Last day at CUWaterCooler Nashville

The CUWaterCooler is just about over. There are two more presentations before it will be the end of this years Symposium. It has been as different as all the others before it.

We missed a few of the editors like Ed Brett from Westminster Credit Union. The venue is probably the best ever and those returning knew the neighbourhood so getting around was easier. We reunited with old friends and made some new ones. We talked about the same old things and some new debates began. Matt Monge’s presentation about ‘Servant Leadership’ was extremely valuable and really challenged anyone who was a CEO. Rob Oxoby’s “Behavoir, Savings and Borrowing of the Lifecycle: Insights from Behavioural Economics’ gave us some remarkable experience in Games Theory. Every presentation was valuable and relevant to anyone in a credit union. And as always there was an entertainment factor at times. When I get home I need to find that old Monopoly game.

One can’t really put a tag or singular definiton about CUWaterCooler. It really needs to be experienced. It is fun and it makes you think is some new fashion. Thanks to everyone who came, to those who contributed, to Tim and Matt who work so hard to make it what it is, to Ron who always gives us some incredible insight and to Nashville for being a wonderful host.

Funny, once you drink from this watercooler you always want to come back.

Expectations for the CUWaterCooler

There are only a few days left until leaving for Nashville to attend the CUWaterCooler event. It has been a few years that this event has been in existence and has evolved from the Forum Solutions Symposium in Fishers, Indiana that goes back to at least 2008. (somebody out there will correct me on this).

I realize some individuals when reading this will say that most of us are just regurgitating the same old stuff and live in our own credit union echo chamber. That may appear to be so. Maybe it is because most of us have travelled the road of attending too many value-less conferences. We have paid large amounts of money only to hear experts tell us what we either already know or what we have dismissed as not extremely vital.

One of the key understandings of co-hosts and editors is to have a symposium that brings value in the simplest of terms to everyone who attends. Most presentations are by people who have a high degree of passion for what they will speak about. They are genuine in what they present and are more than willing to be challenged to further the dialogue. When everyone is willing to discuss the subject everyone learns.

I am always amazed by the people who attend for the first time. They really haven’t experienced those types of discussions or that level of networking. They usually come away excited and anxious about what to do when they get home. That makes this event different. The ideas you hear about get developed to a greater degree by the communication you have with everyone there. You begin to formulate what that will mean where you work. That is the real magic of the CUWaterCooler. Two days of being part of a group of people who want to do a better job, are willing to change and have some great ideas on how to accomplish these new found challenges — who wouldn’t want be to part of that?

Here is some advice. Come with no expectations except to enjoy the company, have intriguing discussions and make some new friends. What you leave with will be a gentle prodding to try something different. For some that will be immediate, for others a much longer journey. The fact is that something in the way you perceive credit unions will change, if only just a little. And that is what makes it all worth it.

It is a little cold in Winnipeg

Yesterday after having lunch with a few friends at an Ethiopian restaurant I was able to spend the afternoon at the Winnipeg Art Gallery (WAG). This was the first afternoon I had ever had free time in the city and had heard of their collection of Inuit carvings was the largest in the world. It really was worth it.

They had a large exhibit framed around the various decades since 1950. You could see the progression or more so the influence of the outside world in their carvings over the years. The geographic area from which the carvings have come from is huge but the common points the artists were depicting were similar. It was intriguing to see such beautiful work. 

It started me thinking about the creativity in each piece given the landscape, geography and setting in which the carving was created. There was simplicity and yet in the strongest possible terms a complex beauty you rarely see. Art seems to transcend what we see with our eyes. It begins to take us into a realm that we don’t inhabit very often. To be able to be drawn in by the uniqueness of so many carvings was a wonderful experience. We need to take time, to pause for more than an hour and enter those artful, creative realms where text and noise no longer exist. It refreshes us to be human on occasion. 

If you are ever in Winnipeg visit the WAG. It is an exceptional place.



The visit to SXSW

Well I finally attended SXSW and it was everything I imagined, some more so than others. There were disappointments but it wasn’t with the venue or what was being offered. There were speakers that one expected some sort of intelligent discussion or debate about a subject and it was apparent that wasn’t to be. There is a group here and it is worth pointing out that they are a minority who are chasing money. They are looking for the next big Twitter or piece of hardware that they have developed or are developing or are cash investors. You hear the money subject a number of times but that isn’t what SXSW is about. There is a world connected by the internet and a lot of it is here.


When you get away from the main floor of the convention centre you realize all the world is not made up of billionaires or wannabes. There were some pretty passionate presentations that cover so many topics. It was like sitting in front of a TV and trying to decide which of 300 channels to pick. One definitely has to scour the list of presenters to get the best picks or you will miss out. The places are all alive with a constant hum of people moving about and talking about everything. 


What did I like best about SXSW? The huge variety of subject matter, it really was incredible. You could only touch a small percentage of it. There were people here who by themselves would be the solo drawing card keynote speaker at any conference. There were a huge number of tech companies sponsoring just about everything. It took a few days to get used to the vastness of what was going on but when you did get a better picture, as always, it was time to go.


My sidekicks in this adventure were Tim McAlpine and Matt Davis. They added to the experience at every moment. It wouldn’t have been as good without them. I wouldn’t do anything much different the next time I came. More preparation in choosing the subject matter for sure and hopefully a hotel room closer to downtown. If you enjoy technology, music and food there is no place like it.

The age old question of how many CU’s in the future

Jeffry Pilcher at has written an excellent article on the credit union industry outlook. I would recommend you read this but more importantly read the comments because they are the key as to viewing how individuals perceive the result of this information.

Here in B.C. we have already gone through a “shrinkage” of credit unions over the last 20 years. In 1992 when I came back into the system there were 107 credit unions, now there are 44. The larger CUs have an 80% + total of the BC system assets at large. That is held by fewer than 10 credit unions. And yes we heard the ‘economies of scale’ proposition put forward at least 1,000 times in the last 20 years in all its hues and colours. But what really happened to those credit unions? What is the unknown cost of this ‘shrinkage’?

I believe the key component to loosing credit unions is their own belief that they are no longer relevant to their membership based on criteria that they inherited from outside sources. They begin to drink the wrong coloured Kool-Aid. They are so preoccupied with the ‘system’ template on how to run their organization they forget to leverage their strengths and develop and reinvent themselves in this very different financial world. By following the Pied Piper of ‘bigger is better’ they forget the culture they have and the history they have come from. To put it bluntly, they just give up, ignoring the wealth both financially and culturally that their credit union has established in their community. 

There is nothing wrong with numerous credit unions in the same market. We all agree on the free market concept. What is neglected is that as credit unions we must align some strategies as financial co-operatives. No credit union is an island. At the same time individual credit unions must develop strategies that are dynamic and relevant. Those strategies must come from the source of collective wisdom of their membership. The direction that they set will be unique, growing and vital to their own ongoing future. 

Listening, formulating, innovating, creating, respecting, and working towards a common vision is not easy. It is work. The end result will be a credit union that does not worry about how many CUs there will be in the future as you will be too busy maintaining that relevance with your membership and also contributing to the health of the credit union movement.

The cost of loosing CUs is huge. There are too many ‘funerals’ and not enough ‘births’. I believe smaller CUs are sometimes the conscience of the movement. Being smaller also gives a huge advantage for innovation and quick time of delivery for products and services. There is a role for both smaller and larger CUs to tackle our aging and declining membership base. What I have seen recently in the BC Credit Union movement has given me a new direction and a very positive view of the synergy used by both ends of the spectrum. It begins with discussing our cooperative nature and respecting our strategic differences.


What is in a name

I had one of those phone call interviews from a credit union magazine this afternoon. There is some hesitation to do these as a number of times in the past what has been said has sometimes been printed in a different fashion.

The question was about the use or non-use of the name credit union. This has been a long ongoing debate amongst credit unions in B.C One can understand, purely from a marketing sense, how removing ‘credit union” from you name can give you a stonger marketing differentiation. But in doing so it also can imply that those cooperative principles on which your financial cooperative follows are maybe not as important as they should be. I know that remark will bring some strong comments forward but much of who we are is in our name.

The key to me is that sometimes “credit union” as a name was changed because one hadn’t reflected or understood what it meant. The name was changed for marketing purposes, it did not change you as an institution necessarily. I think what was more a challenge was dropping the hands and globe logo from signage and printed material. That is the only real common identifier for credit unions worldwide so removing that could suggest some negative connotations.

What I am seeing now is a return, by some, to the credit union name and more usage of the hands and globe logo.

NorthernVoice 2012

This was the first year since Northern Voice started that I hadn’t attended both days. The venue had changed back to downtown after being out at UBC for a number of years so just getting to know the space took a bit of effort. The weather always adds its character to the event.

What I found this year, as with every year, something unique. It was a much smaller group of people and it was set amongst various shops and a new and growing community. There were 3 rooms for the speakers which were very different and lent themselves to adding to the presentations. It was more a smaller community setting. All of the presentations I attended were excellent.

Maybe it was the proximity to the speaker or being in downtown Vancouver with all its cosmopolitan attitude or whatever but one thing was for certain, there was a passion and energy in the presentations that was so noticeable. Whatever the topic it seemed the 45 minutes disappeared too quickly. There was abundant laughter, caring, interesting wordsmithing, and a uniqueness of expression. The first Northern Voice was radical in the newness of the technologies (blogging, flickr, etc). Now we have ample internet communities to share and they have become very mainstream. The speakers challenged us on how to use these ‘tools’ for the communities we purpose. They spoke of caution in their predominant use and the constant need for other platforms to appear and challenge the behemoths. The radicalness was not in the instruments but on how they were used and the results that were accomplished.

Northern Voice 2012 showed me that we have, ever so subtly, moved to this second plateau of cautious usefulness. No one is declaring the means to any end is the only way. What they all said so passionately is that as we build communities we have so many workable examples of means that fulfil our necessary and desired ends. The toolbox is looking pretty good these days, much better than the past. We just need to voice our passions, follow our dreams, and continue to be pioneers in this ever changing world.

Northern Voice. What a great name. The conference epitomized there was a new Voice and it was once again coming from the North. Thanks to all the volunteers, speakers and sponsors. It really was a memorable event.


I started reading a book awhile ago by Kathleen Norris called Acedia & Me. She expands and defines in terms of our modern day what acedia is. It has been often understood as spiritual sloth. What it means to most would be the serious malady of being unable to care. After Christmas this seems to be something we all are aware of.

Acedia has a clinical cousin called depression. Norris traces acedia’s path through history to expose the damage to not only our own lives but also to our culture as we become desensitized by never ending distractions and our loss to care about anything that is really important. She finds that “restless boredom, frantic escapism, commitment phobia and enervating despair” that we have problems with today are “the ancient demon of acedia in modern dress.

This is not a new concept. It is first encountered in the 4th century by the Christian monk Evagrius Ponticus. This is what makes the challenge so interesting. How can a 1600 year old concept be so relative in today’s world? We are so enamoured in the newness of the modern age that our view of history and what it has to offer is so easily forgotten. We should realize that the paths we currently walk are not always ‘new’ but sometimes very worn with previous travellers.

What happens when you hang around a water cooler

Coming back from the CU Water Cooler Symposium in Indianapolis on Saturday I began to try to piece everything together. If you have never attended, it is an event that really stretches your outlook on what the credit union movement means to so many different people.

There was an underlying theme that we needed to pay attention to our membership and move away from the constant rehearsal of paying attention to ourselves. The culture of each credit union should be directed by the board who are representatives of our membership. That being the case our cultures are dictated by our members. We need to be inclusive but not necessarily homogeneous. We include everyone in a common bond but that doesn’t make us ‘all things to all people all of the time’.  And in this lies the difficulty.

By having a common bond it made credit unions easier to be part of the free market system. Are those that use credit unions understanding that a free market association creates challenges for us to remain a financial community of sorts. If they are only there for the “free chequing” what does it matter that credit unions have a social conscience?

The Symposium allows everyone to think and discuss issues that are relevant today and tomorrow. But we tend to get bogged down in the ‘good old days’ stuff and need those dialogues to bring us forward, screaming and kicking, into the future. The credit union I work for supports this event because this is one of the few remaining places where we can discuss the emerging culture of credit unions. We can begin to formulate what this will look like.

We do need a Manifesto or Accord sometimes when the dust settles. I would offer a few points.

1. The movement needs to reconcile that it is multi-generational. All contribute to the end result.

2. Credit Unions are formed with many dimensions. It is not all marketing, not all management, not specific to one domain. We are defining a new language for what we are and what we do. That takes time.

3. We are generalists that have been formed from exceptions not norms.

So just wait until next year when we go at it again.

Finally, Paris

We arrived Saturday night and spent an hour or so lost in Montmatre trying to find the parking garage. Being in the backseat and not driving made the incident stress free.

Yesterday was spent walking around the Sacré-Coeur Church along with a lot of tourists. On the way back there was an organ grinder in one of the squares. He pushed through this long folded cardboard sheet as he wound the handle which produced the most wonderful sound and music. It must have taken a lot of effort to keep that wind going in the small bellows to get the accordion like sound. But the notes were many and the pieces complicated which made it so interesting.

After supper (Normandy Brie, paté, fresh bread, proscuitto, etc.) we walked around the Cimetiere de Montmartre and ended up having crêpes Grand Mariner and Noisette. Of course we sat there for over an hour watching everyone.

Paris is a city of people, history and of course food. You can’t help but be amazed at the selection in the stores. Being in an apartment gives us the advantage of buying and trying out everything we can see. And this morning just after 10:00 am the church bells were ringing. Sacré-Cour has one of the heaviest bells in the world. The bell itself weighs 18.5 tons and the clapper 1,900 lbs.

Glasgow – Day 1

We got into our hotel room yesterday in the late afternoon and slept for a bit. It was 29 hours door to door and doesn’t get easier it seems. The weather was perfect for a walk into town to get supper. We took the pathway along the river into the middle of town and ended up eating at one of the oldest restaurants in Glasgow called Rogano. The menu looked good and we both had plaice (which is a right-eyed flounder). It is a common dish in Denmark and I haven’t had it for years. It wasn’t bad but it wasn’t fresh. For what it lacked the Guinness made up for. The walk back was in the dusk and it was beautiful.

This morning we had a great buffet breakfast and I got to try the black pudding, haggis and square sausage. All of it wasn’t bad but with the haggis it must be an acquired taste. After breakfast we registered and signed up for a credit union visit on Tuessday to Dalmuir Credit Union. We noticed that we are getting a ‘wee dram’ at the end of the visit. Tonight is WOCCU’s grand opening and reception.

This years Northern Voice 2011 poster

Every year since the start of Northern Voice, the credit union I work for has been part of a group of people and businesess that volunteer and sponsor the event. We’ve been doing it for 7 years and attending the two day conference has always been interesting.

As part of the event we contribute buttons and a poster which has been done by my son (an artist who lives in Copenhagen). A few months before the event we kick around various ideas of what it should look like. This year’s poster has a bit of a story around it.

Derek Miller (Penmachine) has always voiced how much he liked the posters and has contributed ideas of what they should look like. I wrote him back in March asking him for input. He sent a short email with some neat ideas that went off to Copenhagen. Just before we went to print the news came of Derek’s passing away. It was a sad moment to hear that. We never told anyone until now that at the last moment the poster was changed to add some small print on the boat which reads “In memory of Derek”.
In some ways those two characters in the boat express how when we receive news of someone’s death it shapes us — we look forward and we look backward at a point when we really can’t move at all.

A trust fund has been setup for the Miller family by our good friends at Vancity Savings Credit Union

What happens when employees YouTube the boss

I really didn’t think the social media bunch at the credit union would actually go ahead and produce a video about me, but they did. It is humbling to say the least. But beyond the clip it got me thinking — would this have happened 25 year ago? Would it be allowed to happen now in certain credit unions or businesses?

The transparency, or whatever you want to call it, of social media has made some significant changes in various stratas of society and definitely between various demographics of the citizenry. It has a “no prisoners” approach and no matter how much some would love to stuff the Genie back in the bottle it doesn’t look like it will be returning to the old way anytime soon. This morning the Globe and Mail had an article on how the TV networks and cable companies were complaining about Netflix and that they were not contributing to Canadian content. These were the same guys that were trying a year ago to get out of paying for Canadian content and now they use it as a means to try and stop Netflix. They forget to realize that Netflix offers something they don’t – complete choice of what to watch and when to watch it.

Being part of a financial cooperative that creates a culture that gives staff the ability to produce a clip about their boss for the world to see is extremely satisfying. We can talk about transparency, openess, relationships, empowerment or whatever buzz word you want, the fact remains, people have to be able to do something they see as positive, fun, and an extension of what they do in their everyday lives at work. That’s regenerative. That’s intentional. That’s socially responsible and sustainable. That is this new world emerging as we speak. The byproducts are a healthy and well run credit union.

Thanks gang. And by the way I do leave the toilet seat down. Leaving it up is nothing more than a freudian slip.

When credit unions change their names

First and foremost this entry is not meant to offend any credit union. What a credit union chooses is their domain, not mine.

In a recent issue of Business in Vancouver (a weekly business journal produced in Vancouver B.C.) there is a section titled ‘Hats Off’ which lists donations by various businesses to worthy charities. This week caught my eye. Listed were three credit unions. But to the untrained eye they were not ‘credit unions’ they were ‘Financial’, ‘Savings’ and ‘Financial Group’. So what happened here?

In the Lower Mainland of B.C. are a large number of very large credit unions. In fact the total of these large credit unions amounts to an excess of 60% of the total deposits for all credit unions in the province of B.C. It runs into the billions of dollars. The competition is fierce amongst all financial institutions and there is this marketing mantra that says any FI needs to differentiate itself in a crowded marketplace. That mantra has carried into the credit union system by pushing some credit unions to have their names presented in the public arena sans ‘credit union’. This supposedly is the way to be different.

The problem that I see is even if I am not a member of a credit union I do have some remote idea of what it is. But do I know what a ‘Financial’, a ‘Savings’ or a ‘Financial Group’ is? That is even more confusing.

I would ask any group of credit unions to consider what they would do in a similar position. Would you keep ‘credit union’ or drop it? It seems once you drop it you become something entirely different. Don’t ask me what, because as noted, it becomes confusing.


It’s magic!

One of my favourite people in the credit union movement is Denise. She works for the Credit Union Association of New Mexico and has been associated with credit unions for years. Denise tells it like it is.

Her blog post today does just that. When I began reading it proved interesting from the fact that the 4 minute mile was a record broken in Vancouver during the Empire Games in the ’50s. There was a bronze statue commemorating the run erected at the site and as a kid you always wondered about how magical that moment was. Back then those types of events didn’t seem to happen as often as today so they always seemed magical.

The blog post points to something similar. But many, instead of experiencing that magical moment, will begin to sense a moment of dread. The key to exist as a business in this world is to be aware and be nimble. If you aren’t good at keeping your balance with the winds of change you’ll end up falling a lot. And getting up gets harder to do. Being aware and nimble should give you your greatest advantage which is the use of time. The new iPhone and possible iTunes payment system isn’t hard to see as a concrete possibility. It will be used but it won’t have everything that people will want. Those FIs that understand that and are prepared for change will find they will continue to exist.

I tend to see technology as pure technique. This is just another refined technique to be aware of and to see as a possibility to play to. Don’t forget ‘magic’ is a noun, adjective and verb.

One of my favourite Twitter features

One feature of Twitter that I have been using extensively and find very useful is to ‘favourite’ a Tweet. (whoops – for all those down south ‘favorite’). Depending on the program you are using to get your Twitter feed, ‘favouriting’ a Tweet is usually very easy. With the constantly expanding number of people that you follow you need some way of following up those URLs that are being given. You wouldn’t be following them if they weren’t right? I have 2,877 favourites at this point and they give me a huge resource to followup whenever I get a few minutes. Anything that is valuable gets moved to Evernote for future reference. (Evernote use is another story). If you have an iPhone or iPad then the movement and view of resources is ubiquitous. Any place, any time. A very good learning experience.


Expectations of the CU Water Cooler Symposium

Next week CU Water Cooler Symposium happens in Fishers, Indiana. This symposium has its roots in the Forum Solution Symposium of the past. For me it had been one of the best events in credit union land and next Thursday this new hybrid should establish the CU Water Cooler Symposium as one of the best symposiums ever.

Before anyone attends anything they have probably weighed what it costs versus what they would come to expect from going. Compared to most events here in Canada this event is a bargain. The list of speakers shows people who are working experts and the topics which are near and dear to their hearts. There is no official ‘theme’ but the speakers topics display a large variety of what will presented. How the speakers were chosen, the t-shirt contest, to the type of name tags to be used, shows an open and very workable approach to getting something like this going.

So here are a few of my personal expectations.

  1. To be able to re-connect with colleagues. There are a number of people going who I haven’t seen for a few years. Even though you know key events in their lives from twitter, facebook and blogs it is always neat to re-connect face to face.
  2. Finally being able to put a face and a voice to some avatar on Twitter. You follow people for years and now you actually get to meet them!
  3. Hearing some non-mainstream speakers. Just being able to hear new voices and pertinent topics for a change. So many conferences are almost mainstream in making sure the speakers are vocalizing the ‘flavour of the month’.
  4. The debates. If the past is any indication, there should be some lively discussions around just about anything credit union related.
  5. Social media is in everyone’s mind and it will be interesting to see where everyone is at, beginner, experience or expert.
  6. The last and probably most important. To learn, learn and learn. I never hurts to go with an open mind and act like a sponge.

And don’t forget to make your own name tag!

Work exemption

So what happens when you start a month long holiday? You begin a long list of things that you want to do. This list proceeds to be longer than one page and seems to grow like a bad fungus. One the second day of your holiday you realize something. You are using typical work processes, such as lists, to begin to define the time you will spend on a series of supposed important events. You question yourself as to why are you doing this. This is a holiday. It is meant to be something that isn’t work.

Here is one of the OED’s definition for holiday:

  1. a. A day on which ordinary occupations (of an individual or a community) are suspended; a day of exemption or cessation from work; a day of festivity, recreation, or amusement.

That said, how many of us can quickly flick on the ‘no work’ switch? It seems to me we are creatures of habit and when you are constantly refining your scope of work for a year you tend to get habitual in what you do. The question will now be how long will it take me to move from these structured work patterns to one of ease and serendipity. (Even that question has the attribute of a business decision – how long?).

Then there is the defining moment. Does it really matter? Time for another coffee. It’s work exemption day!

Basic fundamentals

My good friend Morris over at cc’ed a tweet to me about a discussion they were having about CUs and Cooperatives. I was reading it and didn’t think there was much to say  until someone writes from the viewpoint that “we need to make money”. That led me to respond.

It does seem a little crazy that whenever the topic of the 7 cooperative principles is brought to light, people will point to what they see as the greatest need –  “to make money” and neglect what the real debate is about. It is like someone asking how you are today and your first statement is “I need to breathe”. Of course we need to breathe but does that end the discussion?

Here is the post.

I think there is an elephant in the room and it never gets invited to leave.IF you read the 7 Co-operative principle on which most CUs were founded years ago they were important in the structure and culture of the credit unions. As the financial industry has advanced somehow those principles have been forgotten, neglected or just unknown.

If one makes a decision about anything there are some fundamentals that act when arriving at that decision. Without the knowledge of these principles then the decision gets hijacked by being made outside those principles. If we bring to focus these absolutes that are a given i.e. we need to make money, we need to compete and neglect to discuss and bring forward how we incorporate these values (principles) in our CUs we do an incredible disservice.

Of course we need to make money, I don’t think that is a principle that needed discussion when CUs started. Of course we need to compete, they started because they could compete. But what about democratic owner control? What does that mean in todays CU? Or the education principle? I think we don’t want to discuss those. Why? To be honest because we have failed to bring these to the important level they need to be, we have been too busy making sure we make money and are moving forward in the marketplace.

I look at a CU like a car. You get it into shape. You tune it up. You keep it working well. But is that all? No you then decide where you want to go with it. What destinations are available and when will you get there. You always pay attention to the operation of the vehicle otherwise you won’t get there. Just remember you have seven places to arrive at and the journey can be exciting and very interesting. Remember we do have GPS to get us where we are going these days! 🙂