Kim Alexander, EVP/CFO, Warren FCU
You might say that leading a credit union is a bit like running a rodeo at times. So, it couldn’t hurt to have “helped lead one of the nation’s largest rodeos” on your resume. That’s just the kind of experience Kim Alexander brought to Warren Federal Credit Union ($573.2M, Cheyenne, WY) when she accepted the post of executive vice president and CFO in 2006.
Prior to joining Warren FCU, Alexander worked as controller for Frontier Days, a 10-day national rodeo event in Cheyenne. Working with some 2,500 volunteers annually, she had learned what it was like to be a jack of all trades at a smaller organization, helping to launch new programs and even setting up a subsidiary to sell Frontier Days products. It was just one step of a varied career path that has exposed her to nearly all facets of finance and accounting across several different industries.
Alexander was an outsider to credit unions in 2006, but during her tenure, Warren FCU has grown from $150 million in assets to $570 million, with branches spread across eastern Wyoming and the northern Colorado city of Fort Collins. It’s the kind of ride that would have most new managers hanging on for dear life, but for Alexander, it was something she’d prepared for her whole career.
“When you get to my level, if you have some background with the day-to-day of what happens in finance and accounting, it helps,” she says. “As I’ve moved into new roles, it’s been helpful understanding things like HR, payroll, expansion, government, and audits. It’s been a great career path for me versus starting in management and never having been in the weeds.”
A native of Laramie, she went to Nebraska State College on a four-year volleyball scholarship. At just 5’4”, she wasn’t the tallest setter on the team, but she made up for it in quickness. After receiving a bachelor’s degree in accounting and business systems, she earned her CPA designation shortly thereafter and headed to Motorola’s Government Electronics division in Phoenix for management training, rotating through all areas of finance includinggeneral ledger, payroll, accounts payable, and internal audit. She worked with a new manager and a new team every two months for the year-long rotation, which taught her a lot about different management styles.
“You might go to one department and everybody was jazzed, liked their managers, got along well, and had a synergy,” she recalls. “And there were those departments that worked under pressure and operated in intimation mode.”
She later worked for Deluxe Sales Development Systems in Denver, where she also taught part-time at Barnes Business College, before leaving for Cheyenne for Frontier Days and later a two-year stint as CFO of the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services. Today, after nearly a decade at Warren FCU, she’sno longer an outsider to the credit union industry. Here are her perspectives on leading teams, managing growth and sitting tall in the saddle — no matter what the challenge.
CU QUICK FACTS
Data as of 09.30.15
HQ: Cheyenne, WY
12-MO SHARE GROWTH: 6.85%
12-MO LOAN GROWTH: 11.36%
On building great teams …
Hiring is one thing that can separate a good leader from one who is not. When you’ve got an important position, don’t be afraid to hire younger professionals who don’t have a lot of experience. They have a lot of energy and they’re sponges when it comes to learning. Provide a little vision for what they’re doing and don’t micro manage.
I struggle with that a lot: Am I in the weeds and should I be?
Empowering people, giving guidance, and trying to keep them on track has been important. You need to explain your vision, explain where you want to go, and then let them go.
On collaboration and mutual respect …
I’m the finance person. I’m driven by data. I have that direction, but I work with a couple of people who are genuinely great people and are on the softer side. I admire that and I try to grab inspiration from them.
We all have a pledge board at the credit union, and mine currently says, “Welcome others’ perspectives and be respectful of them.” That comes from listening to other people and being open to other ideas even though we think we have all the answers.
I get my inspiration from my husband and my kids because nobody’s going to be more honest with you, especially your kids.
On relationships and trust …
When you’re transitioning from staff level to manager, you want your team to like you, but you can’t be everybody’s best friend. You have to find a way to build trust and build relationships without being everybody’s best friend. They don’t have to like every decision you make; they just need to understand why you’re making the decision.
On managing growth …
We’re a younger executive team, and we’re not afraid of challenges, so we’ve had a lot of growth but we’ve maintained our financial strength and we’re doing it in a favorable work environment, which is why the culture is so important.
We’ve always had strong loan growth, we’ve always been in the top tier in loan-to-share ratio. We’re at 100% right now. When I go to conferences and tell people that, people from other institutions say they would like to have a problem like that. It’s profitable, especially in this low-rate environment.
Employees don’t have to like every decision you make; they just need to understand why you’re making the decision.
Another metric we’re proud of is what we give back to the member. We have one of the highest net interest margins. We also have one of the highest costs to fund. We strive to have high rates that we’re giving back to our members. We’ve been able to do that and maintain an overall healthy interest margin. We don’t give a special dividend at the end of the year, like other institutions. We give it back every day.
On keeping up with government regulations …
Government regulations are coming from so many different angles. We’ve got FASB, NCUA, CFPB. So many regulations are coming at you and all of the mortgage changes to the point where some of the lending institutions are talking about not offering a specific loan type — the fixed, second mortgages — because regulations are almost making it not worth doing. That hurts the consumer at the end of the day.
Risk-based net worth is still out there looming. It looks like we’re going to be fine, but we have to consider: Is it is going to restrict us from future growth if we want to get more into the commercial business? There are a lot of negatives if our ratios get off. Is it really going to help us in the long run? I worry about taking that into account. Is expanding our business model going to hurt our risk-based net worth ratios too much?
On using data effectively …
Most of the information the industry shares is overall industry data. Sometimes the information is good, but when you get down to the individual credit unions, that’s where Callahan Peer-to-Peer data is so powerful.
We had spikes in delinquency, and I was able to pick out five credit unions that had exactly the same loan portfolio as us because you can go in and custom-build your peers. I was able to show my collections team what their delinquency is and what their charge-offs are and how much they’d been growing, the same as us, and yet we were higher.
— As told to E.C. Harrison