Portrait of a Co-op Champion: Kathy Bardswick In Her Own Words

This article is set to be published in the upcoming joint publication of ‘Moving Business Forward’ & ‘col.lab.o.rate’ — the Guelph Chamber’s quarterly magazines. Due out in mere days. Don’t miss seeing Kathy Bardswick at the upcoming ‘Inspirational Women’ luncheon, to be held Thursday January 7 at Delta Guelph. To register, click here.
Kathy Bardswick, President & CEO of The Co-operators Group Limited, is a leading advocate for the co-op sector and tour de force on the international stage in multiple capacities. Named one of the Top 25 Women of Influence by Women of Influence Inc., Kathy has helped build The Co-operators into a leader of the Canadian insurance industry by emphasizing and implementing tenets of sustainability.
Kathy is a member of the Board of the International Co-operative Alliance (ICA) and is past Chair of the International Cooperative and Mutual Insurance Federation where she currently serves on its executive. She has also provided leadership to the Conference Board of Canada as a member of the board and the executive, and served as Vice-Chair of the University of Guelph Board of Governors. And as if that’s not enough, Kathy is also a member of the Canadian Council of Chief Executives and serves as Chair of the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction.
In her own words, Kathy reflects on her professional trajectory and why co-ops are built to make our world a better place:

The Co-operators’ Kathy Bardswick in her downtown Guelph office

Life can take unexpected twists and turns that, in retrospect, seem like they were meant to be all along.

That’s how I look back upon my time after graduating from McMaster’s MBA program in the 1970s. I knew it was time to get a ‘real job’ and start a career; I just had to figure out what I wanted to do. Or so I thought. In fact, my mother was way ahead of me. She had already inquired about job opportunities for me at a local Co-operators office. She just hadn’t told me.

A career in insurance was certainly not something I’d planned for. But I had student debts to pay, and my parents were Co-operators clients and strong supporters of co-operatives. So I went to the interview she had arranged, and I got the job. I certainly didn’t imagine at the time that I’d stick with the company for some four decades, gain a real appreciation for the role of insurance and become a passionate advocate for the co-operative sector. I guess mom knew best after all.

Working for The Co-operators, I have had the opportunity to get involved with a number of co-operative organizations, including serving as a member of the International Co-operative Alliance’s board of directors. I’ve heard countless stories of ways in which co-ops around the world are serving unmet needs and strengthening communities.

In the developing world, co-ops often play a crucial role in lifting people out of poverty and providing basic necessities of life such as shelter and health care. In Canada and the rest of the developed world, they provide goods and services in virtually every sector of the economy, providing conscientious consumers a values-based alternative to profit-driven companies. And every co-op is guided by the seven universal co-operative principles. They are committed to democratic and participatory governance, and to advancing the social and economic well-being of their communities.

Co-ops provide a way for people from all walks of life to participate in a meaningful way in the governance of local enterprises. By definition, these people are members of a community the co-op serves, and users of its products or services. Co-ops are run on the basis of ‘one member, one vote,’ which contrasts with the common shareholder principle of ‘one share, one vote.’ This ensures that co-ops are controlled by people, not capital. And it seems to me that these days, the world needs more people working collaboratively for collective benefit, and fewer people working against one another for their own personal gain.

In a healthy, vibrant and equitable society, it’s important that individuals feel they are full participants in the economic system. They need their institutions to serve them, rather than the other way around. Institutions were initially envisioned to do this, but along the way, things have become distorted and it seems that people are now the servants of institutions when it should be the institutions serving society.

History is full of examples of the destructive tendencies of the disenfranchised. But when people feel they have some control over their economic destiny and place in society, they are far more likely to fulfill their potential and make a positive contribution. Members of any group — whether it’s a company, a neighbourhood or a country — who have a sense of belonging, influence and ownership, tend to have a greater stake and take more pride in its success.

We all want to be part of something bigger than ourselves, to be connected with others and make contributions toward a common goal. It’s just human nature.

Co-operatives provide a vehicle for this type of pursuit. They are inclusive, participatory and empowering. They embody the values of solidarity and equity and help to build fairer, more equitable societies. They place people at the centre of their decision-making.

There are dozens of co-ops in Guelph, and some 9,000 across Canada. They welcome the involvement of members from all walks of life who are interested in being part of a local democratic enterprise and a global movement.

I didn’t fully understand the power of co-operation when I set out to begin my career. But I think my mom did.

It wasn’t the positive power of co-operation that got me involved in the sector initially. But that’s precisely what has kept me passionate and engaged all these years later.