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Profiles of a selection of dynamic Canadian business leaders.

Banks, Chris Catliff reckons, tend too often to feel like a dental office. The harsh lights, the waiting, the nagging reminders – to floss, say, or shift debt from a credit card to lower-interest instruments – they all have the air of an errand.

But spas – people like those. They’re a destination, a place you purposely visit to relax. So it makes sense, then, that a few years after Mr. Catliff became chief executive officer of the credit union now known as BlueShore Financial in Vancouver, he began converting the credit union’s branches into what he calls “financial spas,” complete with concierges and natural West Coast rock and timber features.

Chris Catliff

Banking executive Chris Catliff, inspired by a Samoan fishing village and other global travels, aimed to create a credit union for stressed mid-market clients. (BLUESHORE FINANCIAL)

Credit unions often merge in order to grow, which, combined with the advent of online banking, is reducing their need to seek clientele based on location alone. Mr. Catliff still believes that community should be at the heart of a credit union, but he doesn’t think it has to be geographic – it can be a community of interests, too. BlueShore is his wager that this is the future. It’s credit union as lifestyle brand.

Mr. Catliff, 56, sees BlueShore as a private banking destination for the stressed-out mid-market: double-income families with parents, kids or both to deal with in a region with a scalding-hot housing market. The credit union’s dozen branches offer a suite of financial planners that other, more bare-bones credit unions might not want to spend member money on.

This, he says, helps make life easier for BlueShore’s 40,000-odd members.

“We thought giving members an extra $40 back because we dealt with them for everything for the whole year isn’t nearly as important for them as having somebody do their detailed financial planning,” Mr. Catliff says, “to help get them on a path and structure so that these concerns they have wouldn’t cause so much stress.”

Mr. Catliff’s own path offers clues to the origins of his vision. He grew up in Vancouver in what he calls a “privileged background,” and wondered why some of his peers were more interested in furthering their own well-being than that of their community. At 18, he began a series of trips across the world, he says, largely to check out communes. There were stops in China, the fomer Soviet Union, Australia and Israel, he says, but claims his most formative experience came when landed in American Samoa and spent a month in a remote fishing village.

“Everybody just went out and fished and gave it all into the group,” he says. “I just thought it was an idyllic environment. I recognized a lot of principles there about high trust, norms of behaviour, peer expectations and living up to them, and it all being about the group, not about individuals.”

Armed with a master’s degree in international relations from the Univeristy of British Columbia, Mr. Catliff later embarked on a career with the Vancouver City Savings Credit Union, better known as VanCity, and Citizens Bank of Canada, one of the country’s first online banks. After holding executive positions at both, he moved to BlueShore – then known as North Shore Credit Union – in 2000, at age 40.

It was a place suited to his earlier travels: a credit union launched in 1941 by a community of fishermen and shipbuilders at the foot of Lonsdale in North Vancouver. And it also suited his taste for transformation: The blue-collar community it had sprung from had become a bedroom community filling up with condos. It was time for the North Shore Credit Union to adapt to both its time and its place.

The interior

BlueShore Financial credit union in Vancouver has concierges and natural West Coast rock and timber features, along with financial planners. (BLUESHORE FINANCIAL)

Many credit unions “are merging or not growing as fast as they used to, because their marketplace or traditional members have changed,” Mr. Catliff says. “Where they used to depend on either community market share or a group that didn’t have access to credit, today everybody has access to credit that can get it responsibly. … The original rationale was being challenged.”

His response to all this was to readjust the co-operative’s focus to a community bounded by mindset, not place – a majority its members weren’t even on Vancouver’s north shore any more.

The company conducted surveys that led it to its current mid-market target segment. And in 2004, Mr. Catliff says, “we got all our smartest people together and I put them in a boardroom for two weeks, and fed them pizza and the odd beer.” There, the “financial spa” model was born.

BlueShore’s membership remains at 40,000, just like it was when Mr. Catliff arrived. But he likes to point to its assets under administration as a sign of its growth: $4.1-billion, up nearly five-fold from his arrival. “It’s been a deep strategy, not a wide strategy,” he says.

Mr. Catliff’s tenure has brought in some potentially controversial ideas to the co-operative institution. Catering to a highly specific market segment is inherently exclusionary, and broader staffing and flashier decor comes at the expense of members. Do those align with the spirit of credit unions?

“I think that the co-operative business model, its DNA, is a bunch of like-minded people all coming together and all treating the individual with respect and value,” Mr. Catliff says. “It’s not your typical large corporation.”

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