2020 CUES Outstanding Chief Executive Garth Warner views credit union leadership as an intergenerational trust.
Garth Warner, CCD, has spent his entire 40-year credit union career working for $17.2 billion Servus Credit Union and its predecessor organizations in Alberta. In the 12 years since he became president/CEO, he has led the CU through its greatest challenge—a tumultuous merger that threatened the future of the organization—emerging on the other side to achieve a period of impressive growth and expansion.
Warner has been named CUES 2020 Outstanding Chief Executive, an honor that puts the capstone on his career just prior to his planned retirement on April 30, 2021. Throughout his time at Servus CU, Warner has held fast to the cooperative principles of the credit union movement, building upon the successes of those who came before and paving the way for a new generation of leadership.
“I believe that a credit union is not like other businesses; it’s an intergenerational trust,” says Warner. “As credit union leaders, we have the privilege of being the stewards of these great organizations for just a short period of time. The people who came before us hired us, trained us and shared their knowledge and wisdom with us. As they retired, they passed the torch on to us. Now it’s incumbent upon us to prepare the younger generation to take the torch from us when it’s our turn to retire.”
A Cooperative Spirit
Warner began working at Servus CU, then known as Edmonton Savings & Credit Union, as a personal banker in 1981. Given his family history, Warner’s career in the credit union system may have seemed preordained.
“I grew up in Saskatchewan, which is often referred to as the heartland of the cooperative movement in Canada,” he recalls. “In my family, we grew up thinking that everyone belonged to the credit union and shopped at the co-op.”
That mindset came from Warner’s father, who was a strong supporter of co-ops and the credit union movement. The elder Warner wasn’t too keen when his son moved to Alberta and took a job working for a finance company rather than a credit union.
“My father was after me to quit working for the ‘bandits’ and go work for the good guys,” Warner says. “He was a pretty happy man two years later, when I started working for the credit union at their Bonnie Doon branch in Edmonton.”
Warner was just 22 years old when he took the job at Edmonton Savings & Credit Union. Four years later, he became a branch manager. “One of the nicest memories I have is how proud my father was when I became a branch manager,” he says. “At the time, I thought, ‘It can’t get any better.’”
But things did get better. By age 30, Warner was named district manager in charge of 12 branches. Four years later, he advanced to assistant vice president. “I was fortunate to be in an organization that trained me, educated me and promoted me,” he reports.
At age 37, Warner was promoted to VP, contingent on a commitment to earn a master’s degree. Because he had been so focused on his career, he hadn’t completed his undergraduate degree. However, thanks to his extensive work experience, he was exempted from that requirement as he enrolled in the prestigious MBA Financial Services Program at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. “I believe I was the only exemption they had ever made for that program, so I got quite lucky in that regard,” he recalls.
It took 5 1/2 years for Warner to complete the program, which featured a blend of remote and face-to-face learning. With his MBA in hand, Warner continued his impressive career trajectory, becoming SVP at age 46, COO at 48 and CEO at 50.
“I feel I benefited greatly coming up through the ranks, because even today I can relate to what employees are experiencing and understand what they’re telling me about where improvements are needed,” Warner says.
Managing a Crisis
Warner’s rise to the position of CEO in 2009 came at a time of crisis for the credit union. Servus CU had recently merged with two other large credit unions in Alberta, creating the first province-wide credit union in Canada. Unfortunately, the merger occurred on Oct. 31, 2008, just as the global banking crisis was deepening and many of the world’s stock markets were collapsing.
“The timing couldn’t have been worse,” Warner recalls. “We went into a terrible downturn and recession with high unemployment, bankruptcies and delinquency rates.”
Exacerbating the financial strain was the difficult job of integrating three distinctly different CUs into one cohesive organization. There was considerable turmoil, leading to dissatisfied members and rebellious employees. Internal disagreements spilled into the public, resulting in unflattering media coverage.
“The merger was not working, and that’s when the board asked me to step in and become CEO,” Warner reports.
Warner and his team were able to right the ship by focusing on creating a unified culture and integrating disparate banking systems and processes into a well-functioning whole. They tackled morale issues by bringing employees together to identify shared values and a common vision for serving their members.
From that difficult period, Servus CU emerged to become the most profitable and best capitalized large credit union in Canada. With Warner as CEO, assets have increased by 81% and total equity has grown fivefold to $1.6 billion. Servus CU now ranks as Canada’s fourth largest credit union, serving 385,000 members with 100-plus branches in 59 communities throughout Alberta.
“I’m proud that not only are we doing well financially, but we’re also doing a good job in looking after our members and our employees,” says Warner. “We were able to achieve the highest member satisfaction levels of any financial institution in the country and some of the highest member engagement scores for any type of organization.”
CUES member John Lamb, CCD, board chair for Servus CU, considers the merger of the three legacy credit unions a foundational achievement characteristic of Warner’s leadership. Lamb regards Warner as someone who leads with integrity and courage and who has provided the CU with unwavering dedication and hard work.
“The blending of the organizations and the creation of a new progressive culture is fundamental to all that we do today for our members,” Lamb says. “It was not easy, but—under Garth’s leadership—the synergies of the merger have proven to be a platform for all of the subsequent successful years.”
Oriented on Values
In explaining Servus CU’s success, Warner says it’s important to understand the organization’s roots. The credit union was founded in 1938, when the world was in the throes of the Great Depression. CUs had begun to emerge in Alberta and elsewhere to give those with nowhere else to bank a helping hand.
Edmonton Savings & Credit Union thrived under that cooperative model, growing into the largest credit union in Alberta and changing names along the way to Capital City Savings in 1987 and Servus Credit Union in 2006. It was only during the concurrent challenges of the 2008 mega-merger and the 2007-2009 financial crisis that the CU became unmoored from its founding principles.
“We had gotten ourselves into a situation where we’d lost sight of our values—what we should be and how we should behave,” Warner says. “There were a number of issues centering around a lack of integrity, transparency and leadership resulting in the loss of trust with members, employees and communities.
“Many promises were made to employees that were not delivered,” he adds. “Focus shifted away from what was good for the members to severe cost reductions and planned staff layoffs.”
Warner and his team responded to this crisis by appointing 200 “values ambassadors” from the ranks of Servus CU employees. “We sent these ambassadors to our locations throughout the province—every branch, every department—to ask employees what they thought our values should be,” Warner reports.
Using this feedback, the values ambassadors created a list of 16 values, which was presented at an employee gathering held at an Edmonton convention center. Nearly 1,700 of the credit union’s 2,200 employees came from around the province to discuss which values they felt most exemplified the goals of the organization.
“It was a very collaborative, bottom-up type of process,” Warner reports. “Every employee, as well as our board and our members, gave feedback on what our values should be.”
Ultimately, the process identified seven key organizational values: community, fairness, integrity, investing in our people, life/work balance, member service and teamwork.
“All of our decisions are benchmarked against these values,” Warner says. “We write our policies reflecting these values. Our strategic plans are guided by them. We’ve made the commitment that ‘No matter what action we take, we are going to hold true to our values, because this is who we are.’ It has worked very powerfully for us.”
The values have helped unite the CU’s employees behind a common goal of making a difference in the lives of their members. “We have a noble purpose, which is to shape our members’ financial fitness,” Warner says. “That’s part of our vision for building a better world—one member at a time.”
Servus CU’s direct involvement in the community likewise focuses on building a better world. The organization contributes to various charities and community causes, donating over $2 million each year to the 59 communities it serves. In addition, Warner ensures that the CU stays connected to the greater credit union community by encouraging employee participation in such organizations as CUES, the World Council of Credit Unions, the Canadian Credit Union Association, the Credit Union Central of Alberta and the Large Credit Union Coalition.
Warner insists that CUs can hold fast to their values while also achieving strong financial results. “I believe that we can be good stewards of our credit union, good stewards of our members, good stewards of our communities and still be performance-driven,” he says.
Being a good steward means staying true to the cooperative principles upon which the organization was built—something that Warner regularly communicates to employees. As CUES member and Servus CU COO Dion Linke observes, Warner’s deep convictions about supporting the credit union system are designed to ensure that the cooperative model will flourish.
“I regularly see Garth use the cooperative principles and our own values to help make complex decisions,” Linke says. “This is a good lesson for many of us, because there are a lot of ambiguities in our environment; however, utilizing your values and cooperative principles to help determine the best path forward is something that I will hold in my own toolkit.”
The board likewise has benefited from Warner’s strong emphasis on cooperative principles. “Garth’s intimate knowledge of the credit union system has added to the board’s broader outlook and understanding of the oversight of our cooperative financial organization,” says Lamb. “This, naturally, is a tremendous benefit to our members.”
A Generous Mentor
As CEO, Warner has placed strong emphasis on internal training and professional development for Servus CU employees.
“We have really good people and train them and inspire them to do great things,” says Warner. “We have deep succession planning going through all levels of our organization, with multiple candidates ready for each new position.”
The last three years have proven just how well the emphasis on succession planning has worked. During that time, there was an almost complete generational transition of the executive team that encompassed five retirements. Of those five positions, four were filled with internal candidates.
“We also have four or five great internal candidates who will be applying for the CEO position when I retire,” Warner reports. “I think that speaks volumes for the success we’ve had in developing and investing in our employees.”
In keeping with his goal to prepare the next generation for leadership, Warner is generous in imparting his knowledge to others in the organization. “He is a great teacher and mentor, selflessly sharing his wisdom with our organization and those of us that work closely with him,” says Linke. “He has created a unique culture at Servus whereby employee engagement thrives, [and] member satisfaction and member loyalty remain high.”
Linke adds that Warner inspires his employees to think about the credit union’s future—not just their own career paths. “His guidance, feedback and vision are … centered around the idea that our role is to provide a stronger credit union for the next generation.”
Caroline Ziober, chief member experience officer, appreciates how Warner’s exemplary leadership skills have moved the credit union forward. Ziober has worked with Warner since he started in the credit union system almost 40 years ago, so she has been able to observe the many skills he brings to his leadership position.
“If I had to describe his leadership style in a few words, it would be ‘results-driven’ but with an unwavering commitment to ensuring our cooperative values are always at the forefront of our decision-making process,” Ziober says.
Ziober contends that the economic challenges and threats that Servus CU has faced would have prompted some leaders to sacrifice their values. “However, Garth never lost sight of the importance of preserving the unique culture we have built and the relationship between employee engagement and maintaining a competitive advantage.”
A Servant Leader
With retirement on the horizon, Warner is looking forward to pursuing some leisure activities that he had to put on the back burner during his busy career. He’ll have more time to read for pleasure as well as for golfing, swimming and eventually traveling in a post-pandemic world. He and his wife, Susan, have two grown children, daughter Lindsay and son Graham, who live on their own and attend university. However, Warner and Susan still have a full household with three dogs—standard poodles named Theo, Obi and Spartan.
In his remaining months at Servus CU, Warner will continue to lead as he always has—with an eye toward what he can do for others. “I very much believe in a servant leadership approach, where leaders are there to serve their employees and their members,” he says. “Oftentimes, it involves coaching from behind the scenes, but there are other times when you have to step forward and say, ‘Follow me—this is where we’re going.’”
The best leaders are those who get everyone involved in working toward a common goal, Warner concludes. “I very much believe that organizations cannot be led by one person. As a leader, I need to support all the people around me in order to deliver on our values, our vision and our noble purpose.” cues icon
A Helping Hand From EARLL
When people ask CUES member Garth Warner, CCD, to describe his philosophy and style of leadership, he tells them about his friend EARLL. As president/CEO of $17.2 billion Servus Credit Union, Alberta, Warner developed the EARLL acronym to describe five key attributes: empowerment, accountability, risk-taking, learning and leadership.
“I believe in empowering people, but the flip side of empowerment is accountability—if we empower you to make decisions, you have to be accountable,” Warner says. “We’ll help you and support you and train you, but we expect you to work hard to make good decisions.”
Good decision-making goes hand-in-hand with responsible risk-taking, Warner adds. “If we don’t take risks, we’re out of business, but we have to do it well to add value to the credit union and add value for our members.”
The two Ls in EARLL—learning and leadership—also go hand-in-hand. “We need leadership at all levels of the organization, and we can’t have that unless we allow our employees to learn,” Warner says. “CEOs can’t lead by themselves. They need everybody pulling in the same direction in order to do good things.”
Based in Missouri, Diane Franklin is a longtime contributor to Credit Union Management magazine.