Profile: Chris Catliff, president and CEO, BlueShore Financial

'No place like home' for credit union executive

Chris Catliff | Photo: Chung Chow

Chris Catliff figures that if there’s one character from TheWizard of Oz whose life journey most resembles his own, it’s Dorothy.

“There’s no place like home,” the BlueShore Financial CEO told Business in Vancouver after recounting years spent travelling around the globe as a youth.

But growing up in Vancouver’s Shaughnessy neighbourhood, he wasn’t convinced the West Coast would always be his home.

“Vancouver was too small a town,” said Catliff, whose credit union celebrates its 75th anniversary this month.

However, the big economic crash of 1981 was in motion just as he was preparing to graduate from the University of British Columbia. There wasn’t much work to be had in the city.

That’s when he gathered up some courage and began travelling to communes in China and the Soviet Union, looking for a better place to live.

The early 1980s also took him to an ashram in India, a kibbutz in Israel and similar communities in New Zealand and Samoa.

“I was rebelling,” Catliff said. “I saw some of my friends were not as caring about the community. They were just all about ‘How do I get a big job and make lots of money?’ And I was more socially oriented at the time, as often young people are.”

Time spent in the communes abroad persuaded him to rethink plans to pursue a career in law upon returning to B.C.

Instead, he went to work in Victoria as a legislative intern, meeting the woman who would become his wife.

“We often joke that all our friends got to meet in bars – we met at a legislative conference,” Catliff said.

It wasn’t until Expo 86, after he’d begun working at Vancity credit union, that Catliff realized he could have a real career in Vancouver now that his hometown was gaining global recognition.

“I didn’t have to go out to the world. The world was going to start coming to me,” he said.

A year later, he was offered a job in New York City at Shearson Lehman but he decided to stick by Vancity to focus on more socially oriented work.

“For years, I always rued my decision and was a little bit depressed about it,” he said. “Now, with hindsight, of course you know Lehman Brothers was the centre of everything bad that went on with the whole mortgage-backed security market.”

It may have been a subconscious decision on his part to stick with the more socially conscious credit union.

During the mid-1990s, while serving as president of Vancity Enterprises, he oversaw the development of 267 social housing units. He also brought online banking into the fold at Vancity through the acquisition of Citizens Bank.

By 2000, the board at North Shore Credit Union had taken notice of what Catliff was doing for Vancity. They hired him as president and CEO.

“They [North Shore’s board] wanted us to build what I think was more of a mini-Vancity,” he said. “It wasn’t going to work.”

Catliff determined that North Shore’s membership ranks, once dominated by workers at the docks, had changed and now consisted largely of commuters living in upscale homes.

“We were a blue-collar credit union, originally, that woke up in a white-collar world,” he said.

So for the next decade, the team at North Shore went about rebranding the company slowly and meticulously to shore up support among customers.

This included a new emphasis on a West Coast lifestyle, such as sponsoring marathons and the Whistler Cornucopia festival, as well as giving branches spa-like makeovers.

And a new name for North Shore Credit Union was a must-have for the rebranding to be successful, Catliff said.

“I knew we couldn’t get the votes we needed immediately because it was the grandfathers on the North Shore that voted and thought everything was perfect the way we were,” he said, adding only 19% of members were in favour of changing the name to BlueShore Financial in 2013.

So the credit union set out to launch an operating name that was separate from its legal name.

When the legal name of BlueShore Financial went to a vote in 2015, after Catliff and his team had spent two years pushing it, 84% of voting members approved it.

“It was a long process. It was high-risk, but in the end it worked out,” Catliff said.

As for the young man who thought Vancouver was too small a town, Catliff said it’s hard for him to even think about vacationing beyond Bowen Island or Whistler.

“My whole life has been a battle not to go to Toronto, because that’s where all the financial services are and that’s where the job offers always come from,” he said.

“We have something special here in Vancouver and we all need to work hard not to lose it.”