school system. It offers a “Fat Cat” account for children between ages 5 and 12, to introduce them to the concept of money management. Then every Wednesday, two employees go the local school and collect the children’s deposits, while teaching them about things like budgeting, student loans, and bank fraud. At the end of the year, they hold a big party and give out prizes such as iPods. At the high-school level, St. Joseph’s provides a financial literacy textbook in both English and French. The classes have resulted in youth coming in and opening accounts, Boudreau says.

But it was the codfish crisis that jump-started the credit union’s community involvement, which is a critical component of St. Joseph’s strategy today. “We couldn’t stand by and do nothing, and we couldn’t make it harder for people to qualify for a loan, so we decided to take 10 percent of our earnings and set up a community economic development fund,” Boudreau says. “To date, we’ve injected more than $350,000 into community projects.”

This year, the credit union system is getting a boost from the United Nations, which has declared 2012 the International Year of the Cooperative and is planning a major marketing campaign. “We’ll do our own messaging here as well,” Boudreau says.

Going forward, Boudreau feels that the credit union’s local presence will continue to be its competitive advantage. “We’re locally owned, and because of our commitment to the community, I think people will deal with us over the competition,” he says. “We’ll continue to provide our members with innovative financial opportunities. As long as we keep doing that, we’ll be okay.”