Osoyoos Credit Union
Date of Incorporation: January 23, 1946
Membership: Approximately 5000 area residents
Activity: Financial service
Organizational Form: Financial co-operative
Area Served: Osoyoos, South Okanagan Valley
History of the Co-operative
"I remember Oliver Credit Union getting us organized," charter member Dorothy Fraser recalled in 1961. "We weren't even very enthusiastic as we knew nothing of the possibilities in 1946." From cautiously optimistic beginnings in the mid-1940s, the Osoyoos Credit Union grew steadily to a thousand members in the early 1960s. Celebrating its fiftieth anniversary in 1996, it remains an independent financial co-operative with about 5,000 members, actively rooted in Osoyoos, a community of approximately 5,000.1
When the credit union began on January 23, 1946, the community of Osoyoos consisted of two hundred people working young orchards on the shores of Lake Osoyoos, in the south Okanagan Valley of British Columbia. Financially battered by the depression of the 1930s, the area lost a hundred young people to the Second World War. As in other small British Columbia communities, banking services were limited. Twenty-five people in the community belonged to a credit union in the nearby town of Oliver. Members of the Oliver organisation encouraged Osoyoos, a First Nations word for "narrows or meeting place," to gather and form their own financial co-operative.
Eighteen people attended the first annual meeting in February 1946, when Pat Coates was elected President and Dorothy Fraser became the first secretary. Both would be directors for more than two decades. The first treasurer, Harry Hesketh, was also the Postmaster, and a small room at the back of the post office served as the credit union office for several years.
From humble beginnings, the Osoyoos Credit Union grew steadily. The promotion of the Self-Endowment Plan in 1947, allowing members to save money and acquire life insurance while investing in the credit union, increased the appeal of the organisation for many in the Osoyoos area. Eager to boost membership and increase services, the credit union applied for chequing services in 1953. The directors at B.C. Central Credit Union were apparently "flabbergasted ... at the idea of such a small Credit Union expecting to have a chequing service," but could find no reason to deny the determined group. Membership and assets jumped. The same year, the credit union made its first major purchase - an adding machine costing $449.
By 1955, the credit union needed its own building. The board of directors envisioned "a fine, truly modern building ... the first modern building in Osoyoos, and the one which is so distinguished that people point it out - giving not only pride to the members, distinction to the town, but confidence, that most important quality, to the general public." To keep costs minimal, member Walter Beurich designed the building, and the credit union acquired a used vault door from a Princeton hotel for $250. To cover building costs, the co-op rented space to a beauty salon. Members considered the $3,000 dollar land price expensive, but the directors asserted that "convenient, well-located premises, [and] an economical but thoroughly modern building, are advertising that cannot be duplicated." They expected increased membership to compensate for the expense of the project.
They were not disappointed. The new building symbolized stability and security, drawing new members to join the Osoyoos Credit Union, while its central location established the co-operative as an active member in the growing community. By 1956, the credit union did enough business to require full-time management, and John Mittermaier gave up his orchard to become the first manager. He set up an efficient and organized system, copied by other credit unions in the province.
In 1962, the Osoyoos Credit Union reported a million dollars in assets, reaching the million-dollar mark in savings a year later. By 1964, further building renovations were required. While cash and records were carried daily from the vault to a temporary office, the credit union spent $32,000 to update the "modern" 1955 building. Inside, remaining modern meant adopting the latest technologies. In 1976, the Osoyoos Times announced the installation of a 24-hour night depository, and a vault that "combines all the latest in security protection techniques." The credit union installed CUE Datawest's integrated computerized banking system in 1983, and Ron Robinson initiated the sidewalk teller - a walk-up window staffed for an hour before the credit union opened, and half an hour after it closed. This service was discontinued when an automated teller machine, the first south of Penticton, was installed in 1988.
Although further exterior renovations occurred in 1975 and 1991, the building remained in its central location. Today, Main Street becomes noticeably busier when the Osoyoos Credit Union is open, reflecting the co-operative's central role in the community. Throughout its history, the organisation has contributed to the development of its members and the community of Osoyoos as a whole. Celebrated for the first time in 1948 with a lecture and games, Credit Union Day is still observed every October with a hot dog BBQ on Main Street. The credit union's decorative floats have been a feature of July's Cherry Fiesta Parade (formerly the Cherry Carnival) for many years. Lively annual meetings earned Osoyoos the Cup for the finest Credit Union annual meeting in British Columbia in 1963 - these days a subsidized dinner and door prizes precede annual meetings. Although only twenty-five members are required to establish quorum, more than 150 people usually attend the annual event. The meeting allows members of the credit union to ask questions and propose changes to their organisation: at the 2000 meeting a member moved to initiate the saying of grace before AGM dinners. The motion was approved and implemented the following year.
Changing With the Times
Since their first annual general meeting in 1947, members of the Osoyoos Credit Union have received returns on their investment in their financial co-operative. In 1947, a twenty-one dollar surplus amounted to a 2% dividend for the credit union's thirty-two members. In 2000, members received dividends on the following basis:
3% on Non-Equity Shares
4% on Membership Shares
10% on Investment Equity Shares
5% rebate on interest paid on loans
For twenty-five dollars, individuals can become members of the credit union and can open a variety of accounts. Most chequing and savings accounts accrue interest daily. Youth membership shares cost five dollars, and youth and student accounts are free of service charges.
Osoyoos has adopted the latest technology in order to fulfill its mission "to be a progressive credit union providing financial services to meet members' changing needs" (1999 Annual Report, 1). In February 2002, the credit union installed a new ATM, donating the old machine to the Osoyoos museum. Members can access their accounts by telephone and Internet, checking account balances, transferring between accounts, paying bills and requesting information from anywhere in the world.
Grounded in the Community
Surpluses are often invested in the community. In 1971, $500 went to the Seniors Drop-in Centre, and student bursaries have been given since 1960. Currently, $3,600 is awarded in scholarships annually to local high school graduates. In 2000, the credit union pledged $21,000 over three years to the Osoyoos Desert Society, a group committed to protecting the unique local environment. The credit union sponsors several youth sports teams each year, participates in school recycling programs, and often exhibits student art in the premises.
Recruiting teenage members and maintaining youth involvement is difficult in the small community. Many young people leave Osoyoos after high school, unaware of the role the credit union plays in their hometown. The current board of directors is attempting to expose young people to the concepts and benefits of financial co-operation, and hopes to have several students volunteering at the credit union through the high school's Career And Personal Planning program. In 2001, credit union sponsorship allowed three young people to attend Camp Rainbow, a co-operative leadership camp.
Through their dedication to the community, Dorothy Fraser (1966) claims, the directors "have managed to keep sight of the original co-operative spirit and have not allowed the Credit Union to become merely a finance company."
The Changing Credit Union Movement
British Columbia's credit union pioneers have accused their organisations of forgetting their roots in the past two decades, as competition from major banks forces small credit unions to consolidate. Mergers increase the assets and membership base of an organisation, allowing it to offer more services. The downside, says Osoyoos director Jack Whittaker, is a loss of local autonomy, loss of local organisation and governance, and loss of "the original idea of credit unions - a local, community-based organisation to assist the community and the people that live in the community" (Interview, 2001). Although other credit unions in the Thompson-Okanagan area have merged, Osoyoos manager Ron Robinson claims Osoyoos does not need to merge, as it remains a viable organisation. The credit union does not feel pressure to join the amalgamation trend from trade associations such as Credit Union Central of British Columbia (CUCBC). Jack Whittaker (elected in April 2002 as president of CUCBC's board of directors), believes Osoyoos Credit Union is respected as an independent organisation: "there is a recognition that there are niche credit unions, such as ours ... that will continue to be able to service the people within their area successfully and profitably" (Interview, 2001).
While merging may increase member services, Whittaker believes Osoyoos' voice would not be heard at head offices in Kamloops and Kelowna. Serving the needs of local people remains the biggest priority - "that's what we started from ... the likes of Dorothy Fraser saying, 'we want an organisation that keeps the money within, where we help each other" (Interview, 2001). Eda Peril, president of the Board of Directors, reconfirmed this philosophy in the 2000 Annual Report. Despite the challenges of competition, she believes Osoyoos Credit Union "provide[s] greater value to our stakeholders as a small, regionally-based credit union than as part of a large multi-branch financial institution" (2000 Annual Report, 8).
Concern for credit union competition prompted a resolution at the 39th annual meeting in 1984. The members voted to "deplore the establishment of a branch in a community already served by a Credit Union" (Turner, 1996, 12), as a contradiction of the basic philosophy of financial co-operation. Despite these objections, a branch of Oliver Credit Union opened across the street from the Osoyoos Credit Union in the mid-1990s. As consolidation continued, Oliver Credit Union became South Okanagan Savings, which then merged into Thompson Interior Savings Credit Union. Today, the credit union branch is Osoyoos' biggest competitor.
Osoyoos' success may be attributed to stable management. The organisation has had only two managers since John Mittermaier retired in 1968. Board members have served an average of six years, while several directors have dedicated more than ten years to the credit union. Formerly a voluntary position, each director now receives a small annual stipend for attending meetings. Currently, the Board is composed of nine directors serving three-year terms. New directors can be nominated from the floor of the annual general meeting when an existing director's term has expired.
Guidance from a committed group of directors and managers may explain Osoyoos' success; however, Ron Robinson attributes much of the credit union's achievement to his friendly staff of twenty-three. He believes many new arrivals in the area choose the Osoyoos Credit Union because they "want personal attention and service more than they want to be talked down to and forgotten" (Interview, 2001). Ron values "people skills" highly in potential employees, and believes high customer service standards both satisfy members and encourage new membership: "It's how we do things within the organisation ... that's our best selling feature" (Interview, 2001).
Through advertising and community involvement, the Osoyoos Credit Union is continually trying to attract new members from the Osoyoos and South Okanagan area.
In the future the credit union intends to enhance internal efficiency and develop an overall "Risk Assessment" of the co-operative. Osoyoos members have enjoyed managerial stability under Ron Robinson for nineteen years, and will be working on a comprehensive succession plan to ensure effortless managerial transitions in the future.
The credit union strives to better serve its members through the adoption of new products and services, such as wealth management services. However, the Board of Directors recognizes that, as a smaller, albeit financially stable organization, it "cannot be all things to all people" (2000 Annual Report, 7). Echoing the cautious optimism of charter members such as Dorothy Fraser, President Eda Peril notes that "while we will continue to work hard at being an excellent provider of financial services, we will not jeopardize our financial returns simply to expand our organisation" (2000 Annual Report, 8).
Indeed, the co-operative intends to remain autonomous: "[W]hether we grow or whether we shrink or what happens to our asset base is no reason that we cannot continue to serve the membership within Osoyoos," director Jack Whittaker asserts (Interview, 2001). With an emphasis on the local economy exemplified in their motto, "That's the Spirit of Community Pride!," the Osoyoos Credit Union is determined to continue serving its members' needs as one of the few remaining independent credit unions in British Columbia.
The mission of the Osoyoos Credit Union is to be a progressive credit union providing financial services to meet members' changing needs.
Our vision is for the Osoyoos Credit Union to be the best at serving our members. Each member interaction should be an unsurpassed customer experience.
Our values define what is important to our organization.
Integrity is the hallmark of our dealings. We value uncompromising honesty and trustworthiness in our dealings.
We value all members and work hard to earn their confidence for long-term, full service relationships.
We value teamwork in pursuing our corporate goals.
We value continuous learning and we understand that we are responsible for developing the skills required for our success.
We value a high level of achievement and constantly strive for improvement in all aspects of our business.
As a socially responsible organization, we take pride in our contribution to the communities we serve and in our care for the environment.
We value profit which means we make good business decisions, meet or exceed our annual goals, and conduct operations in a fiscally responsible manner.
1999 Annual Report. Osoyoos Credit Union, 11 April 2000.
2000 Annual Report. Osoyoos Credit Union, 3 April 2001.
Cox, Doug. Okanagan Roots: A historical look at the South Okanagan and Similkameen. Penticton,
B.C.: Skookum Publications, 1987.
"Credit Union Votes $500.00 For Drop-In Centre," Osoyoos Times, 1 April 1971.
Fraser, Dorothy. Osoyoos Credit Union: 20th Anniversary. Osoyoos, B.C.: Osoyoos Credit Union, 1966.
Interview with Jack Whittaker and Ron Robinson, October 30th, 2001.
"Night Depository." Osoyoos Times, 15 July 1976, 24.
Osoyoos Credit Union website. www.osoyooscreditunion.com 20 June 2002.
Outline of Building Proposals. Osoyoos Board of Directors. 15 September 1954.
Script. Osoyoos Credit Union. 1961.
"Special Vault." Osoyoos Times, 15 July 1976, 24.
The Informer. March 2002, 1.
Turner, Patrick. Osoyoos Credit Union: Our 50th year of Service to Our Community. Osoyoos, B.C.: Osoyoos Credit Union, 1996.
1 Membership is drawn from the entire south Okanagan region.
Case Study Information
Researchers: Kathleen Gablemann and Katie Rollwagen
Date of research: 2002
Author: Katie Rollwagen
Date of writing: 2002
Editing: BCICS editorial team
Supervision: Kathleen Gabelmann, BCICS Research Co-ordinator