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Tiny banking co-op that sprouted in Quebec is financial giant now

``We do care for our members, probably more than banks for their customers.'' Bruno Riverin, president and chief operating officer of La Caisse centrale Desjardins du Quebec, makes that claim, and, given the history of the $25 billion Desjardins financial group in this province, it could well be true.

Over the years, the group has expanded from retail banking into other financial areas, starting with general insurance in 1946, then life insurance in the 1960s.

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More recently, it has gotten into corporate loans, the credit card business, trust operations, investment banking, money market operations, venture capital, and other activities that bring it more directly into competition with Canada's financial establishment, including its powerful commercial banks. And it has had sufficient success in these areas both to expand rapidly and to win top credit ratings.

In fact, the group has plans to set up an office later this year in New York, Mr. Riverin says. The group had a humble beginning, however. It was founded as a nonprofit institution by Alphonse Desjardins, an official reporter for the House of Commons in Ottawa. It opened for business in 1900 in L'evis, a small town on the south shore of the St. Lawrence River, opposite Quebec City.

Modeled after German bank cooperatives, it was probably the first caisse populaire, or savings-and-loan cooperative, in North America. Its members are its customers.

At that time, many small farmers and poor workers had no access to banks. So if they had to borrow money, they often could only get it from loan sharks.

Mr. Desjardins's goal was to provide these low wage earners with a vehicle for saving their money, and using that money to lend back to the community. They should be ``working together for a better life rather than just struggling for existence,'' he said.

By now the Desjardins Group includes the largest network of financial institutions in the province of Quebec. Within this province of 6.5 million people, it holds 38 percent of individual savings and makes some 50 percent of the mortgages, 32 percent of personal loans, and 55 percent of loans to farmers.

These customers, says Riverin, ``do not come to us just for our blue eyes. We spend a lot of energy and time on the quality of service.''

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One factor in the group's early success was its French-Canadian status and control. The group has become a subject of considerable French-Canadian pride, or ``nationalism.'' Canada's commercial banks were usually managed and mostly owned by English-speaking Canadians.

Community caisses often had the support of French-Canadian Roman Catholic priests, important in a province where until the last two or three decades, life centered on local parishes. The provincial government, controlled by French-Canadians, also helped the{et

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