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For Salmon Arm Savings and Credit Union’s award-winning HR vice-president Sheri Hamilton, handling fires — real or metaphorical — are all in a day’s work.

In 1998, when Sheri Hamilton first began work as manager of human resources at Salmon Arm Credit Union (19,250 members, $782 million in assets), the Columbia-Shuswap district it served was bone dry. Then, lightning struck nearby Fly Hills Mountain, igniting a wildfire that swept towards Salmon Arm, forcing 7,000 residents to flee. No lives were lost, however, livestock perished, crops were incinerated and 40 buildings were consumed in the blaze, which blackened more than 6,000 hectares.

Like the other businesses in town, SASCU was forced to close its doors while staff prepared to evacuate. SASCU’s CEO asked Hamilton to phone the local banks to find out whether they would be paying their employees for the enforced days off. It turned out that they were, so the CEO decided to follow suit. “In today’s world, SASCU would not be phoning our local competitors; our values around employees would guide us,” says Hamilton.

Since that initial “trial by fire,” Hamilton has become vice-president of SASCU’s human resources department, which oversees 150 employees working in four branches. The department has grown in importance and is now recognized as a key part of the credit union’s overall strategic plan. When Hamilton first started, HR wasn’t much more than the fashion police — enforcer of the office dress code — “things that weren’t strategic at all.” Over time, HR grew to complement SASCU’s financial and operational sides, Hamilton says. “Our role is creating a culture and environment where employees can do their best work.”

Hamilton’s leadership and contributios to SASCU were recognized this past April with the 2019 Award of Excellence – HR Professional of the Year from the Chartered Professionals in Human Resources of British Columbia and Yukon (CPHR BC & Yukon). Her creation of a professional and skilled new workforce for SASCU’s expansion of its insurance division — the 2018 acquisition of a local insurance broker, which doubled staff as well as revenues — was cited as one of the reasons for the award. “I think the award helps further the image of credit unions as being great places to work,” Hamilton says.

HR is an area where education as well as soft and hard skills: business savvy, emotional intelligence and empathy, are needed in equal amounts. Such a broad skill set gels with the addition of a strong work ethic, which Hamilton honed as a child, picking cherries, apples, and peaches with her parents and three siblings on the family fruit farm in Oliver, in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley. Then, in Grade 10, a clerical and receptionist position at the local credit union came up. Hamilton jumped at the chance, learning, at age 16, the basics of banking. Hamilton’s early academic and professional career was peripatetic, first university, then the British Columbia Institute of Technology (BCIT), taking humanities and marketing courses. She briefly worked at several credit unions as a teller, then moved into marketing for a furniture manufacturer. Her interest in HR was sparked by her next job as a vocational rehabilitation manager. For three years, she dealt with big, tough, outdoorsy loggers, tugboat workers and tree fallers who’d been injured on the job, retraining them for more sedate careers. “I developed empathy but it also toughened me up; I had to go into some intimidating situations,” says Hamilton.

“Our role is creating a culture and environment where employees can do their best work.” – Sheri Hamilton

Hamilton had found her niche. She returned to BCIT to study HR management and, upon graduation, moved to SASCU where, that first wildfire-stricken summer, she was forced to implement the credit union’s emergency measures: keeping track of staff who had scattered to areas of refuge (Hamilton and her husband evacuated to Kamloops, 110 kilometres away) and later dealing with an employee whose home was consumed in the inferno.

Hamilton continued her education while working, achieving an MBA in the early aughts and taking courses and programs at institutions like the University of California, the University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business, Queen’s University and WorldatWork, a global association that focuses on attracting, motivating and retaining employees. The ongoing education has helped Hamilton stay abreast of an increasingly complex and competitive industry that demands flexible thinking and creativity.

Today, while Hamilton might not be running from forest blazes, she finds herself putting out smaller fires of the metaphorical sort. These include the challenge of recruitment, especially for specialized roles. To navigate this, Hamilton has nurtured strong links with nearby Okanagan College, providing students with internships, summer work and work-experience, which have led to longer-term placements. Complementary to this is SASCU’s “talent management” initiative, which identifies and grooms potential young leaders for key positions.

Hamilton also continues to strengthen connections with all departments within the credit union, recently working with IT to launch a fully digitized mortgage renewal process adapted to accept digital signatures.

For Hamilton, HR has been a calling as much as a career. And while HR Professional of the Year awards may be the icing on the cake, it is the work itself that’s satisfying. “You are making a difference in people’s lives; it is a privilege that comes with a huge responsibility. Never once in 20 years has it felt like a job.” ◊