Forging ahead with clarity and confidence

Following the tumult of 2020, you could have expected that many organizations would see 2021 as a chance to catch their breath. Given that it seemed the world was beginning to come to grips with COVID-19, it would be reasonable to pause and recalibrate to new realities.  

While COVID-19 forced many businesses to course correct, First West was steadfast in its direction. We were confident that our vision and strategy remained relevant and on target. In fact, we held that 2021 was the right time to accelerate several strategic objectives designed to meet the evolving needs of our members and communities. And we knew—based on how we responded in 2020—that we possessed the fortitude, capability and courage to succeed.

If 2020 was a year that revealed First West’s depth of character and generosity of spirit, then 2021 was a year of moving forward with renewed resolve. It was a year of keeping our foot on the gas, of sharpened focus and hustling harder to continue building the strength of our credit union and securing our future.

Keeping our good thing growing

Last year marked an important milestone in First West’s history: we asked for members’ permission to apply to become a federally regulated credit union. They responded with a resounding yes.

In November 2021, members cast 26,235 votes on the special resolution to authorize First West to apply to become a federal credit union and 25,908 votes on the special resolution to adopt the new Bylaws. Of the members who voted, 84.2% voted in favour of First West applying to become a federal credit union and 84.1% voted in favour of adopting new Bylaws. This impressive turnout speaks volumes about the passion our members have for keeping First West’s good thing growing for generations to come.

We finished 2021 on a high note, submitting an application to the provincial regulator, BC Financial Services Authority (BCFSA), to obtain its consent to continue from provincial jurisdiction to federal jurisdiction. After receiving consent from BCFSA, the Office of the Superintendent of Financial Institutions (OSFI) will formally receive our application for review. This 6,000-page application is the culmination of several years’ worth of intense and incisive work by First West’s dedicated and talented employees. While we don’t anticipate becoming federally regulated before 2024, we are focused on fulfilling the remaining requirements—you can read more about this on page 9 of the annual report.

The financial strength of the credit union continued to build in 2021, in part due to the path toward becoming a federal credit union. Federal credit unions receive some of the highest levels of prudential oversight afforded to financial institutions in Canada and these stringent regulatory requirements protect our members’ interests. A significant part of this focus involved continued enhancement of First West’s liquidity and capital adequacy profiles to continue bringing them in alignment with OSFI’s rigorous requirements. Reflective of these efforts, our Long-Term Issuer Rating of BBB (high), Short-Term Issuer Rating and Short-Term Instruments Rating of R-1 (low) were again confirmed by credit rating agency DBRS Morningstar in 2021.

In September 2021, our Envision Financial division’s signature cause, The Full Cupboard, surpassed its goal of $1 million raised for local food banks.

We were also pleased to receive our first-ever ESG rating of 18.6 LOW from Sustainalytics, a leader in ESG evaluation. An ESG rating measures the environmental, social and governance risks to an organization and reflects how well—or how poorly—an organization is managing those risks in the operation of its business. Members can be proud of our low rating, which indicates that we’re equipped to anticipate future risks and opportunities, inclined to longer-term strategic thinking and focused on prioritizing long-term value creation over short term gain. Moreover, it reflects the good things we’ve been focused on to help members thrive: we’ve built robust cybersecurity to protect our members’ data and hard-earned money, increased access to banking through digital channels, recruited experienced, skilled and caring employees to create remarkable experiences for members, and more. For more on our ESG rating, see page 9 in Management’s Discussion and Analysis.

We also made substantial progress on our journey to become an end-to-end Agile enterprise. Essentially, Agile is a way of working that differs from traditional approaches—it aims to deliver value faster by introducing small improvements on a more regular basis. At First West, Agile gears our teams to maximize product and service value for members by empowering employees and teams to make timely, insightful decisions through regular user feedback cycles. The end result is quicker delivery of value-packed enhancements that better fit members’ needs. Agile thinking—focused on continuous, timely, incremental improvement—has quickly permeated the way we think about and approach many aspects of the credit union’s operation. This was never more apparent than in 2021, a year in which our teams confidently moved forward in creating value for members while remaining nimble and flexible in keeping our branches open and as safe as possible amid waves of the pandemic.

Here are just a few of the improvements Agile helped us deliver for members in 2021:

  • Refreshed, more intuitive online banking experience for retail and small business members
  • New and improved mobile app banking experience
  • Enhanced online security with two-step verification, further protecting members and First West against losses due to fraud
  • New, streamlined online membership account opening experience, providing choice and convenience to new members, complete with digital onboarding to ensure we get to know new members and understand their financial needs
  • Expanded the Digital Wealth Connector, which gives members the ability to schedule virtual or in-person appointments with their wealth advisors and includes notifications and ability to cancel or reschedule
  • Created a remote advisor capability to make it easier for members in rural locations to connect with an advisor by video
  • Improved business membership account opening experience, making it a more seamless experience for members
  • Annual savings of an estimated $365,000 by upgrading our legacy phone systems to Microsoft Teams Phone, a digital business communication solution that includes voice and video calling capabilities.

Agile represents a vital learning and development investment in our employees and teams—more than 100 employees have learned to work in Agile. Along similar lines, many employees at First West continue to grow by taking on new roles: 51% of all internal and external career opportunities are filled by current employees. This puts First West at nearly double the industry benchmark of 26% and speaks to our growth as an amazing place to work. We’re also excited about the two new Employee Network Groups (ENG) that launched in 2021, strengthening First West’s commitment to equity, inclusion and diversity. You can read more about this and other member and employee highlights on page 18 of Management’s Discussion and Analysis.

We’re incredibly proud too of the way we created value for members through wealth management planning and advice. Each year, we engage more and more members in conversations around their financial futures and goals—and in 2021 we saw demand for our trusted wealth advice continue to grow. Members showed their confidence in us, resulting in the credit union surpassing $550 million in net sales of licensed MFDA and IIROC investments. This milestone, an incredible year-over-year increase of more than 300%, speaks to the trusting, solution-focused relationships our advisors maintain with members. Looking ahead, we’re focused on bringing our expertise to even more members while continuing to hone our skills and knowledge to stay ahead of the evolving marketplace and anticipating our members’ needs.

Leading as a trusted community partner when it’s most needed

It’s an incredible honour to be part of an organization that is deeply rooted in giving back, an organization whose members embrace the spirit of neighbour helping neighbour. Our loyal members continue to make it possible for First West to help our communities thrive. This couldn’t have been truer in 2021, when the need for relief in our province escalated and we were able to answer the call, giving back more than we ever have in the history of the credit union. We activated our disaster relief funding more than once to support members and communities impacted by extreme weather events. First West donated more than $123,000 to Food Banks BC, with an additional $108,000 to agencies dedicated to relief efforts. Even more, our members trusted our community leadership and partnered with us in relief efforts, generously raising $287,500 to aid their neighbour British Columbians. We also committed $1 million to our Simple Generosity program, which supported members, non-profit partners and local businesses who continued to face unprecedented challenges and demands caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Our signature cause, The Full Cupboard and Feed the Valley, aimed at raising food, funds and awareness on food insecurity in our communities continued to hit milestones in 2021, way ahead of time. Be sure to learn more about this highlight and the other ways we helped build our communities in 2021, on pages 23 – 24 of Management’s Discussion and Analysis.

Keeping the gear in “drive” to thrive in 2022

Receiving members’ approval to apply to become a federal credit union made 2021 a defining year for our credit union, but we realize the year was largely another difficult one for many British Columbians, including our members and employees. Yet, in the face of challenges and uncertainty for so many, we remain committed to our vision to help our members and communities thrive. In fact, the adversity of 2021 strengthened our resolve to stay focused on our vision and mission rather than taking a pause, to build on what we learned in 2020, to continue to create value for our members, communities and employees, and to strengthen First West for future generations. We owe so much to our members who make it possible for us to provide expert advice, competitive products and services, leading digital banking tools and so much more. On behalf of the First West executive team and the Board of Directors, thank you, for trusting our vision and choosing First West. Your belief and investment in your credit union has positioned us well to keep our good thing growing in 2022 and beyond.

Shawn Neumann, Board Chair  |  Launi Skinner, CEO