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Zoom zoom

Bob Marshall, the new COO of Connect First Credit Union, muses upon the parallels between drag racing and mergers.

In championship drag racing – the world’s fastest motorsport – timing is everything. Competitions can be won or lost by a millisecond.

“A hundredth of a second is the blink of an eye; you can’t even imagine a thousandth,” says Bob Marshall, the new COO of Alberta’s Connect First Credit Union (120,000 members, $6.7 billion), which merged with Mountain View Credit Union this past August. (As Mountain View’s CEO, Marshall helped orchestrate the amalgamation.)

Marshall, who has been racing in the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) circuit since 2012, is reluctant to draw parallels between his professional career and the “crazy aspirations” of his personal hobby.

But diligent fine-tuning, an accurate reading of prevailing climate conditions and quick decision-making — all skills Marshall honed in the pit and behind the wheel — helped fast track negotiations and dial in the merger proposal, which was given an overwhelming green light of support (87 percent of Mountain View members voted in favour) and now moves Connect First into a prime position as Canada’s seventh largest credit union.

Okay, maybe we are pushing this competitive advantage analogy over the metaphorical starting line. But who doesn’t want to learn more about hot rods and drag racing?

Growing up in Alberta, Marshall caught the bug early when he was “willingly dragged along” to races by an uncle who worked as a crew mechanic. As a teenager, he pitched in and developed a passion for building and restoring race cars. Later, he began building his own. Though cheaper than buying a new racing vehicle (which costs, on average, US $85,000), it was a long-term project. He spent nearly seven years tinkering under the hood.

Then, Marshall’s wife Shelley was diagnosed with breast cancer and later developed leukemia from aggressive chemotherapy. “It put everything in perspective for us,” he recalls. After she recovered — she just celebrated her 10th cancer-free anniversary — they began to rethink his dream. Again, it was a question of time. “I looked at her and said, ‘I could spend another five years building this car but who knows if I’ll be around to enjoy it. Or I could go out and buy something turnkey and start enjoying it right away.’ She agreed.”

Marshall’s first ready-to-race car was actually a truck — a Chevrolet F10 — which, he says in retrospect, drove “like a piece of plywood.” He now owns a 2005 Chevrolet Cavalier Super Stock that has been completely rebuilt by a fabricator from Chilliwack, BC. It boasts wheel tubs deep enough for 14-inch tires, a 12-point roll cage and a 350 fuel-injected motor that puts out 625 horsepower.

During a wide-ranging, 90-minute phone interview — throughout which Marshall answered all manner of questions with good humour — it became clear that drag racing is much more complicated than it looks.

Races are not won on raw speed, which is considerable — Marshall typically crosses the finish line at 217 kilometres an hour. The thrill entails more than just the danger of potentially rolling the car or being taken out by a competitor who crosses the lane. And sure, the motivation is all about winning — an “unbelievable” feeling, Marshall says.

The real skill is actually a very technical game of prediction and knowing precisely how fast a car will run that quarter-mile drag strip under the atmospheric conditions (heat, humidity, barometer), which vary drastically from Phoenix to Denver, from day to day and even from the time it takes to get from the pit to the starting line. Before the elimination rounds, the drivers must choose a dial-in time, predicting the elapsed time it will take to cross the finish line, then mark it on their windshield.

“So I predict I’m going to run the quarter-mile in 9.90 seconds,” Marshall explains. “If I run that quarter-mile in 9.89 seconds — a hundredth of a second quicker — I lose. It’s called a break out. I
went too fast and I’m disqualied unless my competitor breaks out by even more than I do.”

Confused? Ha, it gets even more complicated. And what does all this zoom zoom have to do with credit unions?

Back in 2012, Mountain View began positioning itself as a preferred partner for other small credit unions to collaborate with. Not unlike Marshall tinkering with his car, it slowly built up bench strength by investing in collaborations with InStride Resources and CUSO Wealth Strategies.

By 2017, however, it became evident that the current credit union climate offered limited opportunities and it was time to start dialing in, so to speak, with a larger partner. Connect First offered a regional model that would allow Mountain View to maintain its brand identity and local governance, provide members with more branch locations and digital technologies, while also offering (crucially, for Mar- shall) advancement opportunities to employees. After getting the green light from both boards in January, negotiations happened quickly. Not in the blink of an eye but faster than most.

“There’s your analogy,” Marshall laughs. “Did it put pressure on people? Absolutely. But did we start the race and get it done? We did.” ◊