UP FRONT

Passages

October 11 2004
UP FRONT

Passages

October 11 2004

THE TOP lOs From compensation to training opportunities to the comfort of the workplace, we rank the 10 leading employers in eight categories. p. 25

CANADA'S TOP 100 EMPLOYEES

No.1 VANCITY CONFIDENTIAL

What makes this Vancouver credit union so special?

It’s been doing for years what others only now recognize as workplace trends. It gives employees autonomy. It gives them good pay and smart perks. It gives them fun. And it gives them a clear conscience.

KATHERINE MACKLEM

A MEETING IN JANUARY ofVanCity’s inner circle of top managers became unusually heated. Ten executives were debating whether to support a branch in Vancouver’s poverty-stricken Downtown Eastside—a move that was sure to lose money. “Should we really be doing this?” one VP asked. A stand-alone bank, which had relied heavily on provincial handouts, was about to shut down. Neighbourhood activists had approached VanCity to help them set up a new community-run operation, Pigeon Park Savings. The executives knew the existing bank has consistently operated in the red. They knew a big part of their jobs was to protect VanCity’s investments. They also knew that without the new branch, the local residents

would be at the mercy of cheque-cashing storefronts, which charge usurious fees to cash even government cheques.

Karen Hoffman, who leads the credit union’s wealth management division and who attended the meeting, says such decisions were much easier at her previous employer, one of the big banks, because there, every expense is measured against its impact on shareholder value. At Vancouver City Savings Credit Union, the effect of initiatives on the community is as important as making money. In some cases, more important. Was Pigeon Park one of these?

Weighing social impact against financial benefits makes VanCity one of Canada’s most progressive companies. It helps that it’s

PERK ENVY Commuting by company helicopter? Ten grand put into your RSP on your 10th anniversary? We wish. p. 34

TOP 100 LIST The full listing of Canada's best places to work, organized by sector. Is your employer on it? p. 32

owned by account holders and other clients rather than distant shareholders (legally, it is a cooperative). Canada’s largest credit union, with 41 branches in Vancouver, B.C.’s Lower Mainland and Victoria, VanCity is an organization that puts a premium on doing good—and makes it easy for customers to do the same. Holders of some VanCity Visa cards can donate the points they accumulate to charity. For its part, VanCity gives $1 million each year to a local non-profit chosen by its clients. Last year, it handed out $5.2 million in community donations, a whopping 13.5 per cent of earnings. By comparison, donations by Canada’s eight largest banks, while much greater in dollar amount, averaged just one per cent of their earnings.

What does all that have to do with being a good place to work? A lot, it turns out. Canadians, surveys show, want to work for upstanding corporate citizens. And, importantly, VanCity is committed to treating its 1,600 employees well. Its list of benefits and perks is extensive: three weeks of vacation in the first year, plus an option to trade unused benefits for more days off; low-

■ip GLAMOUR OF TECH

“What first drew me is that the company seemed flashy. And that keeps me here. I go to movies with friends and when the ads come up, I’m like, ‘We made the website for that company.’ Nathan Paziuk, application development manager, Blast Radius

interest loans, mortgages and credit lines; tuition subsidies; transit subsidies for Vancouver’s light rail transit system. The head office, which straddles a SkyTrain station, has meditation and lactation rooms, an employee-run library and subsidized parking for those who carpool. The company pays the full cost of a flexible benefits plan. It’s a stellar combination, making it Maclean’s choice for Canada’s best employer.

VanCity stands out, says Richard Yerema, author of the book Canada’s Top 100 Employers, in the sheer number of ways, big and small, it caters to employees. At the turn of the last century, Henry Ford said he would pay his employees well enough so they could afford the Model T, Yerema points out. “The new century equivalent is to treat your people with respect and find ways to accommodate their needs.”

Not surprisingly, Canadians are clamour-

ing to work at VanCity. In 2003, the company received 12,000 applications—one of the highest per-employee ratios in Canada.

THE CULTURE

At 5 p.m., when VanCity’s branch in Kitsilano closes, the shoes come off, the volume on the TV goes up, the banter gets louder and the hard work of balancing cash and cheques begins. Teller Andrea Maharj absentmindedly repeats something a manager said moments earlier. Jokes a colleague: “She’s just having a blond moment.” This group is young, energetic and say they’re like family. They party together; the staff bulletin board is full of wedding and baby pictures. And they’re awfully cheerful. Maybe it’s a West coast thing.

The group hug extends to the corporate level, too. VanCity hosts a range of employee events, including “recognition nights,” family

picnics and winter skating, an annual gala and themed costume parties (last year, the CEO came dressed as Alice Cooper), and has softball, dragon boat and kayak teams.

The big deal is trust, says Mike Harris, a tall, friendly 27-year-old whose job it is to greet and direct customers as they enter the branch. “VanCity lets us make decisions on our own,” he says, like reversing a customer charge without consulting a higher-up. Bonuses are another boon. Last year, Harris’s was 16 per cent of his salary, and gave him enough for half the down payment on his first home.

THE COMPENSATION

Although VanCity, with $9 billion in assets, is a piggy bank compared to the Big Five’s

hundreds of billions, it pays its people on par with its larger rivals; support staff are paid slightly better than industry average. Bonuses are calculated based on VanCity’s profits and the performance of the worker’s branch or department. For managers the math is different, and puts VanCity at the leading edge of new employment practices. Managers’ bonuses are tied not just to business performance but to employee engagement, as tracked by surveys. The happier the staff, the better the boss is paid.

Measuring employee engagement is becoming common, says Christopher Hatch, a principal with human resources consultants Towers Perrin, but it’s rare to link a manager’s pay to it. Making that connection is “a very large step,” Hatch says. “You have to have the right culture to make that final leap of linking engagement to pay.” Engagement scores, Hatch adds, are more than just

a measure of staff satisfaction. They indicate whether employees feel they can use their discretion or whether they’d recommend the company to friends as a good place to work. Studies show that higher engagement levels result in higher retention levels and a more productive workforce, Hatch says. “That’s why it’s so critical.”

THE CEO

Dave, as he’s known to everyone here, gets the engagement thing. “We’re a service business,” says Dave Mowat, VanCity’s CEO. “We can have the best products in the world, but if everyone on the front line was deadpan, we wouldn’t sell or keep much business. Making sure those people are engaged is super critical to us.”

-r

“I had two maternity leaves and was assured each time I’d have the same job waiting. They even called to see how I was. I believe 1 have my dream job-sounds corny, doesn’t it?”-Kris Partee, manager, group underwriting, Atlantic Blue Cross Care

Mowat, 49, who led VanCity’s venture finance department before becoming CEO in March 2000, is in a conference room at the downtown Hyatt this morning, along with 40 mid-level managers. Wearing a suit jacket but no tie, he’s drinking stale hotel coffee and working the room like a politician at a backyard barbecue, greeting many by name. His job today is to get the managers onside with a rebranding initiative that calls for making the branches more funky, more like retail stores, and, most importantly, to get them to adopt a 45-page proposal that spells out a vision for VanCity.

The document is full of touching anecdotes about happy customers, assembled from employee submissions. There’s one about a long-time client who, at 81, got a loan from VanCity so she could fly to Hawaii and meet the man she’d promised to marry 56 years earlier. There are inspirational quotes and snappy one-liners. It is, as Mowat tells the crowd, “a little artsy-fartsy, touchy-feely.” Still, it tells a story about VanCity, and is meant to give every worker a consistent picture of the company and its challenges. One of the main ones is reconciling big-business banking ambitions with community-minded credit union

concerns. “One day we try to act big, the next day we try to act small. We need to recognize the contradictions,” Mowat says. Ultimately, the initiative has a blunt purpose: to grow VanCity’s client base. Today, one in eight Vancouverites does business with VanCity. By 2008, Mowat wants it to be one in six.

Later, over coffee, Mowat seems startled at the suggestion that the story is a marketing exercise. “We would be aghast to call it that,” he says. But, yes, he admits this is “the marketing piece of VanCity,” designed to convince front-line employees that they play vital roles in the company’s future plans— so they, rather than the marketing department, are selling the VanCity message.

That message isn’t aimed only at customers but at potential employees, Mowat

-F

“I’ve been approached by headhunters, but when you look at the companies they’re offering, you reject the extra $25,000 because the chance of a scientific breakthrough is maximized here.”—Jacques Yves Gauthier, senior research fellow, Merck Frosst

says. Having a reputation as an upstanding organization may attract business, but it can also draw staff who in turn hook new clients. “People who are jazzed at their jobs can make the decisions that are the artful part of getting you, the customer, committed to doing business with us,” says Mowat.

THE INTANGIBLES

VanCity is acting on an important workplace trend: the generation now entering the workforce is looking for more than a good paycheque, says Hatch of Towers Perrin. “You can almost call it a higher calling. They’re saying, ‘Tell me how you’re helping the community, how you’re helping the world, how I make a difference in this organization.’ They don’t want to be a cog.”

It’s not the big-ticket perks like Caribbean vacations or subsidized Bimmers that make a company a good employer, says Anthony Meehan, publisher at Mediacorp Canada Inc., which puts out the Top 100 book. Some of the most popular policies are also cheap. One creating buzz is earned days off, which allows workers to take a day every other week if they put in an additional 30 minutes per day. “It’s simple, inexpensive—

and these days are prized,” Meehan says.

Having substantial responsibility is also highly valued. With 1,600 employees, and growing fast (there were 232 job openings at the head office last year), VanCity offers many opportunities to advance. Geoff Luciw, a Visa sales manager who was laid off in 2002 by Royal Bank, says the scope of his job today is much broader than it ever was at Royal. “Rather than being a little piece of the pie, I get to be involved in many aspects of the business,” Luciw says. “And everybody’s opinion counts.”

PIGEON PARK

Back at the January meeting, VanCity executives ended up voting to give $200,000 to

CHEAF LIPSTICK

“I get bored if I do the same thing. I’m in my third position here in 16 months. L’Oréal encourages you to take charge of your career. And because they own so many brands, we get a lot of discounts. The company is also giving me private French lessons right now.”Yael Golan, hair-colour market analyst, L’Oréal Canada

the Downtown Eastside activists. Lydia Johnson, VanCity’s VP of sales and service, says she was not convinced initially this was a smart move. “But in the end, I saw it as a broad social opportunity instead of a tiny business opportunity,” she says.

Less than three months after that meeting, Pigeon Park Savings opened at the corner of East Hastings and Columbia, offering very basic banking services. Formerly a Bank of Nova Scotia (and more recendy a pawn shop), it has the two-storey-high windows and lofty ceiling of an old bank. It was a vacant mess until VanCity volunteers—including Mowat and other executives—pitched in to clean the floor and slap paint on the walls. In addition to the sweat equity and the $200,000, VanCity trained the Pigeon Park employees, contributed used furniture and an ATM, and pulled in donations from other Vancouver companies. “As a non-profit, we’re used to people saying they want to partner with us, but we end up doing all the work,” says Kerstin Stuerbecher, a community activist and Pigeon Park’s manager. “This, with all the VanCity people who showed up, was a true partnership.” Hfl

katherine.macklem@macleans.rogers.com