Giving Alberta energy workers their own banking option

Adam Battistessa of SPARK talks about how the credit union can make a difference to workers and to the broader community

Adam Battistessa is chair of SPARK The Energy Credit Union.

Adam Battistessa
Adam Battistessa

What is SPARK and how does it operate?

Battistessa: SPARK The Energy Credit Union is an Alberta-based credit union that is exclusively dedicated to providing financial services to Alberta’s energy industry workers, contractors and their families.

Our credit union has been around for over 65 years and was initially established as a credit union for Shell employees and their families. As Shell and the energy industry evolved, so did we. In 2018, our board and members decided to rebrand to SPARK The Energy Credit Union and we opened our doors to all Alberta energy workers.

We’re unlike most financial institutions because we’re member operated and owned ,and governed by a board that’s chosen by the very people who bank with us. Our board members are themselves energy workers, so they’re able to relate to the challenges and pressures of working in Alberta’s energy sector first-hand.

Our head office is in Calgary and all decisions are made locally, giving our credit union the ability to be flexible and to adapt quickly to changing local circumstances.

We believe that the financial co-operative model, our close affinity towards the people we serve, and our local empowerment uniquely positions our credit union to meet the ever-evolving needs of those who work in the energy industry in a way that truly puts our members first.

At over $290 million in assets and with just under 6,000 members, we like to think of ourselves as a humble but mighty financial institution, although we certainly have lofty aspirations to expand.

While comparatively small next to traditional banks, we can certainly go toe-to-toe with competitors with our offerings such as our no-fee SPARK chequing account, Canada-wide ATM access, online and mobile banking, full-picture financial planning, and extremely competitive investment and borrowing rates.

But what truly sets us apart is that we have a broader mission, and that’s to help the people of Alberta’s energy industry thrive in good times and be resilient in challenging times, by providing them financial solutions that serve their specific needs.

Why did it recently rebrand?

Battistessa: The decision to rebrand was a response to the changing circumstances in Alberta’s energy industry. While we suspected it all along, extensive market research confirmed our hunch that the makeup of our membership had already changed, with many members either finding employment with other companies, starting their own businesses or becoming independent contractors.

We also learned that our credit union’s value proposition would be received very positively by Alberta energy industry workers more broadly.

Taking all of these inputs into consideration, we created a Future Visions Committee and invited current members, some potential members and subject matter experts to help our board decide on whether we should rebrand and to help us come up with a new name.

It was a great learning process that gave our board a deep understanding about what mattered most to our members – providing competitive rates and no-fee banking, a deep understanding of their financial needs and pressures, a sense of trust that we will always have their best interest in mind, and that they can always count on us when they need us most.

With our new name and expanded mandate, we are excited to invite Alberta’s energy workers to give us a try.

What are the advantages of using a credit union as opposed to a traditional bank?

Battistessa: Credit unions are guided by co-operative principles and are owned by their members, who also happen to be their customers. Because of this, there’s no need to reconcile the needs of shareholders versus those of customers, because they’re one and the same.

When we do well, our members also do well, and they benefit directly from our financial success because we share our profits with them.

Additionally, we provide members with financial products and services with their best interest in mind and we aren’t driven by quotas or commission-structured delivery. This allows us to customize our services to each member and to develop a deep understanding of their financial needs.

Beyond this, credit union members benefit from a 100 per cent guarantee on their deposits through the Credit Union Deposit Guarantee Corp., in contrast to the Canada Deposit Insurance Corp. protection that banks have, which only covers up to $100,000 in certain types of deposits.

What demographic is the most likely to use a credit union?

Battistessa: Our member base is demographically diverse, and I believe that credit unions are attractive to a broad range of people.

However, we recently conducted market research and learned that our co-operative principles and many of the other advantages offered by credit unions are highly valued by people between the ages of 18 and 45.

We also learned that there’s strong appeal for the concept of a financial institution for energy workers among this same demographic group.

How do you go about increasing membership?

Battistessa: One of our major objectives this year is to increase awareness of our brand through strategic partnerships with groups in the energy industry.

In the same way that we added to Shell Canada’s employee value proposition (EVP), we believe that a partnership with SPARK can also enhance other energy companies’ EVPs – whether they’re startups or well-established.

We’re also supporting causes that help the people of Alberta’s energy industry and the broader industry. At the consumer level, we do believe that we offer a compelling proposition to the employees, contractors and consultants within the industry.

Over and above the table-stakes – great service, low or no-fees, online accessibility and competitive rates – we have a proven history of being responsive to our members’ needs. SPARK has countless examples over the past 65 years where we helped our members in extraordinary ways – the Calgary floods and Fort McMurray fires are two big examples, but we have many more.

These are the ways that we are different from every other financial institution and stories we’re excited to share to gain the trust of many more members into the future.

We understand that most people already have relationships with financial institutions, and that’s okay with us. All we’re asking them to do is to give us a try, rather than making a switch. We know that once they become members, people will experience the SPARK difference first-hand, and the rest can be up to them.

– Mario Toneguzzi for Calgary’s Business


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CaptionAdam Battistessa, chair of SPARK The Energy Credit Union.

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