Leading a new domain

January 24, 2012
in People
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As an eight-year-old, Shawn Neumann remembers going down to the local Clearbrook Credit Union branch to open a savings account.

“My grandfather was one of the founders of Clearbrook Credit Union,” says Shawn. His grandfather was account #4 at the credit union, which would grow into First Heritage Savings and Envision credit unions, eventually becoming First West Credit Union. Shawn deposited his first few dollars in 1980 and he’s been a member ever since.

With that Clearbrook account, Shawn has been connected with First West Credit Union since its very beginning. Today he’s the chair of the board of directors, a role he stepped into in May 2011. And though he’s the youngest member of the board, Shawn’s been involved in the governance of the credit union for 13 years. During that time, the credit union’s approach has meshed with his entrepreneurial spirit.

“Historically, the board and leadership of our organizations, both Envision and Valley First, have been very entrepreneurial and flexible,” says Shawn. He fits right in.

At 25 he started his own business with a $6,000 line of credit from the credit union. Now, one of the largest technology companies in B.C., three offices, just under 50 employees and cross-border operations, his web agency, Domain7, maintains a strong, mutually beneficial bond with the credit union. “As we’ve grown, the credit union has been there to support us all the way,” Shawn reflects. “In turn, they’ve earned our loyalty.”

Now, Neumann’s poised to give back to the credit union on an even greater level as he brings his business savvy to his role as board chair.

“Creating a culture of strong, flexible, and innovative teams—from the top down—is critical to success,” he says. “If I’ve learned anything in leading Domain 7, it’s that agility and creativity is vital to seizing opportunities.

Shawn uses words like “nimble” and “flexible” in describing the credit union’s strength in today’s business environment. “First West’s business model and the way we’re locally focused positions us well for today’s business realities. We’re getting back to the basics of customer service and appreciating small- and medium-sized business, including those based on technology and intellectual capital,” he says. “First West has the economy that comes with size but the flexibility and responsiveness of a smaller operation—there’s huge opportunity there.”

Recognizing opportunity is something Shawn knows well. His Domain7 has been named one of B.C.'s fastest-growing companies and he’s made Business in Vancouver’s “Top 40 under 40” list profiling B.C.'s outstanding entrepreneurs and professionals.

“It’s important for us as directors to challenge our perspectives and fight off complacency,” says Shawn. “There’s a tendency to think that financial services is a traditional sector, there’s nothing new to provide. When we fall prey to that mindset, we risk missing opportunities to stay relevant and competitive.”

True to form, Shawn’s already planning his next foray. He’s looking for opportunities to give back with his resources in Nepal, where he was born. “There’s so much we get in our western culture that gives us such opportunity and immense flexibility and freedom. It seems like it comes through hard work, but a lot of it is circumstantial and where we happen to grow up and live.”

He had already left a mark in Nepal as a university student, when he and a friend developed health education videos for the out-patient department of a Nepali hospital (which sees some 800,000 patients a year).

Giving back where there is need is a bit of a theme for Shawn. His first major job out of university was doing communications work for a US-based non-profit—a micro-credit international development agency, which became Domain7’s first client.

Part of Shawn’s desire to give back comes from strong family values, lived out by his grandfather and his parents, who chose to work in rural Nepal and also founded a liberal arts college in Eastern Europe. They are his mentors, and he regularly brainstorms with his parents, as well as his coworkers and board members. “When you’re stuck it’s good to get unstuck, and that usually means talking to people.”

When asked what he’d be doing if he wasn’t in his current role, Shawn says, “I really have no picture of what the alternate Shawn would be.” He’s doing what he’s meant to.  “It’s so interesting that how and where we end up is just the culmination of so many small choices,” he says. Choices like opening that first credit union savings account as an eight-year-old. Granted, it was partly his grandfather’s influence, but for Shawn, that one decision was a door to a wide world of opportunities.

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