By Karen Sheviak, Move Magazine
When people think of a financial institution, the image that often comes to mind is an impersonal, large company that doesn’t know its customers. But there thousands of financial institutions in Canada that don’t fit that description. They are small and personal, often with a loyal staff that serves the same customers for decades. These institutions are called credit unions. The first one in Canada was opened by Alphonse Desjardins in Quebec in the early 1900s, and today there are hundreds of credit unions in Canada with thousands of branches.
The story behind Equity Credit Union, which opened in Ajax in July 2010, also has a long history. Lever Brothers opened a soap factory in 1890 at Lakeshore and Don Valley in Toronto, and the factory was still active nearly 50 years later when employees formed a credit union in 1942. They wanted to save money, so they applied to the ministry for a charter for a credit union.
Lever Brothers later became Unilever, a multinational company, but the credit union continued to exist for the employees under the new name. In recent years, Unilever gradually reduced the number of plants in Ontario, thus reducing the need for a credit union for the employees. The Unilever plant in Toronto closed in the early 2000s after a bitter strike action by workers.
At that point the credit union had a difficult decision to make: die a natural death now that the main source of its members was gone, merge with another credit union or be proactive and source a new location, a new beginning.
They chose the latter, and have now been in Ajax for five years. They chose Durham Region because it is a young, vibrant community. They wanted to grow here for the long term and develop relationships with members that will last their lifetimes, from when they open their first bank account through to mortgages and retirement planning.
Tom Dimson, CEO of Equity, joined the company 1993. He had previously worked at a bank and trust company and says he “came to Equity because it was a great opportunity to be CEO of a financial institution. And the great staff we have is paramount to our overall success, as is our very knowledgeable, progressive and hardworking board of directors.” But he admits that there are huge challenges to being a small player in the financial sector. “We have to be nimble, lean and flexible,” he says.
Equity has followed these principles since moving to Durham Region. They went from being a credit union for Unilever employees, to one that is open to anyone in the community – and one that must compete against the big banks for every customer.
“We have made changes since coming to Durham Region,” says Dimson. “Our doors used to be open only during the day because the Unilever employees would do their banking on their lunch breaks. Now, we are in a community in which most people work in Toronto and aren’t getting home until 5 or 6 p.m., so we’ve increased the hours we’re open to serve our community.”
And serving their community means reaching out to all kinds of customers, even ones who may have been rejected by the big banks. “It’s easy to help someone who has money, but we find it interesting and challenging to help people who don’t necessarily have that money,” says Dimson. “They may have had problems with their health or credit, or lost their job or divorced, so their financial situation isn’t where they want it. We come up with a plan of attack to get them moving forward and in the right financial direction.”
“That is essentially how Equity started, by helping working class people start saving for their future.”