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Leading a major financial cooperative: profile of Desjardins' Monique Leroux
This article by Andrew Bibby, in a slightly different form, was first published by the Guardian's Social Enterprise website, 2012
As the cooperative movement globally tries to pull off the ambitious trick of converting this year's UN International Year of Co-operatives into the planned “ Cooperative Decade ”, two women are at the forefront of the action. One is Dame Pauline Green, the leader in the 1990s of the social democratic group of MEPs in the European Parliament, and then from 2001 the first head of Co-operatives UK , and now, as President of the International Co-operative Alliance ( ICA ), a tireless global advocate for cooperative business. The other is the French-Canadian Monique Leroux.
Cooperatives worldwide, and especially Monique Leroux's mighty Desjardins Group which she has led since 2008, can be grateful that she did not follow her original intention and become a concert pianist. A talented musician who studied as a young woman at the conservatoire in Québec, she eventually chose a more orthodox career and qualified as an accountant. Seventeen years followed at Ernst and Young, then came a senior management appointment to the Royal Bank of Canada followed by a similar post at the Canadian media company Quebecor. And then, in 2001 when she was in her late forties, she moved to the cooperative sector, and to a senior post at Desjardins. The top job came to her seven years later, and earlier this year she was endorsed again for a second four-year term as President and CEO of what is the world's fifth biggest financial services cooperative.
Leroux has become a passionate advocate of the cooperative business model. This is the time, she told delegates at Manchester 's recent Cooperatives United event, for cooperatives to assert themselves on the world stage. “Cooperatives are a key part of the solution to the present crisis,” she claimed.
Desjardins itself is a major player in the Canadian economy. It has around 44,000 employees, assets of CAD 190 bn (£120 bn) and annual income of around CAD 11bn. Constituted as a federation of several hundred credit unions (mainly in Québec province but also in other parts of Canada ), the Desjardins Group is also an important household and life insurer in the Canadian market. It has a democratic structure which, with over five thousand elected officers, puts even the UK 's Co-operative Group's complicated democracy in the shade. It also has its own international development NGO in Développement International Desjardins , DID.
Ask Monique Leroux for her priorities for her next four-year term and the first thing she emphasises is the need to stay close to the five million or so Desjardins credit union members and clients and to improve the services they receive. She adds that this is a principle which sounds simple to achieve but which can be complicated in practice, as people increasing interact through phones and the internet rather than visiting their neighbouring caisse (credit union savings bank). One of her first acts as President was to reorganise and simplify Desjardins' way of working in order to improve its strategic development and performance, and she emphasises the need for cooperatives to be ready to embrace change. “All cooperatives need to be agile, to be innovative and to deliver strong performance for the long term,” she says.
Desjardins has recently begun to strengthen its position outside francophone Canada and links with some of the major credit unions in the rest of the country might well be on Leroux's wish list for the future. In the meantime, the recent acquisition of Calgary-based insurer and bank Western Financial provides an important bridgehead into anglophone Canada .
Leroux says that other take-overs would be considered, but only if they fit Desjardins' growth strategy. “We don't want acquisitions just for the sake of it,” she adds. She stresses instead the potential for cooperatives to grow their businesses through partnership agreements with other cooperatives, rather than through the traditional M&A route favoured by corporate raiders. Desjardins has already begun to explore these possibilities, with a recent cooperative agreement with French bank Crédit Mutuel . As Leroux points out, several hundred of her Canadian business clients operate in European markets, and the tie-up allows Desjardins to increase the services it offers them. Conversely, Crédit Mutuel can use the partnership agreement to service French businesses active in the Canadian market.
It was perhaps her sense of the growing importance in a globalising economy of greater interaction between larger cooperatives which led Desjardins to host the cooperative Summit , held in October in Québec City . The Summit represented a major financial and organisational undertaking for her cooperative (the total budget, Canadian sources suggest, was approaching ten million dollars) but the event is generally seen to have been highly successful, with almost three thousand participants taking part. Monique Leroux has now offered to do the whole thing all over again, in conjunction with the ICA , in late 2014. Her vision, it is becoming clear, is for a sort of cooperative Davos , a World Cooperative Forum where the world's cooperative business leaders can come together for in-depth debate and business networking.
In between directing her cooperative and overseeing arrangements for the Québec summit, Leroux also found time this year to author a short book on the early days of her cooperative. Alphonse Desjardins, the founding father of the French Canadian credit union movement, was born in 1854 in Lévis (the small town across the St Lawrence river from Québec city where the Desjardins Group is still based) and, shocked by the extortionate interest rates charged by the late nineteenth century Canadian equivalent of loan sharks, started the first neighbourhood based credit union in Lévis in 1900. The story of his efforts is one which Monique Leroux clearly finds inspiring – although she also acknowledges the (rather less well-known) efforts put in by his wife Dorimène, who kept the vision of a network of credit unions alive after Alphonse's death in 1920.
If it is still unusual today to find a major financial institution led by a woman, the reason could be, according to Monique Leroux, precisely because Desjardins is a cooperative. The cooperative's President/CEO is chosen democratically in a very open process by an electoral college of over 250 delegates. “I'm not sure I would have been chosen by a [conventional Board] nominating committee,” she says. She is not necessarily convinced however by the prescriptive quota approach being discussed in the European union to achieve more women Board members, preferring to argue for targets instead. Desjardins is currently working to achieve better gender balance among its elected officers, for example.
Her role as host at the Québec summit and her guest presentations at Co-operatives United have propelled her, and her cooperative, into the limelight. “We need greater visibility of cooperatives' achievements,” she says. “We are people-focused businesses, committed to our communities for the long-term”.
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