Working Dollars:
The VanCity Story
J.J. Douglas (Douglas & McIntyre),
Vancouver, 1996
Table of contents
Review excerpts
It was the kind of credit union that wasn’t supposed to work. Credit unions to that point, in 1946, were based on groups of people with a “common bond” – say a workplace, church, neighbourhood, or ethnic affiliation. It was only because people knew each other in this way that a credit union could provide a member with a loan based on character rather than assets, which was the whole point of forming the credit union. It was this “closed bond,” as it was called, that lay at the heart of the credit union movement.

VanCity, on the other hand, was to be open to any resident in the city of Vancouver who wanted to join – a model that came to be known as an “open bond” credit union. It was a heretical idea for old credit union hands, and many predicted its failure. On the other hand, if it could be made to work it would open up the benefits of credit unionism and its member-owned ethos to a larger public.

As it happened, VanCity, once given birth, never looked back. Herschel Hardin tells the story – of striving, creativity, innovation, struggle and triumph. Beginning with $22 in memberships from its founders and an initial $300 deposit from a stranger, VanCity went on to become the largest credit union in Canada with many billions of dollars in assets. In the process, it revolutionized retail banking in the country.

Its member-owned culture – “owned by the people it serves” – generated a spirit of responsiveness and innovation that broke taboos and established new frontiers. Among its many “firsts” were providing mortgages to people living east of Cambie (in Vancouver’s working-class east end), lending to women in their own name, variable mortgages (mortgages whose balance could be paid off at any time), daily interest, “all-in-one financial statements, real-time online computerization of accounts, interbranch banking, Teleservice, ethical mutual funds, and much more – years, sometimes decades, ahead of the chartered banks.

It’s in the individual stories of VanCity’s people, however – their private and professional lives, their strengths and foibles - that Hardin captures the colour and drama of it all. The book is no dry corporate history. From the bold and sometimes maverick characters who set VanCity on its modest way in 1946, through to the increasing organizational complexity and activist boardroom politics of later times, it’s VanCity’s people that have been the lifeblood of the organization and who set it apart from its conformist counterparts in the banking sector.

Working Dollars recreates this VanCity past as if it were happening in front of your eyes.

Book talk
People who read Working Dollars loved it, especially if they were interested in business – it’s such a great story of striving and innovation – but perversely it had virtually no reviews (see the sparse entries on the “review excerpts” page). This was all the odder, given that the book was so evocative. There are two likely explanations. First, VanCity is a local enterprise rather than a national one or even a regional one (unless one considers the BC Lower Mainland a region). It’s also not an Ontario enterprise, which would affect editorial decisions in Toronto and the national media. Unless an editor had some prior sense of VanCity’s importance, he or she might be more inclined to pass, notwithstanding the promotional materials. In most cases the book never made it into reviewers’ hands.

Secondly, Working Dollars was commissioned by VanCity. The Globe and Mail’s Report on Business was about to do a feature review of the book, but its policy excluded reviews of commissioned histories. The book might well have been discounted elsewhere, unread by reviewers, for the same reason. Yet unlike many other commissioned business histories – one on the Bank of Montreal comes to mind – it was rigorously independent. A clause in the contract between myself and VanCity assured this independence. I had insisted on it and told the story as it happened, warts and all.

The upshot – while run-of-the-mill business books were well-covered by the Canadian media in 1996, Working Dollars itself was ignored. For the most part, only VanCity’s members and credit union insiders knew about it. Credit Union Way in Saskatchewan published excerpts.

There would have been no other recognition at all had not Working Dollars, seemingly out of the blue, been listed as a Global Business Book Awards finalist. The Global Business Book Awards were sponsored by international management consultants Booz Allen & Hamilton and the Financial Times. As the awards name suggested, the reach was worldwide, although most entries probably came from the United States and western Europe. A gala awards ceremony was laid on at the Museum of Television & Radio in New York.

Working Dollars was nominated in the “business history” category. Although it wasn’t ultimately the winner (Ashes to Ashes, a book on the shenanigans of the tobacco industry, received the prize), the nomination by itself said a lot. A major purpose of the awards, as the official material explained, was to “help busy executives [sort through] the incredible array of business books being published all over the world [and] find the ones that are truly worthwhile, the ones that represent the best ideas in business.”

Working Dollars, of course, was not just one of those books, it was also a moving chronicle of real people who did extraordinary things. If there is such as thing as a literary tragedy, it would be that Working Dollars didn’t have a wider readership. The single major review, in the Vancouver Sun, didn’t even appear until after the awards nomination was announced, long after publication date, and the book editor asked himself why they had missed it.

Copyright © Herschel Hardin 2005
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