Tamara Vrooman


Public service is the only career Vrooman has ever known; she went directly from a master’s degree in history at the University of Victoria to a co-op position with the provincial government and never looked back. Her rise through the ranks included stops at the Ministry of Health and the Treasury Board before she landed in the role of deputy minister of finance. She held that position for three years before giving notice last July that she would be joining Vancity, starting in September. When BCBusiness caught up with her in August, Vrooman was very much in transition. She and her husband had just begun renovations on their Victoria home when Vancity came calling, and the overhaul would have to be completed before they put their house on the market and moved to Vancouver. With the renovations nearing completion, Vrooman was in Vancouver, preparing to move into a Kits rental with her husband and young son, when she took our call. Did you initially plan on a career in public service when you were studying for a master’s in history? No. Actually, I planned to do a PhD in history. I had been looking at public-policy issues as part of my thesis and had been accepted to do a PhD at several institutions. I thought about it a little more and decided, “I don’t want to study this stuff after the fact. I want to go where the decisions actually are made.” That’s what led me to go into a career in government. As you rose through the ranks, did you envision that’s where you would spend the rest of your life? No. The wonderful thing about working for the provincial government is it’s an immensely diverse and intellectually challenging place to work. When I was deputy minister of finance, I could be looking at forestry policy issues in the morning, and then in the afternoon I’d be looking at child protection. But I think that the things that make it challenging and stimulating can make it stale over time. And so I had never planned on staying with the B.C. public service my entire career. Was there a specific point at which you decided it was time to make the leap to the private sector? I certainly wasn’t looking to leave. I really liked working in the public service. I loved the work of the Ministry of Finance and loved working with the minister of finance in particular. But we had made some significant achievements: a triple-A credit rating for the first time in over 20 years and what has been largely recognized as one of the most successful rounds of collective bargaining that’s ever been undertaken in the public sector. And then this opportunity came along; Vancity approached me and asked if I’d be interested. It was an opportunity that was simply too good to pass up. Government decisions are, by definition, political; there’s a very specific chain of command, and every decision has to be weighed against public approval. Are you looking forward to a change in that decision-making structure? In terms of the business, certainly running the Ministry of Finance was in many ways like a large financial institution – it’s the largest insurance company in Western Canada; it processes over $100 billion in cash transactions every year. The thing that is quite different, though, is that because the political element isn’t as prevalent in the private sector, you have far more opportunity to be creative. We were creative in the public sector as well, but sometimes that creativity could take a few years to actually come to a conclusion. What will you miss most about working with government? I’ll definitely miss the people. I had an excellent team at the Ministry of Finance. As taxpayers we’re very lucky to have the quality of professionals that we have in government and in the financial department in particular, so I will miss that. What I won’t miss, though, is – because of the need to make sure that you don’t make a mistake of any sort – the need to make sure that every angle has been looked at before you can take a step; risk aversion is how you describe it. I won’t miss that. The length of time to a decision can be very, very long in government. You’ve mentioned excellent relations with those you worked with in the government. Does that extend to Premier Campbell? Absolutely. It was Premier Campbell who approached me to take the position of deputy minister of finance. I had already been offered a job in a health authority before that and had actually accepted it. And he said, “No, no, no, you don’t want to do that. I really need you to help me do the work here.” He took a bit of a risk in appointing a young woman to a key position in finance. The fact that I have opportunities like the one I have at Vancity I owe to him. Are there any particular challenges you’re looking forward to taking on at Vancity, any projects you’re anxious to put your stamp on? There’s a lot that can be done in terms of continuing to ensure that Vancity is a leader. They were talking about the triple bottom line – financial, social and environmental – long before other organizations were. That spirit of leadership and innovation is prevalent in the organization, and I think that’s what’s going to take it through its next iteration. I’m absolutely thrilled to be part of it. How do you expect your daily life to change? You work long hours as a senior public servant, and I don’t expect that to change. One of the things that will be different is that Vancity is committed to a number of community organizations and community proj­ects, and I’ll get a chance to work more directly and visibly with those organizations. I’m looking forward to that.