Desjardins wants more Anglos
Financial services Coop struggles to broaden beyond Francophone base

When Alban D'Amours took over as president of the Mouvement des caisses Desjardins last year, one of his key goals, was to boost participation of Quebec Anglos in the financial services cooperative.

"A cooperative that is not fully representative of the population it services is missing something in terms of cooperative democracy," said D'Amours in a recent speech. "Desjardins wants to make progress in this area."

But D'Amours' desire to sign up more Anglos is not just altruistic. The financial services cooperative already has more than 5 million members in Quebec. But of those, only about 250,000 request their literature in English.

That means to ensure continued growth in Quebec, and in the rest of Canada, the Mouvement Desjardins is going to have to attract both more Anglos, and members of other cultural communities.

To do so, D'Amours is going to have to convince them of the advantages of being a member of a financial services cooperative, as opposed to a bank client

At first glance, the institutions look fairly similar. Both Mouvement Desjardins and the banks offer a variety of financial products including deposit accounts, mortgages and personal loans, and a range of ancillary services. The interest rates charged and paid, are also roughly the same.

But according to D'Amours there is a world of difference. "When our members walk into a Caisse, they are walking into their Caisse," said D'Amours in a recent interview. "Unlike a bank, they buy a membership and they become the owners. This gives them the right to participate in the decision making, to elect the directors of their Caisse, and to share in profit distributions at the end of the year."

"We also have an important social educational mission," said D'Amours. "Last year we gave more than $31 million in donations and sponsorships to various community organizations."

D'Amours also cites the organization's traditional role in helping business in Quebec's regions, through tools such as its recently launched fund, Capital Régional et Coopératif, through which investors get a 50 per cent tax credit, while promoting regional development.

But while these are impressive reasons to deal with Movement Desjardins, they do not fully explain why the cooperative is such a dominant force in Quebec.

Much of Movement Desjardins' success remains rooted in Quebec's history, the organization's school caisse program, and just plain inertia.

When Movement Desjardins was founded 100 years ago, it was in large part in reaction to the large banks which refused to deal with small customers, had poor visibility outside of Montreal, and provided few services in French.

The Mouvement Desjardins was only too happy to take advantage of this shortsightedness and individual caisses were opened up throughout the province. In many small municipalities, even today, the local caisse, is the only place that banking services are available.

According to Robert Cardin, a Mouvement Desjardins customer, and volunteer president of the caisse on Sources Blvd. in D.D.O., the banks have improved their French language services considerably in recent years.

Cardin, a lawyer at Metro Inc., originally became a Mouvement Desjardins member through its school caisse program, through which primary school children can open up bank accounts in the class room. This wildly successful marketing program has brought between one and two million new accounts to Desjardins since its founding at the turn of the century.

Banking clients tend to stay loyal to their financial institutions, and Mouvement Desjardins has kept up with the times by not giving them any reason to change. The cooperative has thus kept up with technological changes, and its Internet site is the most visited financial services site in the province, and the second in Canada.

The cooperative has done this by listening to their clients, which is much easier due to its ground-up management system, through which clients elect managers. In fact D'Amours won his job in a vote, and he must stay in touch with members or they can just throw him out when his four-year term expires.

Despite Mouvement Desjardins' desire to open up to Quebec's Anglos and cultural communities, so far its been just talk. A draft linguistic policy has been drawn up, and will be presented to the organization's Cultural Communities Commission in April. We'll have to wait till then to see if D'Amours can deliver the goods.

 

Photo caption: Alban D'Amours, Movement Desjardins' president wants to broaden the cooperative's membership base beyond francophones, many of whom, like Robert Cardin were signed up through the School Caisse program.

 

 

Diekmeyer's E-mail address is peter@peterdiekmeyer.com

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