Insight. Innovation. Industry.
Business / Community Development /  •

A turnaround manifesto

A bold plan to bring economic vitality back to southwestern Ontario

prosperity project

Prosperity (n.): a successful, flourishing, or thriving condition, especially in financial respects

That’s the dictionary definition of prosperity, although the true sense of the term can be elusive. After all, who determines what it means to flourish or thrive? How much money does it take to make a person feel prosperous? For that matter, is money the only measure of fortune?

Those are the kinds of questions London, Ontario’s Libro Credit Union (95,000 members, $3.3 billion in assets) has been asking in a soul-searching exercise that began with a merger in 2014 – and the result is the Prosperity Project, which it formally launched in April.

An evolving concept

The Prosperity Project is a work in progress. That’s because the concept of prosperity is an evolving one, Libro believes. At its most fundamental, however, the new undertaking hopes to be provocative – to get people pondering, investing in and caring about southwestern Ontario’s future. In fact, over the next two years Libro’s entire focus – from the services and products it offers to its own investment policies – will be on economically revitalizing the region. And it’s seeking input not just from members but from business owners not affiliated with Libro, the unemployed and community leaders alike.

Through the Libro Prosperity Fund, $500,000 in grants will be awarded to keep the conversation on prosperity flowing — and keep the district growing

“The only criteria for participation,” according to the Prosperity Project website, is that participants “care about living here.”

Just to put its money where its mouth is, Libro is also providing a Prosperity Fund this year. It is awarding $500,000 in grants to keep the conversation flowing – and the district growing. (See “The Libro Prosperity Fund,” for details.)

The venture is the kind of shot in the arm the region needs. Southwestern Ontario, with its prime farmland, struggling factories and growing cities, is home to more than two million people. The area has a developing high-tech sector in Kitchener-Waterloo- Guelph and world-class hospitals in London – but it also has car plants in St. Thomas and Windsor that have closed or face uncertainty. The Great Recession of 2008 hit it hard: the financial downturn amplified the impact of manufacturing job cuts that were already under way. Thousands of workers were sidelined and unemployment was higher than the provincial average.

A merger motivates

With the Prosperity Project, Libro is hoping to cultivate a longterm, collective vision for southwestern Ontario that will help its member-owners and their communities bounce back to the better years they once enjoyed. Indeed, what is now Libro emerged in the booming 1950s as St. Willibrord Community Credit Union, established to serve the growing population of Dutch farmers flooding into the London area. Over the next five decades, its success mirrored that of its members as they expanded their operations and thrived, working some of North America’s best farmland. Nearly 10 years earlier, about 175 kilometres west of London in Essex, a similar small group of Ontario farmers and business people had formed United Communities Credit Union to serve rural residents. Over the next 70 years it, too, grew, merging with other smaller credit unions to increase its reach.

libro prosperity fund

In 2006 St. Willibrord changed its name to Libro Financial Group, in part to reflect a focus on broadening its influence. A few years later, surveying the challenges that all credit unions now face – shrinking margins, aging membership, technological change, stiff competition – Libro and United Communities joined forces and re-launched as Libro Credit Union on January 1, 2014.

After the merger, Libro felt it was important to reconsider its vision statement. It settled on: “To grow prosperity in southwestern Ontario by transforming banking.” In a business plan posted Libro’s public website, CEO Stephen Bolton and board chair Rick Joyal indicate that this means “transforming banking into something that is much more than a set of financial transactions.” Libro, the plan adds, will think “differently about what success looks like for a financial institution. It is committing to the innovative steps that will align social responsibility and a sustainable business model.”

Parsing prosperity

Step one, according to the plan, is searching for the meaning of – well, you know – that word. “By uncovering the key elements of prosperity, we will begin to measure our impact on the prosperity of our owners,” it reads. “By understanding these elements at the regional level, we will assess the health of our communities and where Libro is making a difference.”

Libro’s research has taken the form of a series of pre-launch meetings throughout its market area to parse the question of prosperity. “We want to create a definition together,” Bolton says. “Then [we can] go about bringing it to life.”

“We need people to feel important and to pursue their dreams, whatever they may be. Only then do I believe we will have achieved prosperity”

—Jan Varner, CEO of the United Way in Kitchener-Waterloo

What it heard at these sessions was instructive. Jan Varner, CEO of the United Way in Kitchener-Waterloo, had one take on the term. He told Libro that beyond meeting people’s basic necessities, prosperity provides them with opportunities to engage in their community – to feel valued and hopeful. “We need people to feel important and to pursue their dreams, whatever they may be,” Varner said. “Only then do I believe we will have achieved prosperity.”

For his part, Myles Vanni, executive director of the Inn of the Good Shepherd in Sarnia, added another layer to the definition, based on what he has seen first-hand through his work with the organization’s food bank and emergency shelter. “Prosperity means not having to do without the basics,” he said. “Elements of our society may be prosperous but our society as a whole isn’t.” He believes a failing infrastructure – one that has seen a shift from full-time to part-time employment, for example – has helped create a world of “haves and have-nots.”

Measuring prosperity

Definitions are all well and good, but how do you translate words into action? Tania Goodine, Libro’s executive VP, engagement says the credit union wants “something that is measurable – something we can prove is contributing to prosperity. We haven’t figured that out yet. We’re only beginning to research it.”

Libro Prosperity FundLibro hopes to develop a regional Prosperity Index that looks beyond just money to find out what makes people satisfied with their lives, such as the environment around them and their closeness to family and friends. “Prosperity doesn’t need to mean rich. It needs to mean comfortable, however you define that – and having the ability to make choices,” Goodine says. She adds that an index would “help [show] how every stakeholder benefits. That will be pretty powerful.”

Many people are searching for a better way to measure social and economic success. Seven years ago the Legatum Institute, a British think tank and educational charity focused on promoting prosperity, published the first edition of its global Prosperity Index.

The tool measures national progress using a wide set of metrics. In 2014 Canada ranked fifth behind Norway, Switzerland, New Zealand and Denmark and down two spots from the previous year. If you’re wondering, the U.S. was tenth, up one spot and the Central African Republic placed last at 142.

But a lack of data means building a similar index in Canada to rank provinces and regions might be difficult, economists warn. A recent report by the Mowat Centre tried to identify the hardest places to live in Canada. The report was modelled on a U.S. survey that examined and compared states and cities in great detail. But the researchers said their task was tough.

“Quite simply, it is very difficult in Canada to make useful, community-level comparisons across the country using survey data,” the report stated. “While Canada’s relatively small population and vast land mass pose clear barriers to performing this type of analysis in the first place, the data Canadian governments have chosen to collect and the instruments they use to capture it also pose huge challenges.” Still, the interactive map that Mowat produced does show that several counties in southwestern Ontario, plagued by high unemployment, a high number of people on social assistance, high stress and high levels of food insecurity, are not easy places to live.

A lost decade

July2015-F4-Inset-Prosperity-LibroCU-V2-[358x250px]Everyone is encouraged to add their definition to the Prosperity Project website and there’s an urgency to the process because the number of “have-nots” in southwestern Ontario has been on the rise for far too long.

In a speech to Liberals, Mike Moffatt, a professor at the Ivey School of Business in London and chief economist for the Mowat Centre, an independent public policy think tank in Toronto, outlined the bad news that has rocked the area by cataloguing plant closings in recent years. These included GM’s transmission plant in Windsor, Heinz in Leamington, Ford in Talbotville, Navistar in Chatham- Kent, Sterling Truck in St. Thomas, Electro-Motive Diesel in London – and the list goes on.

“You’ve got two regions, the East and the West, which combined have three million people, added about 150,000 working-age persons and have 10,000 fewer people working full-time than a decade ago,” he said. “Outside of a few pockets like Stratford, it’s been a lost decade for an area that has a population halfway between Atlantic Canada’s and Alberta’s.… There is no silver bullet – it will take a suite of smart policies and a willingness to experiment. That’s the short answer.”

Libro’s long game Libro hopes it can play a role in providing a longer answer. It’s in the early stages of implementing its vision, but the effort alone is a step in the right direction, Tania Goodine, Libro’s executive vice president, engagement, suggests, adding that the credit union is in it for the long haul. “We believe this communicates why we’re here and what Libro’s purpose is,” she says. “We’re anxious to try things and open to possibilities.” ◊