Tamara Vrooman certainly wasn’t desperate for a job.
After all, as British Columbia’s deputy minister of finance, she directed $100 billion a year in borrowing and cash requirements and helped prepare a $36 billion fiscal plan. She had received a Knowledge and Leadership PEAK Award from the Association of Women in Finance, the Queen’s Golden Jubilee Medal for outstanding contributions to the province’s public service, a Canada’s 40 Under 40 award and other recognition.
But when in 2007 she was offered the opportunity to take over the CEO’s job at Vancity Credit Union, Canada’s largest, she was intrigued.
“I wasn’t looking for a change,” Vrooman said. “I enjoyed the work I was doing on behalf of the people of the province. Part of my responsibility was overseeing the legislation and regulators that affected credit unions. I was a credit union member in my own community.
“I had felt for a long time that the business community needs to do more to support the economic, social and environment context from which they draw their profits and their ability to operate. When I met with the board, I said, ‘I think this is what we should be doing.’ They were in agreement. I thought it was a perfect opportunity for me to take my experience in public service into the business and community context.”
However, a bigger challenge soon loomed. On July 1, 2007, she announced she was leaving her government job and was scheduled to start at the credit union Sept. 1. On Aug. 13 the financial market collapsed and economic turmoil began.
Vrooman took events in stride.
“When you become the leader of an organization, it’s sort of like a blue plate special. You get what you get with no substitutions. I felt all my experience in monitoring markets and the economy and corporate finance would be useful when I became a CEO. But I didn’t realize how much I would need to draw on it in the first few months,” she recalled.
“Actually, it was fortunate I came at the time I did. We were able to make some decisions early on. While our situation wasn’t nearly as dire as the U.S., we still had some issues here. I was able to use my experience to protect our credit union and our members.”
In February 2008, Vancity merged with Greater Victoria Savings Credit Union. That added more than 5,000 members and $66 million in assets. In 2010, Vancity posted the highest earnings from operations in its 64 year history, $126 million, a 60% increase over 2009. Net income in 2010 reached $77 million, up 44% from 2009.
“The economic challenge has been there, but I think that’s something we have collectively been dealing with. I have been surprised at the lack of awareness among the membership base, even at a large credit union such as ours, about what makes a credit union different and the benefits of credit union membership,” Vrooman said.
“I’ve been surprised at that lack of awareness even in my part of the world, where there are quite a few credit unions, and credit unions are quite large. We have a great opportunity to tell our story to more people, particularly to people who have not chosen yet to be members of the credit union.”
How does Vrooman think Vancity employees see her?
"I would hope they see me as absolutely committed to our organization and the success of our members, our staff and our community” she answered. “I would hope they also see me as fair but not afraid to make decisions that are in the long-term interests of our organization.”
With a demanding career, a husband and 7-year-old son, and a long list of community involvements, Vrooman has to be adept at juggling her obligations. She gives her husband a great deal of the credit.
The founding principle of the credit union movement is people working together for mutual benefit–and that, she said, is what her family is like. Her husband pulled back somewhat from his career, knowing Tamara would face lots of commitments.
“He very much supports me on the home front and supports my son, and we make it work as a team. So I’m very, very lucky in that regard,” Vrooman declared.
Looking ahead five or 10 years, Vrooman hopes Vancity continues to grow, not only in terms of financial success but as measured by the number of people the credit union is able to help. Each year Vancity returns a certain percentage of profits to members and communities. Last year the figure was about $21.5 million.
But she also wants to see the credit union focus less on what the credit union does with the money it earns, and how it earns that money in the first place. That means putting more talent and creativity to work in a way that places people and the interests of the community first, and also thinks about the environment.
“We can provide a model for other financial institutions, not only in our country but around the world,” Vrooman suggested. “Your members, your customers, shouldn’t ultimately pay the highest price for high returns and banks that focus on their own bottom line versus the bottom line of the people they serve.
“We have an opportunity to show that over the long term, we can be more financially sustainable by putting the interests of people first. We can give them more service and benefits than they can receive from a more traditional financial institution. It’s not only good for people and the community; it’s absolutely good for the credit union.”
As for how she sees herself five or 10 years from now, Vrooman emphasized she feels very, very lucky to have the opportunity she enjoys.
“As long as they’re interested in having me, I’m interested in continuing that leadership,” she indicated. “If ever I feel there’s a time when somebody else would be a better leader for the credit union, I’ll be the first to say, ‘Go and try something else.’”