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The reluctant politician

Eddie Francis, former Windsor, Ont. mayor and newly anointed Windsor Family Credit Union CEO, is bringing some controversial new ideas to the table.

Eddie Francis, the new CEO of Windsor Family Credit Union (37,000 members, $1.6 billion in assets), thought he was done with politics.

“At the risk of being the new guy stirring the pot,” says Francis, who became WFCU’s CEO this past May, “there is more politics in the credit union system than there was in the political world.”

Francis knows of what he speaks. Before joining one of Ontario’s largest credit unions in 2014, initially as executive vice-president of operations and member services, Francis had already served three terms as mayor of Windsor, Ont. He was the city’s youngest mayor ever, first elected in 2003 at 29.

Something of a maverick, he never really considered himself a politician, preferring to call himself the CEO of the Corporation of the City of Windsor. Yet he certainly earned his stripes. With a tough-love style of leadership (one that earned him a reputation as a “control freak” by both friends and foes), he steered the then-struggling auto town through its worst recession — holding the line on taxes, battling it out with unions, investing in infrastructure and jet-setting across the globe for new business opportunities. All of this laid the groundwork for the Windsor Renaissance, now widely touted as one of Canada’s biggest economic success stories. (The city enjoys one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country and the economy is growing faster than the national average.)

As a promise to his family, Francis got out of politics early, “while people were still going to talk to me if they saw me in the grocery store.” The timing was almost tragically fortuitous. Two weeks after Francis announced that he would not be seeking a fourth term, his wife, Michelle Prince, was diagnosed with colon cancer. She is still undergoing chemotherapy.

“If credit unions can come together and serve the Greater Ontario population as we serve our communities, think of how much better we can be.” – Eddie Francis

Francis turned down offers from political parties at both the provincial and federal levels, among other opportunities in the private sector, for the chance to join the credit union system. “There is something very unique about the credit union system,” he says. “What sets us apart from the banks is what we do with that profit – we invest it back in the community. But as a system, here in Ontario, we barely scratch the surface.” (In Ontario, credit-union membership, as a percentage of the population, is only 11.5 per cent, one of the lowest rates in the country.)

Now Francis is entering the next phase. As CEO, he is determined to grow WFCU’s membership far beyond Windsor-Essex County, unite Ontario’s fractured credit union system (bringing its waning market share on par with provinces out West) and take on the big banks (positioning all credit unions as a better alternative). Ironically, he finds himself pretty much back where he started — immersed in politics. “If credit unions can come together and serve the greater Ontario population as we serve our communities, think of how much better we can be,” he says.

Some say it can’t be done. They say that collaboration has been tried before and failed. Fortunately, at least for WFCU, Francis is driven by the challenge of proving people wrong. “When I first ran for office, they said I was too young. Then they said I would never be re-elected. When we tried various initiatives, they said it would never work.”

Not unlike his time in politics, some of the initiatives Francis has introduced at WFCU have been greeted with skepticism. Take payday loans, for example. Some say credit unions have no business getting involved in the predatory cycle of short-term financing. Francis, on the other hand, says it’s the responsible thing to do. “When you look at the origins of the WFCU, that’s how we started — on the plant floor, decades ago. People would come in, they needed to get by to the next cheque and we advanced cash.

“To those who suggest we shouldn’t be doing it, I say it’s exactly the thing we should
be doing. It would be socially irresponsible of us to ignore the issue. And it’s not just for Windsor-Essex. It’s an issue in every community across Ontario.”

These sorts of innovative solutions, ones that serve the needs of the community, are the key to meeting his challenge of strengthening the credit union system as a whole. “Credit unions should become the first choice for consumers in Ontario. It’s no different than when I was mayor. As mayor, I was responsible for deriving the best value for my community. As a leader in the credit union system, those principles hold true.” ◊