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Building markets and consensus

By Chris Atchison | June 13, 2013
Building markets and consensus
Monique Leroux

At first glance, those who follow Monique Leroux for a day could easily mistake her for a busy politician. That’s because she spends a great deal of time sharing insights, communicating key messages and building consensus among stakeholders in everything from corporate boardrooms to small-town coffee shops – all while working to constantly re-imagine her organization’s road map for success. And although she was elected to her current position, Leroux is anything but a politician. Instead, she’s one of the country’s leading financial executives.

As Chair of the Board, President and Chief Executive Officer of Desjardins Group – Canada’s largest and most respected financial co-operative group – Leroux is responsible for managing the growth and ongoing success of an organization that ranks as the world’s fifth largest financial co-operative, boasting more than 5.6 million members and assets of nearly $200-billion. 

With nearly 45,000 employees, more than 5,000 elected officers and a full suite of financial products and services including both personal and business banking, wealth management, life and health insurance, property and casualty insurance and brokerage services, it would be easy to assume that Leroux might be satisfied enough with the current market position of Desjardins to take her foot off of the proverbial growth pedal.
 
But it doesn’t take long to realize that the CEO is not one to rest on her growth-driving laurels. Indeed, Leroux maintains a laser-like focus on constantly improving everything from Desjardins Group’s market share to service offering, but with a decidedly different approach from her big bank colleagues on Bay Street – or even those in her own backyard. That’s because running a co-operative presents very different opportunities from managing a capital-focused financial institution such as one of Canada’s major banks or insurance companies.

“A co-operative is an association of people who have decided to join forces to work on a project or provide services to their community or themselves,” Leroux explains. “It’s a different business model from a capital and governance point of view because it’s a one-member, one-vote system, so it’s a democratic governance process.”

Leroux argues that the Desjardins Group’s unique structure offers benefits over traditional top-down corporate governance systems because it allows new ideas and innovations to blossom and gain traction at the grassroots level, helping to ensure efficient and effective deployment of those ideas. Collaboration, in other words, is built into the process from the earliest stages and among individual members who are directly reflective of the majority of Desjardins Group’s customer base – not just wealthy shareholders.

But along with that opportunity comes a major corporate challenge – namely, building consensus. Confused? Consider that in most financial organizations, major strategic decisions are made at the executive level with a far more limited consultation process. That can speed the process and allow for quick changes in everything from product and service offerings to staffing levels.

While co-operative executives are empowered to make necessary decisions to respond to market developments or macro challenges such as recessions, it takes a democratic approach to enact major policy shifts. And democracy, as any leader knows, can be very messy. It’s the reason why Leroux’s powers of collaboration, communication and influence are often the most useful items in her managerial toolkit.

“When there is a situation where you need to make important decisions because there is a financial crisis or something major coming in the marketplace, you need to be convinced of the right direction yourself and explain your decision to members, or the board of directors who are there to represent the members, and build consensus,” she explains. “It takes more time and you need to balance the need for consensus with the need to align the organization with the realities of the marketplace.”

At Desjardins Group’s recent annual general meeting, for example, Leroux identified three strategic priorities she believes will better position the organization for future success: improving service and driving new efficiencies, while propelling organization-wide growth.

To improve the customer experience, branch-level managers across the Desjardins Group have implemented a feedback process to survey clients following interactions ranging from simple teller transactions to mortgage negotiations. At a higher level, Leroux recently commissioned a leadership circle of 12 of the organization’s most promising vice-presidents to reimagine and redefine exactly what it means to be a Desjardins member or customer. The goal: highlighting key competitive advantages that can be leveraged to attract new members – specifically, young and new Canadians.

Technological innovation has also been very much on Leroux’s mind of late. The CEO understands that her organization needs to keep pace with other financial institutions in order to remain competitive and address what she feels is a sea change in her industry’s role.

“You can see financial services as being a money business, but I think it’s more and more about being an information business,” she asserts. “We have information about people and we help them improve their lives. That’s the nature of the financial services industry for individuals right now. For business we need to facilitate the way they do business, but it’s not just about manipulating money like it was in the past.”

It’s the reason why Desjardins Group is constantly working on upgrading and improving many of its legacy technology systems, as well as developing efficiency-boosting collaborative partnerships with other co-operative organizations. Case in point – Desjardins Group recently reached an agreement with Crédit Mutuel-CIC Group of France to create Monetico International, a Montreal-based payment platform that will serve the merchant clients of both institutions. Another aspect of technological innovation is sharing information. Last fall, Desjardins spearheaded an international summit for co-operatives in Quebec City that brought together close to 3,000 participants from 91 countries. Leroux and her team built relationships with colleagues across Canada and abroad to share insights and best practices to enhance their service offerings.

While that kind of collaboration between competitors might be anathema among Canada’s largest corporations, Leroux points out that financial co-operatives tend to play by a very different set of rules. “The real competition is not between co-operatives, it’s with other large corporate organizations,” she says. “That collaboration provides an opportunity for us to work together and develop the co-operative model as an alternative solution for the marketplace.”

To spur bottom-line growth, Leroux is once again turning to partnerships and innovation as catalysts. Earlier this year, for example, Desjardins Group and Vancouver-based Coast Capital Savings announced the signing of a co-operative agreement by which the two organizations have agreed to share expertise in product and service delivery, while driving new revenue growth opportunities for each other in their respective markets. To fuel the growth across its small business portfolio – Desjardins Group is the leading lender to small and medium-sized businesses in Quebec – the organization recently developed a tool for small business owners, specifically those who lack business succession plans or opportunities, to create co-operatives among their employees, a concept called worker shareholder co-operative. “This allows entrepreneurs who normally wouldn’t be able to sell their company or do not want to see it fall into foreign hands to have their own employees take it over,” Leroux explains.

Of course, developing new products and providing better service to her members and clients isn’t just Leroux’s focus as a CEO, it’s her passion and ties into her long-term vision for Desjardins Group: to strengthen those all-important relationships with community members both at home and in burgeoning new markets across Canada.
“When you do things like your competitors, you’ll disappear,” she stresses. “Looking forward I would certainly like to see Desjardins remain very close to communities even as we develop a very strong network of partnerships around the world. I think our co-operative DNA has to remain vibrant because it’s what makes us unique.”

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