Westoba Credit Union is closing four of its rural branches in southern Manitoba, affecting upwards of 1,700 customers in and around Belmont, Bruxelles, Onanole and Shilo.

The four branches are closing on Dec. 4 as a result of a unanimous decision by the credit union's board, says Westoba president and CEO Jim Rediger.

"The volume of business doesn't justify keeping the branches open and I guess just as importantly, we don't see that changing," Rediger told CBC's Radio Noon on Tuesday.

"It's obviously a very difficult decision, but we also need to ensure that our organization continues to succeed in the future, and that certainly was a main driver behind our decision."

Rediger said Westoba faces stiff competition in the financial services sector, "and that competition is also existing in a very low-interest-rate environment."

"From our perspective, we need to be able to reduce our costs and redirect funds towards improved technology and staff development in order to compete," he said.

Rediger said a total of 12 staff members are affected by the branch closures, representing about 8.6 full-time equivalent positions.

"Some of those people are being repositioned in other branches at Westoba, but there will be seven people laid off at the end of the day," he said.

Most members expected to stay

Rediger said he expects the vast majority of affected Westoba members to stay with the credit union, as the branches that are closing have been supported by branches in nearby communities.

"Our Belmont branch is supported by our Ninette branch, our Bruxelles branch has always been supported by our Swan Lake branch and our Brandon branches have always supported Shilo," he said.

"Onanole is a little bit farther removed from some of our branches, but certainly we expect our Rivers and Brandon branches to be able to support that one as well."

He added that members are using Westoba's online and telephone banking services more and more these days, which means fewer branch visits.

As well, he said more Westoba staff are mobile, able to visit members in their homes or businesses.

"I think in this day and age, I think we've all come to realize banking has changed very significantly," he said.

"If you look at it from a historical perspective, the branch was really the only place people could go to access financial services, and that's not the case in today's environment."

Rediger said the money that will be saved through the branch closures will go toward improving its technology and training staff, based on feedback it received from a survey of 1,400 members this past spring.

"They want to see more convenient online-type services and they want to see our staff evolve to be more skilled, more knowledgeable and help them more in the advisory capacity, which is where I guess we see our branches heading," he said.

Features that members are looking for, he said, including email money transfers, smartphone apps and remote deposit capture, which allows customers to deposit a cheque by taking a photo of it.