When Sarah Millar, the general manager of Consolidated Credit Union (7,500 members, $223 million in assets) was 13, her mother, Josephine, left Gloucestershire, England, crossing the Atlantic Ocean going west. With Millar’s younger brother Andrew in tow, Josephine, a single mom, settled in Prince Edward Island, a place just as picturesque as Gloucestershire, a county in the green Cotswold Hills. The home of literary heroine Anne of Green Gables, PEI would be a new chapter for the small family — a place to set down roots and secure their future. “England is either a ‘have’ or a ‘have-not’ place and we were ‘have not,” Millar says. “My mother — very brave and adventurous — saw an opportunity.”
As Millar grew up, it became more obvious that Josephine’s spirited independence had been inherited by her daughter. While still a Grade 12 student in the small city of Summerside, Millar began working at Consolidated when offered full-time teller work before the school year ended. “I wrote my final Grade12 exams in the principal’s office because I had an offer to start before I graduated,” Millar recalls. “Then I went to work.”
Millar’s career trajectory climbed steadily upwards, with a string of promotions. And when the general manager position — equal to a CEO credit union position outside PEI — came open in 2004, Millar added her name to the list of external candidates. Millar was offered the position. One of the first things she did as new GM was analyze the credit union’s business practices. It was obvious that changes needed to be made – immediately.
Millar faced a painful decision and, once again, her mother’s steeliness came to the fore. Loan and business practices were revamped, helping strengthen the credit union’s financial position within the community. The overhaul established Millar’s reputation for fairness and trustworthiness, things that have characterized her leadership ever since.
Once the credit union was on a solid footing, Millar focused on outreach as a way to further strengthen the community of about 15,000. Consolidated has long ingratiated itself in positive ways throughout Summerside, recently securing the naming rights for another 10 years to the city’s recreation centre, Credit Union Place (CUP). One-branch Consolidated has a satellite office and two branded ATMs at the centre, which features two ice surfaces, a bowling alley, a large conference centre, swimming pool, gym, walking track and a small restaurant. There are plans to build a hotel on site and “we’ll be a part of that, too,” says Millar.
“Service is most important; we’ve never been sales driven, we’ve been service driven.” – Sarah Millar
Consolidated has also focused strongly on young people, supporting, both financially and with volunteer time, initiatives like the Youth Engagement Centre and the Boys and Girls Club, giving the credit union branding rights to both. The Boys and Girls Club is more casual, providing after-school activities, a breakfast program and summer camps. The Youth Engagement Centre is more comprehensive, supporting families with teens who are going through a crisis, including alcohol and drug-related challenges. “It’s to bring families together to work out problems,” say Millar.
Another credit union-led initiative, the Young Leaders Program, which is also credit-union branded, introduces kids aged 11 to 14 to the basics of running a business and understanding finance. Youth members visit businesses in the community and shadow staff while benefitting from mentoring. Consolidated is “the anchor for both the youth engagement and young leaders programs, providing additional tutoring on budgeting, creating resumés and how to conduct one’s self in a job interview. “It’s a really good foundation for them,” Millar says.
Last year, Consolidated undertook an additional initiative, creating a youth board for the credit union. Millar and two board members undertook presentations in the high schools, asking students in Grades 10-12 who were interested in helping the community to approach them. Since then, Consolidated’s youth board of directors has formed an executive while undertaking community outreach, conducting, for example, information nights for seniors on avoiding fraud. “We’re almost grooming people to be part of our actual board in years to come,” Millar says. “Our focus has always been on youth,” Millar adds. “That’s our future.”
Such policies helped Consolidated bring home the Coady Award for Community Involvement in 2018, honouring an Atlantic credit union or caisse populaire that best exemplifies leadership, support and involvement in community.
Apart from nurturing Summerside’s youth, Millar is also helping till the credit union’s fecund growth rate, which has averaged five to eight percent a year for the past decade. Homes in Summerside are now averaging $280,000, up from $200,000 three years ago. “Now our biggest challenge is managing the loan demand with the deposit and the liquidity. Our volumes are unbelievably different,” says Millar. But even in a milieu of affluence, prudence and fairness will always guide Consolidated under Millar’s leadership. “Service is most important; we’ve never been sales driven, we’ve been service driven,” says Millar. ◊