5 Questions: Christine Bergeron, Vancity president and CEO

After taking over during the pandemic, Vancity president and CEO Christine Bergeron brings entrepreneurial leadership to Canada's largest community credit union.

Credit: Courtesy of Vancity

After taking over during the pandemic, Bergeron brings entrepreneurial leadership to Canada’s largest community credit union

For the complete interview, check out The BCBusiness Podcast.

How has COVID-19 impacted Vancity?

When the pandemic hit, we knew that we had to take a lot of our capital reserves and put them where they would do the most good. And that was in the hands of our members: everyday people, small- and medium-sized businesses, not-for-profits, social enterprises that operate in our community.

We made less in 2020 than we would have without COVID, but we deliberately put money into a variety of programs, and that was at the centre of our response. Loan deferrals for up to six months. We cut credit-card interest rates to zero, waived fees, created new loan programs, created a deposit program, put money into the Community Response Fund for the Vancouver and Victoria foundations.

How have Vancity members been coping with the pandemic? What kind of year do you think 2021 will be for B.C. families and businesses?

We did a couple of studies in the fall, looking at small business. We found that the businesses that were doing better in the first part of our research were really connected to their community. It wasn’t necessarily those in more affluent neighbourhoods.

We’re paying attention to real estate—surging prices and the effects on affordability. And capital markets: we’ve seen a huge flow of funds going to socially responsible investments. But also, capital markets have been fairly buoyant, and there’s a lot of noise there. So we’re paying attention to that to see how it will start affecting our members.

With one of its five climate-change pledges, Vancity recently became the first Canadian bank or credit union to commit to net-zero carbon emissions across its lending portfolio—a goal you aim to reach by 2040. Why did you do that?

For us, it was stepping back and thinking, OK, we’re a financial institution, so we have certain levers that we can pull. They’re quite different levers than other businesses’. Our operations matter, but they aren’t the biggest issue. The biggest one is, what do we finance?

And so when we looked at our portfolio, we were trying to think about how we make the biggest difference. That’s where our net-zero commitment came in. Our perspective has been that the climate emergency is at the doorstep, and it requires immediate action to transition to a clean economy. And certainly, a recovering economy post-COVID needs to be one that’s also reducing emissions.

You used to work at an early-stage venture capital firm and a hedge fund. How has that experience informed your current role?

I was involved in building both of those firms, one as a co-founder and one as the first team member hired. When you are involved at that stage, it gives you breadth of roles. You need to be able to start from nothing and take a blank piece of paper and build. So I’m quite entrepreneurial—probably an entrepreneur at heart—and I bring that to how I lead and think.

I also taught venture capital and did micro-finance work. I worked with a lot of startups and tech incubators prior to the 2008 crash. And so I have a pretty deep understanding of finance, from private equity to growth capital, lending, public markets, wealth management.

Typically, people don’t have the opportunity, or it’s difficult to go from one aspect of finance to another. And so I think I bring a very deep breadth of understanding to risk and return, and when you understand traditional constructs, you can also think about how to change them. The way we currently define success around risk and return is limiting. It doesn’t have a value lens; it doesn’t have an impact lens.

I learned early on, too, that a title might get you an introduction, but the title doesn’t earn you the respect. In the venture world, I met hundreds of quote-unquote CEOs, and it made me realize that the title’s not the thing.

Looking ahead, what are you most excited about?

Our climate work and the innovation it will bring about. The other one would be our priority around supporting a fair recovery from COVID. Local businesses are such a backbone of our community, and many of them have been hit hard. We want to continue to drive local recovery, and we’ve been thinking about new programs and how else we can be doing that.

And then for me, it’s how do we partner, how do we innovate, and how do we leverage the full Vancity group to do more in our community and to help where we operate to thrive? That’s what gets me up in the morning.

Previously: Chief member services officer and senior vice-president, member services and community engagement, Vancity; co-founder, Shoreline West Asset Management; vice-president, investments, and founding team member, Chrysalix Energy Venture Capital

Hobbies: Running and Pilates

Last book I read: The last three were books my son read because I wanted to be able to talk to him about them: Ground Zero, Allies and Refugee by Alan Gratz. They were intense. In general, I love books about behavioural economics because they constantly jar what you think about people and their response to something

Favourite TV show: I find Workin’ Moms pretty hilarious. And any good standup comedy works

Most memorable concert: I miss live concerts! The Skookum Festival a couple of years ago

Favourite place in B.C.: Locally: Lighthouse Park. Outside the Lower Mainland: anywhere on the ocean

Pet peeve: Leaf blowers

Guilty pleasure: Mint chocolate