UPDATE Nov. 13, 2015: To no-one’s surprise, Monique Leroux was elected today as president of the International Co-operative Alliance at its global conference in Antalya, Turkey, the first Canadian and second woman to hold the post.
There are three things maybe you don’t know about the strongest bank in the west. It’s Canadian. Its CEO is a woman. And it’s not a bank.
It’s not so surprising that it’s Canadian. As Bloomberg notes, Canada “dominated the 2012 ranking . . . and Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce is the only North American bank to appear in the ranking” for five years running. But CIBC is ranked only 18th this year (based on 2014 results). Desjardins Group is 5th, stronger than all others in North America and Europe, outranked only by four banks in money pits Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan and Saud Arabia.
Nor is it so unusual for there to be a boss lady. The very strongest bank in the world, according to Bloomberg, is Hong Kong’s Hang Sheng Bank, which is run by 62-year-old Rose Lee. Rose is just a year older than Desjardins Group’s Monique Leroux.
But Desjardins Group is unique among the world’s strongest banks in that it isn’t a bank at all. It is a caisse populaire, comme on dit au Québec, which is the same thing as a credit union anywhere else. Quite distinct from commercial banks, credit unions are part of the co-operative sector of the economy. And therein hangs a tale that, if the stars are properly aligned, is about to carry Ms. Leroux to the apex of co-operatives as president of the International Co-operative Alliance (ICA).
Monique Leroux would be rara avis in any culture. Fluently bilingual, awesomely intelligent, beautifully chic, she has played Desjardins to center stage of the co-operative world with the fierce determination of a born competitor and the grace and skill of the concert pianist she trained to be, before opting for accounting as a profession. Since she took over in 2008, Desjardins Group’s annual income has grown from $8 billion to more than $15 billion and assets from $150 billion to $230 billion. Prior to joining Desjardins, she had been a senior vice-president at the Royal Bank of Canada and before that managing partner at Ernst & Young, in charge of corporate and large business sectors.
Ms. Leroux (left in photo) is the only woman among four candidates for the top job at ICA, succeeding Dame Pauline Green (right) of the U.K., who is the first woman ever to head the 130-year old organization. Dame Green’s main claim to fame was the International Year of Cooperatives proclaimed by the United Nations in 2012. ICY gave the co-operative sector, which is enormous and pervasive but feels greatly underappreciated, an unprecedented boost in global self-esteem.
It was ICY also that brought Ms. Leroux to international prominence. She created the International Summit of Cooperatives in October 2012 in Quebec City. The meeting would show the world that co-operatives can work for both people and profit. It wasn’t going to be just another conference, she vowed, “It has to be not just good, but emotionally positive – there has to be a taste to come back.” In the event it drew more than 3,000 participants to an extravaganza of Hilton light and sound in the ambiance of old Quebec that cost an estimated $10 million and was universally judged a spectacular success. Ms. Leroux and Dame Green made a joint presentation of a statement from the Quebec Summit to the U.N. at a ceremony in New York to conclude ICY. Costs were recovered to some extent from sponsorships and participation fees but a substantial deficit was covered by Desjardins.
In the Canadian context, this was a massive commitment. To put $10 million in perspective, Co-operatives and Mutuals Canada (CMC), the apex of Canada’s co-op sector, and its predecessor the Canadian Co-operative Association, operated on the same $2 million annual budget for a decade.
It was evident that the Quebec Summit had a ring to it and could grow to mean something significant within the global cooperative movement. A successful second Summit had potential to develop into a Davos-like forum for co-ops in Quebec City, the historic birthplace of Canada and across the St. Lawrence from Lévis, where the credit union movement had its start in North America at the home of Alphonse Desjardins, co-founder with his wife, Dorimène Roy Desjardins, of the company that bears their name.
The Davos allusion was advanced by Ms. Leroux herself who hasn’t forgotten where she comes from. Apart from numerous other public and co-op tasks, she sits on a council of the World Economic Forum (Davos by its official name), is a member of the Trilateral Commission and is one of just two co-op CEOs on the Canadian Council of Chief Executives.
Though it might be characterized as a blowout for the co-operative elite who can afford the $1,700 entrance ticket, let alone travel and hotel costs, the second Quebec Summit in October 2014 once again attracted over 3,000 participants from more than 90 countries. A Quebec Summit Declaration signed by Ms. Leroux and Dame Green (ICA is nominally a co-sponsor) was presented to the G20 Leaders’ Summit in November 2014. Close observers estimate the overall cost of this edition at $13 million. The extent of the shortfall is unknown outside Desjardins.
Naturally the municipality, which is also the provincial capital, has an interest in the event. Most of those millions are spent in Quebec City, plus hundreds of thousands more by 3,000 visiting shoppers. The province stepped up with $1 million to defray costs for the first Summit. The extent of its contribution to the second is not known.
ICA is an important co-sponsor for the Quebec Summit. It bestows credibility and access, reaching into every corner of the world to potential paying guests at the Summit. But ICA hasn’t any money of its own. In fact the post that Ms. Leroux is reaching for, “historically has been self-funded and the ICA president was required to attract independent or host country funding for travel, any support staff, and any honorariums.” Based in Brussels, custodian of the seven principles of co-operation, the office employs less monetary clout than moral suasion. But it is solidly grounded in the real world of economics and politics. ICA’s president speaks for enterprises worldwide that employ 250 million people. The 300 largest co-ops alone generate US$2.2 trillion in revenue annually.
(A request to CMC, official Canadian member of ICA and ostensibly the nominator of Ms. Leroux, for information about how these expenses are to be covered if she is successful, had not been answered by post time.)
The third edition of the Quebec Summit, now described in the literature as a “bi-annual event and a central organizing force in the international co-operative movement” will be held October 11-13, 2016. Desjardins and ICA have jointly announced this. But by then Dame Pauline Green will be retired from the field. And Monique Leroux? One thing only is known for certain. She won’t be running Desjardins in 2016. The company’s bylaws don’t allow for more than two terms and her second is up.
In its unwavering and substantial support for the Quebec Summit, Desjardins has been doing a community service by promoting the business opportunities of co-ops. It also gains momentum as a mover and shaker in the world of co-ops. It’s a great combination. And for now, guided by the sure-handed Ms. Leroux, it’s a sound business decision to backstop the Summit. That may not be the case forever; who knows what might happen if both prime movers were to leave the scene simultaneously?
If she doesn’t take over ICA, Ms. Leroux could go anywhere, she’s that rare and valuable. She could even be, God forbid, lost to co-ops. So it’s nothing less than providential that Dame Green decided to resign, even though her mandate had another two years to run, just as Ms. Leroux had to move along. The election will take place at the ICA AGM in Turkey on Friday the thirteenth of November 2015.