Kate Laud is the CEO of Opportunities Credit Union ($44.6M, Winooski, VT), a position she has held since September. 2019. Opportunities is Vermont’s only community development credit union. Its mission is to create wealth and promote economic development to low-income and other traditionally underserved populations. Here, she answers Callahan’s leadership questions about her credit union’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Between the beginning of 2020 and now, how have your operations changed?
CU QUICK FACTS
Opportunities Credit Union
HQ: Winooski, VT
Data as of 03.31.20
12-MO SHARE GROWTH: 16.1%
12-MO LOAN GROWTH: 4.0%
Kate Laud: We have a small staff of 23 and one IT person who works from Bend, OR. When we made the move to remote work, it put a lot of pressure on him to set up remote access, test connections, and introduce scanning and printing capability. Before this, he was our only remote employee, so you can see the challenge.
We were able to send home all but our member services staff, who are essential. They are the ones in our branches who face our members. We focused on keeping them healthy because if one got sick, it was likely to spread. In addition, we created a bench unit of consumer lenders and MSRs, folks who weren’t currently working as tellers but could do the job if we asked them to. Thus far, we haven’t had to deploy them, but they are there if we need them.
What were some of the first leadership challenges you faced?
KL: In addition to sending our teams home, communication was a challenge. Different levels require different messaging. With our board members, I wanted them to be overinformed. I looked at it from my own perspective: If I was the director of a credit union, I would want to be well aware of the number of forbearance requests or PPP loans we were approving. For my direct reports, I tried to have longer, sustained conversations at least once a week not only to make sure they are OK personally but also to stay up to date on work projects.
How has the pandemic changed the way you communicate with members and staff?
Kate Laud, CEO, Opportunities Credit Union
KL: With our size, I’m able to personally reach out to all staff members easily. And, we invite the whole credit union to Zoom happy hours. It’s important to see how different everyone’s individual situation is. We’re learning more about one another’s home lives, which makes things more interesting and feel more human.
How have you evolved as a leader?
KL: I’ve had to learn to compartmentalize. For the first two weeks, I couldn’t sleep. It’s a national emergency, I’m new to this position, and I feel a tremendous amount of responsibility to our employees and members. But I had to realize I couldn’t do my job feeling that pressure all the time, that wouldn’t be good for anyone. I had to keep myself healthy and learn to compartmentalize for my success as a leader.
I had to understand that everyone is in the exact same situation, and none of us have been through this before. We’ve all been given the same set of circumstances, and although it felt at the beginning like things were close to collapse, it’s become clear society is willing to pull together to make a recovery happen.
As a result, I’ve become more consultative. No one knows anything for sure, so it was necessary to reach out to new and different people to ask for advice and recommendations based on the environment. We are fortunate to have experienced people on our board and on our team, including the credit union’s former CEO who helped the organization get through the Great Recession, and I wasn’t afraid to use them. If we get through this difficult time, it will be in large part thanks to their guidance.
Don’t be afraid to pick up the phone to ask a question or to solicit wisdom from people who you think might know the answer.
What has surprised you most about your members and employees during this time?
KL: I am shocked with how much our members are using the credit union.
With the interest in refinances and purchase mortgages, we’ve nearly reached our 2020 mortgage lending goal. Thanks to the Paycheck Protection Program, we have passed our 2020 business goal. I expected neither of those things.
Deposits are growing, too. We’ve strived to stay liquid as a conservative stance, but I don’t know what will happen to our margins with low rates and high volumes. We’ll have to wait and see.
Based on the operational changes you’ve made, what have you found is a better way of doing business than it was before?
KL: I like talking to people over the phone. Because we’re all at home, I haven’t been sending emails. I’ve been picking up the phone and getting my staff’s verbal reaction to questions and generally using it to establish open lines of physical communication. Email is great, but when we’re back in the office, I think I’ll continue to use the phone as a primary way of doing business.
What will the future hold for your credit union?
KL: I’m hoping we can grow organically. I’d like to see us defy expectations and become more profitable by adding more volume. We have in place a great core of systems and people, and I think we can handle that growth with minimal changes.
What is the biggest lesson you have learned from this experience that will better prepare you for similar situations in the future?
KL: It’s all about communication. Don’t be afraid to pick up the phone to ask a question or to solicit wisdom from people who you think might know the answer. Then, be available for them if they’re looking for the same.
What one piece of advice do you have for other leaders?
KL: I don’t feel as though I’ve been around long enough to offer advice to anyone. But I will say, my dad started a bank when I was a little kid. He wasn’t a banker, he was an investor, but I saw him approach his work with integrity, truthfulness, and transparency. They did well by using those values. I would be proud of myself if I could follow in his footsteps.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
This article appeared originally in Credit Union Strategy & Performance. Read More Today.