The Queen of Vancity

September 1, 2009

It’s an hour until the doors open at Vancity Branch 46, set in North Vancouver near the Second Narrows Bridge. Sixteen people cluster in the staff room, where a platter of Smartie-studded cookies, muffins, and croissants awaits them. It sits almost untouched—attention is fixed on the blond woman in the navy pinstriped suit, younger than many of them but with a born-to-rule composure. Tamara Vrooman, 41, whose hands move through the air in impeccably manicured swoops and punctuation points as she talks, is answering one polite but anxious question after another. Today’s topic? The same as every other day’s, in every Vancity office around Metro Vancouver: the future of the credit union and its struggle to redefine itself.

Account manager Ramin Nazaradeh worries that Vancity, which used to be renowned for pioneering cool things, hasn’t come up with anything new for a very long time. Senior financial-services rep Natalie Wieser frets that there’s been so much institutional change that people feel like the credit union is just a “big bank.” And financial-services officer Nina Zhao wonders what to say when customers ask why Vancity doesn’t give them free chequing like Coast Capital does.

Vrooman answers with a deft contrapuntal blend of thematic elements, fitting for someone who has played everything from bass to flute. You people are the foundation of this business. We show them we’re different because we’re about more than just free chequing or a place to make a quick buck on your RRSPs—we’re about connecting, about making the community a better place. “Our service model is not about a transaction,” she says, “it’s about a relationship. In order to do that, I’ve got to get you guys off the hamster wheel of the transaction.” She throws out the occasional wry joke, reminding them of when Vancity’s computer systems were so primitive that members said transaction statements looked “like ransom notes.” Did she know what she was getting into when she walked away from her job as B.C.’s deputy finance minister, where she’d made a name for herself as a whiz-kid bureaucrat? “If I knew 18 months ago what I know today, I maybe could have approached things a little bit faster, smarter, in terms of the economic change that we faced. But honestly, absolutely no regrets.”

Vrooman has been on a wild ride in the two years since she first walked into her office at the east end of False Creek. The month before she started, the North American banking system fell off a mortgage-backed cliff. Vancity profits dropped by almost 30 percent that year. And it quickly became apparent that many of Vancity’s clients were not willing to cut it any slack for niceness. “I don’t care how frickin’ green or community-oriented this credit union is. I don’t pay banking fees for ineptitude,” was a not-atypical comment posted online by disgruntled customer Darren Barefoot.

And yes, there was a sense of bloated lethargy, a feeling that the little credit union that could had, in ballooning to 400,000 members and 2,600 employees (a 50 percent jump in just five years), become bureaucratic and ponderous. A sense that, when the crash happened, all its weaknesses were exposed. Vrooman streamlined the 28-member executive; seven responded by quitting. An internal survey of managers done shortly after that radical management-loss program showed anxiety spiking to alpine levels. After another employee survey the next June showed a significant drop in satisfaction for the second year in a row. Both were body blows to an organization in which everyone buys into the idea that they’re not just doing a job but participating in a noble social mission.

“I didn’t want to work for a nonprofit,” says William Azaroff, Vancity’s head of online branding and social media. “I like the business sector, too. There’s power that comes from being where the money is. I like that Vancity is a financial institution but also an agent of change.” Azaroff used to work in Los Angeles as a digital-media specialist; now, at Vancity, he feels that his work aligns with his values: living environmentally, doing good in the community, connecting to the place you call home. Shabir Amarshi, Vancity’s vice-president of business banking, agrees. After working at TD for “a thousand years,” he, like Azaroff, moved over to Vancity because he liked the idea of working for a place that matched his values.

Azaroff, Amarshi, and I are in Bologna, Italy, trundling around to gravel pits, vineyards, book binderies, and packaging-machine plants. On the bus tours with us are 15 more Vancity staff, from frontline tellers like Linda Harder to senior vice-president Karen Hoffman. In the steamroom heat, we sit through hours-long lectures by economics professors. At night, as we work our way through leisurely pasta dinners, they puzzle out how to translate to Vancouver the ideas of Bologna. The city is famous not just for stuffed tortellini, cured meat, and left-wing politics. It’s one of several regions in Italy where co-operatives, many founded early in the last century, do billions of dollars of business a year. They’re an object lesson in just how powerful co-ops can be—a lesson Vrooman feels is vital for Vancity employees to absorb at a time when North American co-ops are seen as strange little socialist havens, leftovers from the 1930s.

Vancity plays a unique role in Vancouver. No other North American city has a financial institution that’s so closely identified with it or that operates in such an activist way. Only the caisses populaires of Quebec—the credit unions formed to serve their outside-the-Anglo-power-elite demographic—are remotely comparable. Vancity, with $14.5 billion in assets the largest community-based credit union in North America, at times appears to be a form of regional mini government, with its programs to provide banking to the poor (Pigeon Park Savings), its millions of dollars in grants to cycling or drug-rehab organizations or sex-trade-worker support groups as part of the 30 percent in profits it gives back to members and the community, and its contentious board elections.

Vancity is sometimes seen as a haven for the left, given the involvement of so many NDPers, like long-time director Bob Williams, a former NDP cabinet minister. But its defenders point to board members of long standing like Doreen Braverman, a B.C. Liberal contributor and Colin Hansen’s mother-in-law.

Like other credit unions around North America that started out by serving small, defined groups ignored by mainstream banks, Vancity is struggling to find its footing in a world longing for authentic community, plus good deals and instant service. Besides salvaging Vancity from the worst of the economic collapse and figuring out how to compete with the banks on their own ground, Vrooman is also expected to redefine the postmodern credit union.

Hence the Bologna trip. Tamara Vrooman is a profound believer in the power of understanding history. A former star student at Kamloops High School—she’s still remembered by her teachers there—she did a master’s degree in history at UVic. By the time she graduated in 1994, she’d learned the crucial role of historical narratives.

“I tell our founding story all the time,” she says. “It’s what drew me here. The story is important because it shows what we’re about. We’re a financial institution, but it’s the way we do it that makes us different.”

Back in her office, with its spectacular view of downtown and the Olympic Village, she recites the creation myth of Vancity, abridged version: in 1946, a small group of people, mostly from Vancouver’s East Side, where the banks wouldn’t give anyone a mortgage, got together and contributed $22 each to start a credit union that would lend to those who maybe didn’t have assets but had jobs and a history in the city. And so on.

The other lesson Vrooman’s history degree taught her (her thesis centred on B.C.’s onetime policy to sterilize mentally handicapped girls) is the effect government policies can have on individuals—a lesson that inspired her to become a civil servant. She enrolled in the master’s degree in public administration at UVic, where she caught the eye of her professor, Thea Vakil, also an assistant deputy minister. Vakil and Bob Plecas—one of B.C.’s most famous civil servants—became mentors to a young woman they both saw as having an extraordinary ability to analyze complex information. “That’s a thing you rarely see in government,” says Plecas. “You could go to her at 6 and say, ‘Here’s the issue that I have to brief three ministers on at 8 tomorrow morning,’ and she could take something very, very complicated and explain it in a simple way.” As deputy finance minister, Vrooman saw an option no one else had thought of: taking a one-time government surplus and offering it as a bonus for public-sector unions to settle contracts in 2007.

Plecas says that Vrooman is likely on a steep learning curve at Vancity, because she didn’t go through some of the painful experiences more seasoned bureaucrats endure. “She’s smart, but you can’t replace scar tissue,” he says. “She came from the policy side, where mistakes are not so hard.” Although Vrooman was given opportunities to direct special projects, that never quite compensates for years in the trenches.

Vrooman is getting that experience now. Although the credit union’s financial performance has turned around—$14 million in costs trimmed; more member deposits, which has led to net earnings increase of 43 percent in 2008—she’s still dealing with the human fallout. She’s been working through the branches, like the one in North Vancouver, putting herself on the firing line. After that first devastating survey came out, the one showing the organization’s top managers were demoralized and confused, she called a meeting with 200 managers at the Croatian Cultural Centre. For over an hour, microphone clipped to her collar, she worked the room, fielding questions and letting people know how the responses affected her. One of the things that surprised and hurt her, she said, was the suspicion that “You came from government and you were an architect of their agenda. So is Vancity going to go through the same thing?” Bob Williams was thunderstruck by her performance. “It was a tour de force.”

Williams originally voted against hiring her, the only Vancity board member to do so, convinced that the last thing Vancity needed was a provincial civil servant running the show. He’s since become convinced that she’s the most capable of the six CEOs he’s worked with, a real problem-solver as opposed to a “good-news spokesman” like previous CEO Dave Mowat.

Vrooman herself wasn’t sure whether or not the Vancity board would see her as a good fit. In her interview, she didn’t hold back on any of her opinions, tossing out challenging ideas and asking why the credit union wasn’t doing more to connect to the businesspeople in the community and harness some of their power. She wasn’t sure she’d still be on the shortlist after that frank and free exchange. And she’s adamant now, two years later, that Vancity work with everyone across the political spectrum. It’s telling that her network includes Virginia Greene, another former deputy minister, who runs the Business Council of B.C., where Vrooman’s husband, Gregg, is working on a special project.

At the same time, Vrooman is determined that Vancity become more than just a small bank. Under her leadership, it’s strengthened its community mission—she sits on the board of the new business-oriented homelessness foundation, Streetohome, and Vancity recently put $30,000 into helping the City of Vancouver come up with a policy to create a “green city.” The credit union’s specific goal these days is “redefining wealth.”

Now all Vrooman has to do is figure out what, exactly, that means.

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