Employee Exchange Program Drives the Cooperative Spirit at Unitus Community Credit Union


Unitus Credit Union’s Char Sears and Gigi Gardner, recently visited New Zealand, where they spent time with staff from First Credit Union in Hamilton, New Zealand. They learned about the credit union’s community impact, operations, and other important topics in an exchange program. Unitus will host a pair of employees from First Credit Union this October.

A unique employee exchange program between Unitus Community Credit Union and First Credit Union in Hamilton, New Zealand, is opening minds to new ideas while building greater financial transparency and positive cross-cultural impact.

“Credit unions across the globe are doing some very creative and inspirational things to make a lasting and meaningful impact on their communities,” Unitus Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer, Jason Werts, said. “This exchange program allows our employees to see some of these efforts firsthand and bring back new ideas that will allow us to better serve our community in ways that U.S.-based credit unions haven’t yet discovered.”

The Portland-based Unitus sent Char Sears, Assistant Vice President and Remote Experience Manager, and Gigi Gardner, Organizational Development Consultant, on the two-week exchange program. The pair visited First Credit Union’s headquarters, toured a number of branches to meet teams, captured operational best practices, and experienced the local culture.

Unitus will host a pair of employees from First Credit Union this October. 

Gardner wanted to learn First Credit Union’s culture, customs, and community involvement practices. Spending time with the credit union’s volunteer leaders helped her learn more.

“We participated in a two-day offsite meeting with First’s board and leadership, and I was able to not only attend a leadership training on Performance Management, but also facilitate a breakout session on providing performance feedback,” Gardner said. “I loved the opportunity to connect more closely with the leaders and learn that we share not only the same performance management philosophy, but struggle with some of the same issues.”

Sears wanted to see how credit unions operate under different social, cultural, demographic, and regulatory environments. Learning how the credit union difference plays out in the region was a key takeaway.

Sears and Gardner with First Credit Union team members.

Sears and Gardner with First Credit Union team members.

“First is exemplary in demonstrating the credit union mission of ‘People Helping People’ and identifying areas where they can present a refreshing option (as opposed to the big banks) within the financial services arena,” Sears said. “Educating their diverse communities around the north island about predatory payday lending practices is an example where the impact will be far reaching and has already taken hold with their members.”

As Chairman of the World Council of Credit Unions Board of Directors, Unitus President and CEO Steve Stapp, organized the exchange with First Credit Union’s General Manager, Simon Scott.

“In this enlightening exchange program, our team not only gets to learn about a new culture, but we also get the opportunity to share best practices that will strengthen both credit unions,” Stapp said.

Because she works in the remote delivery channel for Unitus, Sears was excited to see the benefits of expanding the remote capabilities at First Credit Union.

“With First’s footprint [extending to all] New Zealand residents, the membership stretches to a potential 4.5 million residents all over the north and south islands. I would say remote delivery options would be a priority!” Sears said. “It was exciting to see their newly implemented online membership application and online loan application bringing in such great results. They can reach a larger audience with this online channel offering.”

Gardner appreciated how First Credit Union has made building strong ties with the community a priority.

Sears and Gardner with Andrew King.

Sears and Gardner with the Mayor of Hamilton, Andrew King.

“First exemplifies ‘community’ in many wonderful ways,” Gardner said. “Each branch has a special relationship with their community, and we got to experience it firsthand, helping in a community event for the Balloons Over Waikato Festival, where we got to meet and have fun with their members.

“They honor the Maori roots of the culture in both language and customs. We were privileged and honored to learn about some of the customs firsthand by visiting a Maori marae (meeting grounds) and learning from one of the elders.”

In addition to noting cultural differences, Gardner saw how the two credit unions shared similarities.

“[I saw] how powerful the global Credit Union Movement is – two credit unions, worlds apart, sharing the same values and community dedication,” she said.

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