“Treat people fairly and give people the right opportunities.” It’s a recurring phrase for Paul von Saarn. He wants to bring out the best in people and situations, and it’s what he does everyday in his roles as senior vice-president of enterprise risk management and chief credit officer at First West. If he wasn’t helping fund today’s go-getters and entrepreneurs in B.C., he’d likely be in Ghana, assisting credit unions there like he did as a mentor last year.
Some would say that kind of charity work is risky business, but for an old financial services pro like Paul, who left his native Germany in his early 20s to come to North America, risk is not to be feared but managed and taken advantage of.
Take First West Capital, the new line of business he’s started for the credit union. It’s high-risk, high-return lending—something the credit union once shied away from. Since opening the doors in 2011, First West Capital has been busy striking what are traditionally no-go deals: management buy-outs and financing for tech companies, a diamond wholesaler and the expansion of a film-animation studio.
“With traditional lending criteria, none of these deals would have been done prior to opening up this line of business,” says Paul. “This higher-risk lending really meets a need for well-run, successful businesses and their owners.”
Aside from credit, Paul is fully involved in all aspects of the credit union’s risk management activities, balancing the credit union’s risk appetite with the desire to make access to services simple for members, suppliers and other business partners.
He’s also played a part in operations, leasing and other areas throughout the organization and gained valuable insight in the internal workings of the credit union, from its beginnings as Delta Credit Union through to Envision and now as First West.
Ultimately, for Paul, it comes back to making a difference in the financial life of the credit union’s members. Strength and support in numbers (with over $6 billion in assets) means enhanced services and products for members, while retaining the legacy and familiarity of established brands.
Paul’s adventurous side keeps him travelling, from North Africa to the South Pacific. Next on his list is Bhutan, where he hopes to do some good through the efforts of a non-profit organization. He says getting involved this way is different.
“It opens one’s eyes to different societies and lifestyles and shows us how well we live here,” says Paul. “It’s a really good eye-opener to other cultures and other ways of thinking.”
Makes sense, since keeping his eyes open to fresh ideas and new perspectives is what Paul does on a daily basis at First West.
“Sometimes people call me unconventional because if there’s an interesting idea I’ll pursue it,” he says. “I think that’s because risk is inherent in the unconventional and most people aren’t risk takers—it’s not natural…but a calculated risk can make all the difference in the world.”