The View From Here: Credit Where It’s Due

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Volodymyr Kish.

The Ukrainian Credit Union (UCU) is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year. In 1944, 26 members of the Ukrainian National Federation (UNF) in Toronto came together and formed the Ukrainian (Toronto) Credit Union with only a few thousand dollars in assets on deposit. By the end of that year, membership had grown to 91 members and the credit union had issued a total of nine loans totaling just under $18,000. It operated one hour a week on Friday evenings on the UNF premises at 300 Bathurst St. It took over a decade for it to reach its first $1 Million in assets.

Who would have thought back in 1944 that the UCU would eventually grow to over 25,000 members, sixteen branches and service points covering all of Ontario, and an asset size that is on the threshold of reaching $1 Billion. Over the past 75 years the UCU has become an integral part of the Ukrainian community throughout Ontario, and though it was founded by the UNF, it has broadened its appeal and become a truly broad-based financial institution.

Over the years, it has acquired or merged with a significant number of church-based credit unions, including St. Mary’s Dormition (Mississauga), St. George’s (Oshawa), St. Demetrius (Etobicoke), and So-Use (Orthodox). It has also merged with local Ukrainian community credit unions in St. Catharines, London, Windsor, Sudbury and Thunder Bay. Also joining the UCU family were the Ukrainian People’s Home and Plast credit unions.

Initially, the UCU was run by volunteers and the first part time clerk was not hired until 1950 when the credit union moved to its first permanent premises at 297 College St. The first full time employee only began working in 1956 and the first manager was not hired until 1968.

From that point on, growth became exponential. In 1972 the credit union purchased its first computer. By 1975 assets had grown to $18 Million, and in 1982 the first ATM was installed at the UCU’s Bloor St. West branch.

In 1989, “Toronto” was dropped from the corporate name to reflect the growing number of branches throughout Ontario. In 2000, the head office was moved from College St. to the current Evans Ave. location in Toronto West. Over the next few years, membership skyrocketed to over 20,000 and by 2003 assets exceeded $280 Million. Wealth Management services were introduced in 2001, expanding the variety of financial services provided to match those offered by the major banks.

Since then, growth has continued at a steady and profitable pace until the present, and the UCU is now one of the largest and most stable credit unions in Ontario. The 140 or so employees are highly skilled, dedicated and provide a level of personalized service that you would be hard-pressed find in the large major Canadian banks.

I have had the pleasure to serve on the Board of Directors of the UCU for many years and count that experience as one of the most productive and satisfying ones of any in my working life. The main reason for that is the fact that the UCU is not just a business. It is a vital part of the Ukrainian community in Ontario. Most of the profits are recycled back to help support and build the rich cultural, religious, educational and social infrastructures which make the Ukrainian community so dynamic. Each year, the UCU donates hundreds of thousands of dollars in support of Ukrainian festivals, cultural and educational events, charitable projects, dance groups, choirs, religious organizations, scholarships and numerous other initiatives. In recent years, it has diverted the amounts it would otherwise have paid in dividends to members, to support humanitarian aid to Ukrainians hurt or displaced by the on-going Russian aggression in Eastern Ukraine. Altruism is a fundamental cornerstone of the credit union’s existence.

On milestones such as this 75th anniversary, it is customary to not only look back on past accomplishments, but also to chart a course for the future. For the UCU, it has a number of intriguing options. Recent changes to federal legislation on financial institutions have opened up a new avenue of opportunity. Until these changes came about, credit unions were restricted to operating within their provincial boundaries. Now credit unions such as the UCU will have the ability to expand nationally across the country. With the large Ukrainian population out in western Canada, expansion westward would seem to be a natural vehicle for future growth. There are a number of smaller Ukrainian credit unions there already that would be logical merger partners.

Another area of opportunity is that there are a number of other ethnic credit unions in Ontario such as the Polish, Slovenian, Estonian, Latvian and others who are much smaller than UCU and may not have the critical mass to compete in today’s technological environment. Partnering up with a larger credit union like UCU that does have the critical mass to make the investments necessary to stay competitive against the major banks, would be a logical proposition.

With its size, history of success and momentum, the UCU undoubtedly has a bright future. It will be interesting to see where it goes in the coming years.

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