2017 BC CEO Awards: Chris Catliff

On a mission: Credit union boss is proud of his role in the financial institution’s successful metamorphosis
BlueShore Financial CEO Chris Catliff: “in the end, I was searching for something and it was already happening back at home. And the lesson there was that instead of Chris Catliff going to the world, the world sort of came here” | Chung Chow

The greatest advice Chris Catliff ever received came from Stephen Covey, the international bestselling author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

Simply put, it’s to have a mission statement. And for the past quarter-century or so, Catliff’s mission statement has involved the pursuit of better credit unions and memorable family moments.

“If it doesn’t fall within those two categories, then I probably won’t do it,” said the president and CEO of North Vancouver-based BlueShore Financial.

In his mission to build better credit unions, Catliff looks everywhere. Alongside industry partners that include Hewlett-Packard (NYSE:HPQ) and Microsoft (Nasdaq:MSFT), he looks ahead to how technology, such as artificial intelligence, is going to shape lives.

He also looks back at the four years he spent travelling the globe from 1979 to 1982. 

“I think about it almost every day because of what’s happening to our city in terms of the investment and everything,” he said.

In 1979, Catliff left the Vancouver of yesteryear – a “small little hick town” as he put it – and embarked on a worldwide search for interesting hot spots, from places he thought would be beautiful places to live, through to war zones. That journey placed Catliff in Bangladesh during a coup; in Kenya – which also ended up grappling with a coup; in Tripoli, Lebanon, when it was bombed; and working in a kibbutz in Israel during the 1982 Lebanon War.

“In the end, I was searching for something and it was already happening back at home,” he said. “And the lesson there was that instead of Chris Catliff going to the world, the world sort of came here.”

The year it came was 1986, and since Expo, Catliff has taken pride in seeing Vancouver grow into a cosmopolitan city.

With a background in international affairs, and a clear penchant for travel, Catliff had always imagined he would one day become a diplomat. To date, he’s travelled to 76 countries.

But a job three decades ago changed his career path. Serving as special assistant to the CEO of a credit union persuaded him that his true calling was going to be at a much more locally oriented venture.

“I knew instantly that I wanted to be a CEO of a credit union,” said Catliff, explaining that it was the unique positioning of a credit union that held the appeal – it’s not a for-profit bank, nor is it a non-profit charity. “We’re kind of in between. And it’s a really cool place to be.”

As a special assistant, Catliff said, he went out of his way to make things look good for the corner office.

“[That] really helped me figure out and get to where I wanted to be.”

He carried that lesson through a variety of different roles over the next 14 years, including serving as president of Vancity Enterprises Ltd. and senior vice-president of Vancity credit union.

At the latter, he completed the first Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. mortgage-backed security. It was a brush with history, and one that could have led down a much different path. At that point in his career,
Catliff was offered a job to start up mortgage securities with Shearson Lehman in New York.

“God, just imagine where that could have ended up for me,” said Catliff, who landed at BlueShore in 2000. For a time, he’d questioned whether he made the right decision. There was little doubt after 2008, when the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers helped deepen the growing economic crisis of that period.

“The point of it all is that there’s different career paths you can take, and you just have to forge ahead on kind of what your mission statement is, and not worry about the location and things like that,” he said.

Despite what Catliff calls a “traumatic” period for the financial services sector, BlueShore has expanded eightfold since he started at the organization 17 years ago.

Part of that has come from his focus on retooling what he described as a blue-collar credit union that woke up in a white-collar world, and across the water from an increasingly globalized city.

He called the credit union a “West Coast, agile, cognitive financial institution” that focuses on deep client strategies. Even as it has grown, the institution has kept the same number of customers, with a renewed focus on the affluent.

Catliff is also pioneering algorithm development in-house – they’re called “Blue-gorithms” – which he said will be married with artificial intelligence to offer clients additional services.

Transforming what was a 65-year-old, traditional, community credit union into a branded financial boutique that’s pushing the boundaries of innovation has been his biggest challenge, but it’s one he’s proud of.

As the man leading the institution’s change, Catliff says his leadership style has been influenced by his previous bosses. From 1992 to 2006, the BlueShore CEO had six bosses in the proverbial corner office, and all of them were women.

“It’s extremely unique to have that many bosses who are women. [I’m] kind of proud of it,” he said. “They were also really good at motivating me, and they all had in common that they would let me do what I needed to do, support me, and empathize when I had problems. And I really learned a lot, and I think that’s made me a better leader.” 

Join us to celebrate this year’s honourees at the 2017 BC CEO Awards November 8, 2017, hosted at the Fairmont Waterfront Hotel. For tickets and event info, visit www.biv.com/ceo.


What sort of leadership style does a CEO have to cultivate in the 21st century?

Futurist Alvin Toffler said something like, “To be literate in the 21st century does not mean you can read or write, but rather that you can learn, unlearn and relearn.” I find many executives are not so good on the unlearning and relearning part. Be aware of your teams’ unconscious bias, take all considerations into effect, but when talking is done the leader must make the bold decision, popular or not.

What accomplishments are you most proud of?

Putting people first. Your career will not be long and successful if you do not treat all people with respect and dignity. But this can include “tough love.”

What is the biggest challenge you have faced?

Transforming a 65-year-old, traditional, community credit union to a branded financial boutique for the West Coast affluent, now known for its deep financial expertise and exceptional client service.

What career decisions would you make differently were you starting out today?

Not really any. I have been extremely passionate about how my career has unfolded and wouldn’t want to change a thing. Challenging spots were great introspective learning times. It’s the journey, not the destination. But I would tell those starting out on their careers to focus on learning the impact of the new digital economy. Learn how artificial intelligence works, how to scale a company, then use that knowledge to build your future.

What is the one business lesson you’d like to pass on to others?

Focus less on the financial aspects and more on motivating people. Give them the impassioned “why,” clear the way and let them figure out the “how” and then see the people and the financial numbers soar.

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