I love my bank!

Hang out with Lawrie Ferguson for, oh, say five minutes and you're bound to grasp two defining traits.

Hang out with Lawrie Ferguson for, oh, say five minutes and you’re bound to grasp two defining traits.

One: What she’s all about professionally is ‘making a difference,’ a phrase she repeats like a cherished mantra whenever she discusses the role of banking in people’s lives.

And two: What her colleagues say is true – she’s an unstoppable combo of leadership, creativity and tenacity that just happens to be wrapped in a disarmingly engaging package.

All these qualities will be taxed to the max this year as Ferguson, 40, strives to make a whopper of a difference in her capacity as senior marketing VP of Coast Capital Savings. If she gets her way – a safe bet given her stellar track record – CCS will make banking history.

And it won’t just be because an expected 25,000 new customers will march in the doors of the Surrey, B.C.-based credit union’s 44 branches on Vancouver Island and the lower mainland. Or that the bank will swell both its 300,000-member customer base and its $6.7 billion assets.

It will be because every one of these eager beavers will be demanding and getting a truly free, absolutely no-strings-attached chequing account, the first of its kind in Canada from a full-service financial institution.

An easy sell? Actually, no, because pulling off such a coup means battling rampant skepticism that, if such an offer comes from an industry many view as arrogant, profit-swilling porkers, there must be a catch.

And that’s where ‘the most fun challenge’ Ferguson says she’s ever had in her 14 years with CCS comes in. ”Free’ is a much harder value proposition than it logically should be because so many people think of financial institutions as a necessary evil,’ she explains. ‘So we figure the best way to combat that idea of ‘what’s the catch’ is to poke fun at ourselves and actually come out and show someone being skeptical. In our TV spots, we have a younger guy saying flat-out ‘I don’t believe it.’ And then he keeps asking questions.’

And that’s not all that Ferguson and the marketing team with whom she doggedly shares any and all credit that comes her way has planned.

They are also creating a branch environment that’s the exact antithesis of what weary bank customers loathe. Expected to begin rolling out with three branches in June, CCS’s new digs will be places where – get this – customers aren’t forced to line up like cattle and seethe for unconscionable lengths of time. Personnel will actually greet customers at the front door, and then walk them to their destinations, be it teller, mortgage or loans division.

How’s that for making a difference?

”I can’t believe you would do that’ is the reaction I’m hearing [to this and to the free chequing account],’ says Ferguson. ‘So I like to think that what we’re coming up with is, I don’t know, a kinder, gentler bank?’

This isn’t the first time Ferguson has taken a bold approach to marketing either.

Her boss, president and CEO Lloyd Craig, still extols the series of what he calls ‘outrageously funny’ TV ads that first introduced Coast Capital Savings about a year ago. The merger of three smallish entities had produced B.C.’s second-largest credit union, yet the resulting moniker was virtually unknown.

Craig says Ferguson ‘knew that, in a cluttered marketplace, we had to do something to change that and it had to be a message that would really resonate.’

What Ferguson and her team came up with was a comprehensive branding campaign whose heart and tagline was: ‘How can we help you?’ Craig says the strategy was an immediate success, with ‘recall of our ads and our name and our likeability index’ soaring, not to mention a ‘very satisfactory’ influx of new customers plus being named one of Canada’s 50 best-managed companies in a prestigious award sponsored by CIBC, Deloitte & Touche, National Post and Queen’s University School of Business.

Craig’s esteem for Ferguson goes beyond mere verbal praise. He even said yes when she asked him to wear what he laughingly describes as ‘a lovely floor-length green gown’ as Ginger from Gilligan’s Island for one of the hilarious videos she presents at raucous annual employee recognition events.

The net effect on the troops of ‘all that silliness,’ says Craig, is ‘superb morale building. It’s a great example of how off-the-wall and crazy Lawrie’s creative side can be, but bringing that out in the rest of us is one of the reasons [people] love working here.’

Tom Shepansky shares Craig’s admiration for Ferguson. As the partner at Vancouver’s Rethink agency who’s worked most closely with her, in both the rebranding campaign and launching CCS’s free account, he describes her as ‘a true champion.

‘She has passion and conviction and she’s completely dedicated to breaking the mold in the financial services category which, frankly, really needs it. She focuses on what’s the right thing to do and then says: ‘We’ll figure out how to get there later.’

That’s the mark of a champion, which she absolutely is,’ he adds.

But as innovative as these initiatives may sound, Ferguson points out that CCS is actually staying true to the principles upon which the credit union movement was founded ‘as an alternative that would do things the banks would not, like giving loans to farmers’ and taking other such risks.

Still that customer-friendly philosophy isn’t just about being kinder or gentler, says Ferguson. In the financial services industry, ‘your product and service offerings can become so similar that the only way to differentiate is on things like what you give back to the community.

‘So what I really like is that we’re actually going back to saying: ‘Come to us, there is a real difference.”