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Dale Eichar rides road to retirement

When Dale Eichar leaves his office for the last time on Jan. 29, he'll take with him 34 years of experience in credit unions, his staff's high esteem and the respect of a grateful membership and board.

When Dale Eichar leaves his office for the last time on Jan. 29, he'll take with him 34 years of experience in credit unions, his staff's high esteem and the respect of a grateful membership and board.

From the young man who didn't know what a credit union was when he was hired in 1975 for Burns Lake Credit Union, Eichar has come a long way.

Back then Eichar was a transplanted American managing a building supply store. With hair down to his shoulders and casual dress, Eichar didn't look the part of a financial institution manager. However, Earl Tucker, then a manager regulator with Credit Union Reserve Board, overcame his initial misgivings and hired the young man. (Eichar returned the favour nearly 10 years later when he hired Tucker to manage the Gibsons branch of the Sunshine Coast Credit Union.)

Fortunately for both, Eichar did have a business BA and what turned out to be a natural affinity for credit union management.

In 1982, when the Gibsons Credit Union, which had taken over the Port Mellon Industries Credit Union, merged with the Sunshine Coast Credit Union (SCCU), Eichar took over the general management.

"The rest is just history 27 years later," Eichar noted. "[The job] was very, very exciting. [My wife] Barb and I didn't want to live in a metropolitan area. I had gone to school in Sacramento with its population density, and we knew we didn't want that."

And unfortunately, soon after he took over the SCCU, the economy hit one of its cyclical lows.

"From 1982 to 1986, real estate collapsed. The community was devastated," he said.

The community is lucky in that Eichar learned from those lean times of double-digit interest rates.

"This recession [2009 and on] versus the last is pretty reassuring. This time around, we were in a much better position to weather the storm," he explained.

And the numbers bear testament to that.

At Eichar's retirement party on Jan. 23, SCCU board chair Bernie Bennett advised that in 1981 when Eichar came to the Coast, the credit union assets totaled $13.5 million. As of 2009, the amount was $340 million, a fact that fills Eichar with gratification.

"For a small service area, we've done a fairly respectable share of the market," he said.

According to Eichar, the job grew along with his "learning curve."

In the '90s, the Pender Harbour Credit Union merged with SCCU. And although the merger wasn't without some challenges, in the end, the deal allowed the credit union to overcome the regional barriers to doing business on the Coast.

"It pulled all three communities [Gibsons, Sechelt and Pender Harbour] together," Eichar stated.

For Eichar, personal satisfaction came out of the progress the credit union has made in building its capital base. In 1982, SCCU set a target rate of five per cent of assets (the capital adequacy rate.) Today it stands at a very healthy 21 per cent.

"It's one of the better capitalized credit unions in the province," Eichar shared.

Best practices have meant that SCCU performs in the top five to 10 per cent of the credit unions of the province.

Eichar attributes that to two factors: "We are a self-contained, locally-owned financial institution. Credit, deposit gathering, wealth management, accounting staff, communications and IT staff operate in house," he advised.

And the other element is the use of the best consultants available. Although outsourcing is sometimes a bad word, Eichar looks on it as a positive to bring expertise to the credit union that wouldn't otherwise be available.

Many of those consultants were in the audience at Eichar's retirement party.

Peter Reimer, who is responsible for SCCU's internal auditing, teased Eichar about his first meeting with this "Grizzly Adams type of guy." But like the other speakers, Reimer also affirmed the vast store of Eichar's knowledge along with Eichar's love of motorcycling. A newly minted bobble head bearing a startling resemblance to Eichar seated on a Harley was Reimer's retirement gift.

Eichar is quick to give credit to the talented staff he's worked with over the years. He's proud of the fact that both the chief financial manager Dawn Bezaire and the IT manager Sue Prasaloski earned their accounting designations on the job. Eichar is also a big admirer of two senior managers who've advanced through their jobs with the credit union, Rick Cooney, chief credit manager, and September Dixon, the human resources manager. And Eichar paid special tribute to Cathy Elson, an administration manager in the '80s. He's thrilled that one-third of the work force from the early '80s and '90s still work there.

One recent change is the move from an outside communications firm, Rosemary Cook and Associates, to an in-house manager, Jodi Fichtner, who grew up on the Coast. Eichar sees this move as a win-win for SCCU and Fichtner. She gets to work where she lives, and SCCU has immediate marketing advice.

"We've kind of grown up together. I never, ever had to force myself to get up and go to work in the morning," Eichar said.

The other important group he gives full credit to is the elected board of directors.

"The quality of the board is key. We have people from each economic segment, each region, we're balanced gender-wise, and we have two or three professional accountants. The current board is well balanced. It's easy for me working with a supportive board," he said.

Eichar is pleased that Shelley McDade, his choice of replacement, was ratified by the headhunters hired by the credit union.

"I hired her as chief operations officer in 2007 with the idea of succeeding me in mind. Exercising due diligence [the board] went outside [SCCU] and still came up with Shelley. That's about as good as it gets," he said proudly.

Eichar is also very proud of the community he lives in and the role the credit union has played in it over the years. SCCU seeded the community foundation to the tune of $100,000 and since the beginning of the foundation six years ago Eichar has sat on the board.

"There is a strong bond between us [SCCU] and the community at large," Eichar said.

His faith in the members and community has been roundly returned since Eichar announced his retirement.

"It's quite moving. So many people have contacted me letters, phone calls, people dropping in to wish me well," he shared.

And although he's planned his retirement well and looks forward to sharing his seat on the motorcycle for many more years with Barb, there's still a little trepidation.

"It's been full bore ahead all these years. Slowing down a bit will be the biggest challenge," he said.