Launi Skinner

Launi Skinner takes over as CEO of First West Credit Union after 18 months at the helm of fast-growing trash-haulers 1-800-Got-Junk.

“There’s some coincidence in the timing of Tamara Vrooman, Tracy Redies and myself,” says Skinner. “But there’s something about the culture of credit unions.”

Launi Skinner takes over as CEO of First West Credit Union after 18 months at the helm of fast-growing trash-haulers 1-800-Got-Junk.

Launi Skinner got to ride one of North America’s most dramatic corporate growth stories, and she’s keen to repeat the experience in B.C. Skinner climbed the ranks at Starbucks Corp. over more than 14 years, becoming president of the giant’s U.S. division before leaving in 2008. She returned to her native B.C. for her next job, CEO of the fast-growing trash haulers 1-800-Got-Junk LLC, although this was only to last 18 months. And now she’s found another challenge: in April she was named CEO of First West Credit Union, which was formed in January 2010 by a merger of Envision Financial and Valley First Credit Union, resulting in B.C.’s third-largest credit union. If the merger was one sign that the organization wanted to grow, hiring Skinner is certainly another.

Going from Starbucks to Got-Junk to a credit union definitely looks like an eclectic career path.

I completely understand why you’d think that, but there’s a commonality among them all. It wasn’t just about being in the coffee business or the junk business or the banking industry; I specifically went after organizations that really understand that people are your most important asset. All three organizations have that as a founding principle. The other things that are similar are the service component and the strong community-relationship principle. So I see them to be quite similar.

When you left Starbucks, you must have had lots of opportunities to choose from. How did you handle that?

It didn’t necessarily matter to me how big the organization was; I was looking for companies that had a growth story. That is where my skills have been, particularly working with Starbucks. And one of the reasons I really wanted to stay in Vancouver is because it’s a really close community. I have been very impressed with how gracious and opening other businesspeople have been to welcome, support and help. Vancouver has a very unique culture because of that. I’ve never once had someone not willing to meet me for a cup of coffee, ever.

Why did you decide to leave Got-Junk?

The founder, Brian Scudamore, decided that he was going to change direction and not be as aggressive with growth, so it just didn’t make sense for me to be a part of that. And when you go into a founder-based business, that’s one of the risks you take. I supported the direction he wanted to go – so I’m good with all of that – but he didn’t need me for the direction he was going.

First West is now in its first year. Where is it going from here?

What First West is trying to do is, How do we continue to do what’s best in credit unions and also make sure we have a future in the financial industry? How do we bring these local brands together and create an infrastructure of size and scale that can really help create some new and innovative products for our members? How do we take everything that’s great about being big and on the flip side remain local and relevant? I love the model of respecting the culture of credit unions – being local and able to adapt for what’s necessary for one member – while at the same time having size to help. 

Sound like a tough goal. How do you make sure you don’t become another giant, faceless bank? 

One of the reasons this model doesn’t exist very often is that it’s not the easiest approach. Often people take the path of least resistance. How we do this is to make sure we’re very clear about what our vision is and stay true to that and create an operating model and strategies to support that.

One criticism of Starbucks is that the stores became generic and repetitive compared to more colourful local cafés. Is that something your team struggled with? 

Starbucks really tried. The model was always a constant battle, but I think that battle is what made it successful. We recognize that there was a time when we were growing at a pace that we became more cookie cutter, so how do we change that? We had those conversations all the time. We hired two or three design managers living in Vancouver, two in Toronto, 10 in Seattle, 20 in Los Angeles. So if it’s an area like Commercial Drive, how do we make it relevant to Commercial Drive? You would go and make a change like redoing our menu board and you’d realize that we have a hundred different versions of menu boards. Then you’d go, “We need to be more simple; let’s have everything the same!” So you’d fight that all the time. It was a constant conversation, but I think it was healthy because you always come back with, What are we trying to accomplish?

You starting this job solidifies a very strong trend in B.C. of women leading credit unions. Is it just coincidence, or is there something in the credit union culture that attracts women leaders?

I think there is some level of coincidence in the timing of Tamara Vrooman, Tracy Redies and myself. But I also think there’s something about the culture of credit unions, because there’s a co-operative model where people participate together and share and really come at it with a more collaborative style. I think – not to generalize between sexes – but that style typically plays to women’s strengths.