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The M factor

Are credit unions able to attract millennials?

Archetypes about every generation proliferate, but what is it about millennials — described as socially aware and educated yet narcissistic and lazy — that’s so difficult to pin down? After all, these digital natives are more connected than ever, giving financial cooperatives ample avenues to make a match. We asked four millennials from across Canada, How could credit unions be doing a better job to engage you and your peers?

Empower early

For Alex Castley, 32, education and empowerment can’t start too early.

In 2014, Castley, who was then member engagement and communications manager at Integris Credit Union (25,290 members, $6.4 million in assets) was crowned North America’s Next Top Credit Union Executive. Now talent acquisition and development manager at Integris, the Prince George native beat out entrants from all over North America with his goofy charisma and ideas for attracting a younger demographic. He was selling what he knew. Only five years earlier, Castley had given up his electrician trade for a second shot at university, eventually landing in human resources.

“[Dan Wingham] spoke very passionately about Integris and about the cooperative principles, which I’d never really heard of or considered before” – Alex Castley

The co-op hook came for Castley when now-colleague Dan Wingham guest-lectured his class about Integris Credit Union. “He spoke very passionately about Integris and about the cooperative principles, which I’d never really heard of or considered before,” recalls Castley. “Afterwards I approached him: The cooperative principles sound really nice in theory but how do they actually get applied?”

Noting the spark of curiosity, Integris swiftly set to work recruiting Castley as an HR generalist. But while Castley loved the progressive business model at first, work culture seemed steadfastly status quo. Like many recent grads, Castley was eager to put recent learnings to work, but day-to-day entry level tasks didn’t allow much opportunity to shine. “I felt like a cog in a wheel. I was a person who had a job to fill but anything outside of my job description was for someone else to do.”

Alex Castley

Castley took another shot when new CEO David Bird started, suggesting that Integris reach out to millennials via YouTube. “Bird said, I don’t need to see a script. Just make a video,” recalls Castley. “We spent a lot of our own time doing it, because we were so passionate about it, which definitely contradicts being lazy. We put it out there and it had some measure of success.”

Episode 1 garnered 4,800 views — not bad for an organization with 200 employees in a town of 70,000. The funny two-minute video gets the point across that young people can manage money in an environment that’s modern, creative, and a little silly. For Castley, this is just one example among many of how an open work culture empowers all staff, especially millennials.

“We have a younger management group now,” says Castley, compared to his first days on board. “They’re all hardworking people. They speak up, they listen, they’re respectful, and that’s because they’ve been empowered to do these things. If we believe that people want to do a good job, they will. That’s definitely the case with our staff.” (In fact, after talking with Enterprise for this article, Castley followed up with some stats: 68 of Integris staff were born between 1982 and 1998, which means that just over 31 per cent of the credit union’s employees are millennials.)

Educate and differentiate

Sara Bertens, 23, says that, like many of her peers, she wouldn’t know anything about cooperatives had she not attended Ontario Cooperative Association’s Cooperative Young Leaders (CYL) Camp at age 16. Graduating with a double honours major in criminology and sociology from Kings University College in 2015, Bertens now works as a sales and leasing consultant at a Chrysler dealership in St. Marys, Ontario.

“[Millennials] absolutely care because we are an extremely socially aware group. But we can’t care about something we don’t know about” – Sara Bertens

“I think there is a great deal of ignorance, not just with young people but across the board, when it comes to knowing what a cooperative is, let alone the differences between a credit union and a bank. It’s an unintentionally well-kept secret.”

The CYL program asks credit unions and other cooperative businesses to sponsor youth members (or children of members) to attend the week-long camps and, ideally, continue the relationship by helping the young delegates act as ambassadors at community events and school assemblies throughout the year.

Inspired by her experience, Bertens returned to the camp as a volunteer facilitator. She echoes some other attendees’ sentiments that credit unions lose sight of young people in the time period between opening their first accounts and lending the first mortgage, missing out on a valuable opportunity for both parties.

Sara Bertens
Sara Bertens

“At the end of all the weeks of CYL, we have a tribe of youth from across southwestern Ontario that are eager and willing to spread the word about cooperatives to whomever will listen. We don’t take huge advantage of that.”

In addition to the CYL camps, Bertens thinks credit unions should make more effort to bring cooperative principles to high schools. She recommends All4Each, a step-by-step lesson plan available to teachers through the Ontario Co-operative Association. The program, designed by Kerr Smith, appeals to teens with real-world examples, such as youth-owned skateboarding shops and record-producing co-ops. “This is a prime resource for spreading the word to a group of people who are young and motivated,” says Bertens.

Brimming with enthusiasm and ambition herself, Bertens finds the clichéd portrayal of millennials as disengaged and selfish incredibly frustrating. If millennials seem difficult to please at times, she says, it’s only because of strong commitment to ideals — a commitment equally important in credit union mandates. “We don’t want to settle. We constant[ly] thirst for new skills, look for things we are passionate about, and [try to] find a way to make a living out of [them].”

She adds, “We thrive particularly in collaborative environments, where we can bounce ideas off each other, which is also in line with the cooperatives.”

“Credit unions need to convince millennials that they are more than just “their Grandpa’s bank” – Karissa Fahlman

In other words, millennials could be ripe for the cooperatives’ picking, if only credit unions would offer up the fertile ground for sowing their fresh ideas. “It’s a double-edged sword,” says Bertens. “[Millennials] absolutely care because we are an extremely socially aware group. But we can’t care about something we don’t know about.”

Get up close and personal

Karissa Fahlman says face-to-face is the best way to persuade.

Fahlman, like many young Saskies, opened her first account in a credit union because it was the only financial institution in her tiny town of Holdfast, Saskatchewan, about an hour northwest of Regina. The challenge, says Fahlman, now manager of member activation for Conexus Credit Union (120,000 members, $7.14 billion in assets), is convincing young adults that credit unions are more than just “their Grandpa’s bank.”

Karissa_Fahlman 2016
Karissa Fahlman

Fahlman studied marketing in the U.S. on a volleyball scholarship and returned to work an hour southeast of her hometown in Conexus’s Regina head office. A smalltown girl comes home to roost? It would be a nice, but ordinary ending, except that one of Fahlman’s first experiences as an employee inspired her to make this job a career. Like other types of co-ops, Conexus divvied out profits to members annually, with amounts dependent on how much business each person did. “One of the first products we were promoting, the FreeStyle No-Fee account, was born out of our Member Voice panel. There was a suggestion to ‘Get rid of those pesky fees,’” Fahlman recalls. So the board proposed and passed pooling all the dividends and eliminating fees for everyone, regardless of age or balance.

“We could be more direct about how proud we are about what we do as credit unions” —Kris Wanner

This was the first time Fahlman saw that “member-owned” was more than just a term. “It was really neat to see that in action,” says Fahlman. “From suggestion to solution.”

Now the Conexus brand goes on the road, literally with the Conexus Street Team. The 18- to 19-year-old ambassadors attend events likely to attract young people. At last year’s weekend Craven Country Jamboree, for example, Conexus represented in a teal pick-up truck that unfolded to a welcoming TV lounge. Less flashy, but still friendly are the regular meet-and-greets on Regina’s streets and visits to Prince Albert, Humbolt, Saskatoon, and Moosejaw. The street team’s goal is positive interaction, and promoting the FreeStyle No-Fee account.

“We’re discovering that [people] need to have a few conversations before they’re ready to come in and act,” says Fahlman. The team attended 15 events in 2015, and will participate in the same number this year. All this time and effort has resulted in 135 new members in 2015, directly attributed to this campaign, says Fahlman.

Experiential marketing and guerrilla tactics are more effective when combined with social media, says Fahlman, but while she believes social media is important, it is not as impactful for relationship-building as other methods, such as “getting face-to-face. Maybe you have to see [the brand] three, four, five times before it sticks. But the good feeling you got from the conversation is brought up again when you see a billboard.”

Provide mentorship

Kris Wanner wants credit unions to nurture ambition — individual and collective.

Kris Wanner
Kris Wanner

Wanner is a business deposit specialist at Conexus, as well as a finalist in the 2015 Next Top Credit Union Exec competition. His confidence in his own abilities and in the cooperative principles shows. He believes that credit unions should be bolder in getting their message across. “We could be more direct about how proud we are about what we do as credit unions,” says Wanner. “We should feel OK about who we are and why our system is really, really good.”

At 27, he migrated from a traditional financial institution “in a downward step” to get into the credit union system. “I didn’t know specifics, but I knew it would line up a lot better with how I kind of had my own personal values, with helping people rather than just helping a corporation.”

In addition to nearly winning the North American title of Next Top Executive, Wanner was also integral to starting the Conexus Emerging Leaders program for the 300 young people working at Conexus. “We focus on our millennial employees, helping them develop leadership skills and engage in community activities.” Mentorship is a key component. “A lot of my passion comes from watching those individuals grow. And we have likeminded values: Getting up in the morning and putting boots to the ground and making a difference. [I’m drawn to] millennials that have those same values.”

It’s a balance between doing and talking. In short, say millennials: Make big moves. Show off. In that order. ◊