LEVIS, Quebec -- A shared branching network started in 1967. A credit union with one single CUSO providing all the services and products members need. Banks trying their hardest to mimic the cooperative model but missing the mark.
These are just a few of the characteristics of the Desjardins Group (www.desjardins.com), the largest integrated cooperative financial group in Canada. The numbers paint an impressive picture: six million members, $144 billion in assets and the sixth largest financial institution of any kind in Canada. It is the largest private employer in Quebec and has 56% of all branches in the province--the rest are divided among the seven banks there.
Lucie Bouchard, vice president of alliances and partnerships for Desjardins Group's business markets executive division, said the cooperative's model has continued to build over its 100-year history.
"The Desjardins mission truly lives," Bouchard said. "In everything we do, the cooperative principles are there."
The cooperative comprises a network of caisses, credit unions and business centers in Qu?(C)bec and Ontario, and some 20 subsidiary companies in life and general insurance, securities brokerage, venture capital and asset management.
Desjardins began building branches that were close to members' homes compared to banks that saw fit to build close to their customers' workplaces, Bouchard said. An interconnected branch network launched in 1967--40 years ago--is still going strong. The cooperative has even made it convenient for those members who spend Quebec winters in sunny places like Georgia, Florida and South Carolina. In Florida, for instance, Desjardins has several offices and a bank with three service outlets.
"In many communities, banks are closing their branches but credit unions have stayed," Bouchard said.
One of Desjardins' priorities is targeting young people. Most are tied to online banking. In 2007, 700 million transactions were conducted on the Desjardins Web site (www.desjardins.com), Bouchard said. The cooperative is heavily promoting the idea to young people that upon joining, they become owners. Patronage dividends have helped to drive home that message. Bouchard said building a single brand has helped propel Desjardins' credit card program and also appeal to the youth market. There are 3.6 million Desjardins Visa card holders.
"We need a certain level of uniformity," Bouchard said on having one brand rather than a million individual brands.
In addition to providing financial education programs through elementary, middle and high schools, the cooperative has donated $1 million to the Fondation pour l'Education ? la Cooperation, a Canadian organization that develops tools for youth and cooperative education. Its Desjardins Youth Focus initiative for those ages 15 to 30 connects them with programs throughout Quebec and Ontario to help build commercial practices, democracy, knowledge and information, and employment skills.
Canada's Provincial Credit Union Centrals and Desjardins Group came together in September 2007 to form Northwest & Ethical Investments L.P, an investment firm with $5.5 billion in assets under management. Each cooperative owns half of the firm.
As for the relationship between Desjardins and the banking industry, there is mutual respect, Bouchard said, but most banks have discovered that the Quebec market is "hard to invade."
"Banks are respectful of what we've accomplished. They try to mimic what we do," Bouchard said, adding lately, she's seeing more bank officers doing work with volunteer organizations as a way invest more in the community.