A Practical Education

Georgetown University’s student-run credit union offers lessons in innovation and leadership transitions.

 
 

They have full course loads in economics, government, accounting, healthcare management, and business. They are trying to nail down permanent positions on Wall Street. But somehow, more than 100 Georgetown University students, including seven full-time executives, find time to run a $17 million credit union that has been shoring up more accounts and loans in recent years.

Georgetown University Alumni and Student Federal Credit Union ($16.6M, Washington, DC) has been a fully student-run credit union for more than 25 years. From its 110 interns – approximately 20 of which are frontline employees – to its executive leadership – including the CEO and CFO – GUASFCU’s leaders are all undergraduate students who rely very little on outside advice to launch successful marketing campaigns or to strengthen auto lending.

Our nation’s capital is known as political hotbed but it’s also a hotbed for credit union activity. This is the region where the credit union’s regulatory agency, The National Credit Union Association, is based and where credit union behemoths Navy Federal Credit Union ($45.5B, Merrifield, VA) and Pentagon Federal Credit Union ($15.1B, Alexandria, VA) are headquartered. Georgetown, with its historic row homes and high end boutiques and restaurants, is nestled on the northwestern edge of the historic city along the banks of the Potomac River and its Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. It’s a section of the city known for its upscale M Street shopping district and elite roster of historical residents like Thomas Jefferson and Francis Scott Key. The embassies of France, Thailand, Ukraine, Mongolia and Sweden are located here and Georgetown University’s campus is nestled among them.

Georgetown University, established in 1789 as the nation’s oldest Catholic and Jesuit university, had 7,553 undergraduates and 5,832 graduate students as of fall 2010. Its main campus is 104 acres packed with 54 Gothic and Georgian buildings, mirroring the rest of the city’s density. Parking is tight on campus, but admittance to Georgetown University is arguably tighter.

The university received 19,275 applications for the class of 2014, but only admitted 3,466 students, an acceptance rate of about 17%. And its undergraduate $40,000 tuition is nearly as prohibitive as its admissions requirements for many students; MBAs average $45,984, according to the school’s website. Executives that run GUASFCU say the difficult admissions gives them an advantage in choosing its staff from a pool of candidates known for its drive and ambition, a pool they describe as “the best of the best.”

A Competitive Staff Selection Process

“The challenge that is posed to us is how are we, as students, able and competent enough to do this job,” says Jack Glascott, GUASFCU’s chief human resources officer and a government major. “We believe our interns are the strongest asset the credit union posses. Georgetown attracts a talented group of people and we're fortunate enough to select from the best of the best. And that's a remarkable opportunity we get to capitalize on.

“We're looking for hardworking and dedicated people,” he says. “People who are engaging and friendly and not only work in a team environment with other students and excel there, but also we're looking for people who can be professional and handle situations that are sometimes stressful since so much of what we do is member-facing.”

In addition to Glascott, GUASFCU’s executive leadership includes: Katie Cohen, CEO, economics major; Kristine Cudahy, COO, finance and accounting major; Greg Francfort, CFO, physics and economics major; Jack Mohr, Board treasurer, finance major; Rachel Piltch-Loeb, CLO, healthcare management major; and Ariana Klener, CMO, finance and accounting major.

Competition for the credit union’s positions is intense, and the selection process is rigorous, Glascott says. The human resources department received more than 200 applications for its 10 to 20 teller positions last semester. In coordination with the Board, the department spent a 12-hour Saturday interviewing each candidate before narrowing down the pool.

“We’re not necessarily looking for a freshman intern to come in with banking or finance experience,” Glascott says. “We're really looking for people who are eager to learn, who have demonstrated leadership in their past experiences, whether it be in high school or extracurricular activities, and who look like they would make a substantive commitment to our organization – and also thrive with it.”

Succeeding With A Built-In Executive Turnover

Students are applying to GUASFCU in droves for its real world, hand-on experience. Glascott describes it as an “unparalled opportunity” at Georgetown University that he didn’t want to pass up and CEO Katie Cohen says she wanted to gain leadership and analytical skills to help her in her post-graduation career.

“It's a very productive way to get involved on campus,” Cohen says. “As I became more involved I liked what I saw, I liked what I was learning. The first thing you have to realize is ‘your time’ isn't really your time. You're there to serve all the interns and the members at the credit union. You're coughing up your time to serve this purpose. Once you come to terms with that, it really helps you gain productivity.”

These student executives say the heavy turnover rate, including of all its top executives at a minimum of every four years, has become a nonissue with its regimented, institutionalized transition process. It includes a rigorous shadowing – a full year for the top executives – to learn the position as well as a bank of detailed manuals that direct executives and frontline staff. The credit union also offers mentors to each intern to guide them through functional process and assist in their professional development. Such highly specialized training brings employees up-to-speed quickly.

“Certainly there is growth and development from day one until you’re a senior,” Glasscott says. “The amount of training the interns get … makes them aware of how much responsibility and accountability we have to members.”

Glascott says minor tweaks to the traditional 9-to-5, Monday-through-Friday workday helps mitigate the built-in challenges the student-run organization faces. For example, GUASFCU’s employee shifts are structured around two-hour increments, which provide flexibility for hectic student schedules. Also, the credit union is open from 10:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. on Saturday, when the students don’t have classes.

The regular turnover is so ingrained in GUASFCU that its student directors rarely need to connect with its advisory board of professionals and professors, which meets annually to review the students’ initiatives. In fact, as CEO, Cohen says she touches base with members of the credit union’s Maryland & District of Columbia Credit Union Association advisory board and external advisory board, which include two college professors and former credit union executives, less than once-per-month.

For more information on Georgetown University FCU’s goals and strategies, see Callahan & Associates’ 3Q 2011 Credit Union Strategy and Performance (CUSP).