Peace, justice and shared prosperity are not ideas one would typically associate with any banking organization, but for Kindred Credit Union, it’s precisely at the core of what it does. It’s those same values that drew Brent Zorgdrager to the organization, first as a customer, later as a volunteer on the board of directors and, eventually, as an employee who became CEO.
And after nine years in the senior positions, Zorgdrager has decided to pass over the reins of responsibility to new hands, confident he’s leaving a thriving and honest organization behind as he does.
“I’ve had a multifaceted relationship,” notes Zorgdrager. “It’s been long, it’s been on different sides of the table: from customer to volunteer to another kind of volunteer, and then crossing from the board side to management. So it’s been a delight; it also means it’s not a decision I made flippantly.”
Zorgdrager truly believes in the modus operandi of Kindred and the work that it does. On the surface, Kindred Credit Union operates just like a bank, offering all the same services that the traditional big banks offer.
The one major exception, however, is that at a credit union, every member of the bank is also a part owner. A percentage of Kindred’s profits are shared with its members, meaning profits stay local rather than accumulating in a few select bank accounts, while members also have the option to choose the direction of the company.
It’s that economic parity and that equality, says Zorgdrager, that really makes the credit union an attractive alternative to the standard banking system
“Don’t you want to be part of a financial system where you have a say? As a member, you have a vote. You know how much the CEO is paid. He’s not paid a whole year’s average salary by 9:05 the first day of January,” he asks, referencing the findings of a Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives report on the highest paid CEOs in Canada.
The credit model is a fairly old idea, with Kindred itself being founded 50 years ago. At the time, the impetus for a locally owned and funded bank came from communities that couldn’t get access to regular banking services like today, he explains. But while it’s an old idea, in today’s climate, as wage disparity grows and wealth increasingly becomes concentrated in fewer hands, the model is more relevant than ever.
“What we think, in the way of modern activities, relatively recent in terms of things like the Occupy movement and social media, [is] that in many ways the credit union system is kind of the ideal solution and alternative that people are seeking to overcome a lot of the objections to the big banks,” says Zorgdrager.
“So it is a good time for credit unions. We’re trying to as a group get our word out that we don’t have to start over. Just join a credit union, and join a new form of economic democracy through how your money is handled and affect what you’re contributing to through that movement.”
The biggest challenge facing credit unions today might just be a lack of awareness: people simply don’t know what credit unions are, and that’s something Zorgdrager has been trying to change.
During his time at Kindred, Zorgdrager has managed a growing company which, in turn, has allowed the organization to provide better service to the community. It was a conscious decision by the company, explains Zorgdrager, to focus on growth and the membership.
“Why is that important? It’s not growth for growth sake. We have built out a full service offering to our members across our eight branches. Sometimes you have to build out your competency, your staffing and your capabilities to prove to members, current and future, that you are credible,” he explains.
“And now it was time to add some volume, to pay for that investment of additional capabilities.”
In 2016, Zorgdrager presided over Kindred’s name change from the Mennonite Savings and Credit Union. It was an important decision, he explains, to open up Kindred to the wider community, as a lot of people perceived the credit union to be exclusive to the Mennonite community.
“We wanted to grow more quickly. And the biggest [obstacle] that we had encountered in the last six years or seven years at that time was people saying, ‘We love what you do. Your products are amazing, the way you look at finance is different and refreshing, but I’m not a Mennonite, so I can’t join you.’”
Kindred still maintains its strong roots in its Mennonite tradition, with a focus on promoting peace and community well-being, but he explains that the organization wanted to be inclusive of the larger community.
With the company on new and firm footing, Zorgdrager will be leaving Kindred in a bright place. He still has a year left in his position as CEO while the board searches for a replacement. He plans to take some time deciding what he wants to do next, and how best to serve his community. More than anything else, it’s his principles of peace and justice and individual dignity that will guide the way.