The Conversation: Vancity interim CEO Nez Aquino talks interest rates, economic downturn and whether she wants the permanent gig

Aquino took over the top gig when Christine Bergeron left for Concert Properties in the summer

You’re from Turkey originally but moved to the U.S. for university and then worked for the Bank America before joining Vancity. What was the rationale behind that move?

My husband got a job as a professor at UBC in 2005. We made the move and stayed here. Just love everything that Canada and Vancouver offer. It’s so beautiful. It attracts people here, which shows up in the unaffordability of our city. I started at Vancity shortly after we moved as a junior analyst in treasury and came up in the different corners of the organization. I’m a CPA by background, I’ve been in finance, led teams there, was promoted to run call centres, payment products. Late in 2019, I was promoted to chief risk officer. It was an interesting time to be leading risk heading into COVID. I did that until our CEO stepped down and now I’m the interim CEO.

Is there a lot of pressure that comes with replacing someone who seemed to be so respected around the province like Christine Bergeron?

Most people don’t think of chief risk officers for a role like this, but I think it prepared me extremely well because I have seen and led just about every corner of this organization. I’m very familiar with the organization and have been in banking 23 years now. I think that banking background and experience in different facets of financial institutions prepared me very well for this role. Of course there are challenging days, but I feel like my background prepared me well for this moment.

Do you want to be the permanent CEO? What might that process look like?

Our board is going through the process of recruitment at the moment and I’m a contender in the process. We’ll see how all of that lands, but no matter how it does, I’m grateful for the experience of this moment. It’s giving me a chance to see the different parts of Vancity and connect with all the employees.

Last year, Vancity was one of the top 10 fallers in terms of revenue in our Top 100 ranking of B.C. companies. When I spoke to [former CEO] Bergeron earlier this year, she was anticipating a continued slide in Vancity’s financial performance for 2023. Has that happened and do you expect it to continue?

I’ll start by saying that it’s definitely challenging for financial institutions, as we have been through a very rapid pace of rate hikes with the Bank of Canada doing everything it can to control inflation. But I’ve been in banking for 23 years and never seen this pace of change in rates. It affects different kinds of the population in different ways. But to directly answer the question, yes, 2023 has been challenging for revenues so far. I think we’ll be in this kind of environment for another 18-to-24 months. We’re certainly getting ready for that. Many of us who have been in banking for several years have seen a lot of ups and downs, and this is another one of those. I was around for the 2008 crisis. COVID was another challenge. And this one is a different kind of challenge for financial institutions. But putting our people and members at the centre of our decisions is helping us a lot. We see the results are coming back to Vancity with more members, more business and higher member satisfaction.

What’s an example of how you’ve put members at the centre of your decisions?

Well, when all the banks followed in lockstep with the Bank of Canada’s rate hikes, we took a very methodical approach of understanding deeply how it impacts members who carry a variable rate mortgage. We took a couple months to get them ready for the upcoming changes, we didn’t increase rates on them right away. We Informed them with several rounds of communication. So by the time we actually brought them to the rate they were supposed to be at, they were well prepared. We heard a lot of accolades from our members and even from the regulator, because of the prudent, stable way we handled the change.

Vancity has made the pledge to get to net-zero by 2040. Are you still on track for that and what other social good initiatives do you have on tap?

I think we are. Most banks have made the pledge for net-zero by 2050, we made the commitment for 2040. I spoke at a climate conference in New York City recently representing Vancity and said that no one can do this alone, everybody needs to work together—governments, private organizations, non-profits, consumers, small business. We’ve also stopped lending and investing in the oil and gas sector for about a decade now. That was way before that was a popular thing to do; we work with members and community partners to support climate transition and sponsor small business members to work with a third party to understand what it takes to get to net-zero and support them. I would like to think we’re ahead of most financial institutions on this, and we’re very authentic about it. Our annual report is quite detailed about where we pass the smell test and where we don’t. Not everything works great. It will take quite a bit of work to get to net-zero by 2040 but we’re working on it and advocating with all levels of government to support us and others.

How have you seen the organization change in your 17 years with it?

I think we’re definitely changing with the times. COVID was a big marker of change in the way we work, the way we digitize everything. I think that applies to everyone. While we adapted to different ways of working and different technology and business norms, what remained was our DNA, in employees and members. We exist to make a difference in the community. I often ask this question to myself: What would be missed if Vancity disappeared from the face of the earth tomorrow? And that grounds me. What do we do differently from others that makes a difference? I think it’s our holistic way of thinking. We put people and place first, that hasn’t changed. If anything, it got more amplified. We’re very thoughtful about making decisions, the way we communicate with members and the way we approach big systemic social matters. Of course we adapt to different things over time, but there’s the DNA of Vancity that has remained. That’s what makes it different from other financial institutions.

Quick Hits

Favourite place in B.C.: Granville Island.

Most memorable concert: I’m on the board of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, so I go often. Earlier this year, Scheherazade by [Nikolai] Rimsky-Korsakov really moved me.

Favourite movie: Cinema Paradiso, the timeless Italian movie.

Guilty pleasure: Peanut butter M&Ms.

Pet peeve: Loud people.