Lessons Learned From A Challenging Year (Part 3)

Credit union chief executives share takeaways from 2020 and talk about how they’ll turn challenge into opportunity in the year ahead.

 
 

Credit unions quickly responded to COVID-19 by sending staff home and extending financial help to members in ways that tested the movement’s operational and financial resilience, each cooperative in its own way.

Now, while the movement and the nation await a wave of vaccinations to beat back a tsunami of infections, credit union leadership teams position their technology and people to turn challenge into opportunity in 2021.

As a uniquely challenging year yields to a new trip around the sun, CreditUnions.com turned to the senior leaders at cooperatives around the country for their major takeaways from 2020 and what they see coming in the year ahead.

Here’s what they said.

This is the third in a three-part series.

  • Read Part 1 for replies from Brandon Riechers of Royal Credit Union, Steve Swofford of Alabama Credit Union, Tom Gryp of Notre Dame FCU, Kate Laud of Opportunities Credit Union, and Gordon Howe of UNIFY Financial FCU.

  • Read Part 2 for replies from Martha Fuerstenau of American 1 Credit Union, Linda Bodie of Element FCU, Dan Wollin of PCM Credit Union, Mike Lord of State Employees’ Credit Union, and Jim McCarthy of Trailhead Credit Union.

Express Credit Union

Paul Baudin, CEO, Express Credit Union

Paul Baudin joined Express Credit Union ($15.1M, Seattle, WA) as its CFO in 2014 and has been CEO since 2017.

What is the biggest lesson your cooperative learned this year from the pandemic?

Paul Baudin: One of the biggest lessons we learned was how resilient our team and our membership is. We learned we can be flexible and adapt to evolving situations in a short period of time. The year taught us the importance of handling each member request with empathy because that’s what people need during times of isolation and financial uncertainty.

What is your biggest opportunity for the year ahead? What are you doing to respond to it?

PB: Express serves some of the people in our community most negatively impacted by the pandemic. 2021 is our moment as a CDFI to step up and provide creative solutions to fit their needs. One of the biggest opportunities for us is connecting with those who need our services but don’t know places like Express exist. We will work closely with our community partners to reach their clients with financial education and access to affordable, equitable financial services. Our job is to help our members recover and improve their financial situation — a multiyear effort.

At this point next year, what would you like to be able to say of your credit union’s performance in 2021?

PB: I want to be able to say Express was consistently reliable for our members and we were an anchor for them to get through a tough year of recovery, that we went above and beyond the goals we set to serve our members, and that we reached communities and people who would’ve gone unbanked had it not been for Express.

Great Lakes Credit Union

Steve Bugg, President & CEO, Great Lakes Credit Union

Steve Bugg has been president and CEO of Great Lakes Credit Union ($1.0B, Bannockburn, IL) since May 2018.

What is the biggest lesson your cooperative learned this year from the pandemic?

Steve Bugg: The biggest lesson we learned was about business continuity planning. We had a pandemic plan on the shelf that we had never used, other than some table tests, but it suddenly became something we had to put in place and adjust to quickly.

We also quickly realized a lot of members were being impacted in multiple ways. To continue to provide compassionate, robust service as their trusted financial partner, we would have to do that with branches limited to appointment-only service. That meant encouraging and communicating the use of digital service and shifting activity to our call center, for starters, which we’re still doing today.

We also learned to truly be there for members, we could waive fees, participate in programs like PPP lending, and continue our HUD homeowners and other counseling services.

What is your biggest opportunity for the year ahead? What are you doing to respond to it?

SB: We need to make 2021 the “year of the member.” We’ll do that by mapping the member journey with a focus on delivery channel improvements. We also will have to reinvest in the business, which means hiring the right staff, even during the pandemic, and making sure all our employees can handle the new ways we’re doing business.

Technology is also huge for us. We hadn’t invested a lot in our platforms before I got here in 2018. Now, we’ll be building on what we’ve done since then. For example, our online banking portal is outdated and we’re going through an RFP for a provider for that now. We’ll also be continuing to update our mobile presence while we use our technology partners to streamline processes and procedures so we can focus our human capital on things we can do to drive our credit union forward.

We’ll also be looking at ways we can support small businesses in our community, and we’ll be looking for mergers and acquisitions, as long as they make sense on both sides. An example would be a community bank that could help us better serve local businesses while we build that out on our own.

At this point next year, what would you like to be able to say of your credit union’s performance in 2021?

SB: I would like to know we were able to improve our employee and member experience, and our financials, while we continued to build a strong brand in our local community. That includes how we set ourselves apart from other financial institutions through our work in community financial empowerment. Great Lakes Credit Union has been here 80 years, and we’ve gone through many storms with our members. Next year at this time, we’d like to be sure we can point to how we took advantage of the silver linings we see now.

Nusenda Federal Credit Union

Joe Christian, President and CEO, Nusenda Federal Credit Union

Joe Christian has been with Nusenda Federal Credit Union ($3.0B, Albuquerque, NM) since 1986 and became its president and CEO in May 2019.

What is the biggest lesson your cooperative learned this year from the pandemic?

Joe Christian: We learned how important our Nusenda Credit Union family is. Our combined commitment to one another ensured we would succeed no matter what the next challenge had in store. We pulled together and demonstrated that the impossible is possible. Although there are more difficulties ahead, one thing is certain — as our employees, leadership team, and board join together and exhibit what we call “The Power of WE” — there isn’t an obstacle that will stand in our way as we continue to help our members and the New Mexico community.

What is your biggest opportunity for the year ahead? What are you doing to respond to it?

JC: Our opportunity is to apply the lessons we’ve learned this year and integrate them with our strategic vision. Nusenda has demonstrated we can quickly execute critical initiatives to respond to our employees’ and members’ needs during the pandemic. We know members want to keep the benefits of remote customer service. In recent years, we’ve focused on the member experience, in-person and digitally, so we are well-positioned to meet the future. Our employees expect more flexible work-from-home options as we put the pandemic behind us in the latter part of next year. We are exploring how to address their needs.

At this point next year, what would you like to be able to say of your credit union’s performance in 2021?

JC: I expect to say we met the needs of our members, employees, and community while maintaining financial performance and embracing diversity. We focused on employee health throughout the pandemic. We built on the knowledge we gained and expanded member service to address the realities of a post-pandemic world. The Nusenda family met the challenge.

Peninsula Community Federal Credit Union

Jim Morrell, President & CEO, Peninsula Community Federal Credit Union

Jim Morrell has been president and CEO of Peninsula Community Federal Credit Union ($233.7, Shelton, WA) since 2012.

What is the biggest lesson your cooperative learned this year from the pandemic?

Jim Morrell: Flexibility enabled us to better serve our members, and pivoting to a work-from-home environment and limiting branch access considerably deepened the remote service tools we use to support members. The adaptability of own team plus the cooperation among cooperatives — locally and regionally as credit unions shared many best practices and ideas — helped us improve our member service, too.

What is your biggest opportunity for the year ahead? What are you doing to respond to it?

JM: A full online and mobile banking conversion took place in November 2020. We now have a huge opportunity to support our members through new digital tools to track credit scores, build budgets, and help provide financial education remotely.

Consumer trends are the wind behind these new digital banking sails we just put in place. Furthermore, we have deployed digital wallets and will be implementing contactless cards during the next six months.

At this point next year, what would you like to be able to say of your credit union’s performance in 2021?

JM: I hope to be able to say our members and the credit union are faring better than the unemployment, interest rate, and recessionary impacts predicted. And the credit union is a much stronger organization, with financial results stronger than plan, that’s even better able to serve members.

Pennsylvania State Employees Credit Union

George Rudolph, President, Pennsylvania State Employees Credit Union

George Rudolph has been president of Pennsylvania State Employees Credit Union ($7.1B, Harrisburg, PA) since January 2019.

What is the biggest lesson your cooperative learned this year from the pandemic?

George Rudolph: Fortunately, PSECU had long since figured out the future was in providing reliable, high-quality banking services remotely and digitally. With just two branches and years of digital investment, in many respects, we’ve been providing digital-first remote services to our members all along. From that perspective, we were well-equipped to continue providing these same highly reliable services to our members uninterrupted throughout the year.

Perhaps one thing we hadn’t put enough focus on that came to light during the pandemic was how to conduct many of our back-office supporting processes efficiently in a remote, digital, paperless format. Although we managed to quickly adapt to continue providing these services seamlessly for our members, this “ah-ha moment” made us realize we needed to focus more effort and resources on digitalizing our back-office supporting services as well — and that’s exactly what we’ll be doing during the next 18 to 24 months.

What is your biggest opportunity for the year ahead? What are you doing to respond to it?

GR: We want to focus on what needs to be done in the year ahead to ensure we’ve adjusted to the changes in the operating environment brought on by the pandemic. But I see this as an opportunity to focus on the key longer-term investments as well. We might have to make some tradeoffs in 2021, rearrange some priorities, and/or possibly even adjust or delay some of our longer-term initiatives and projects, but we’ll continue to stay focused on our north stars of making the necessary investments in future growth, talent, and efficiency and scalability.

Likewise, we’ll continue to make significant investments in our digital-first remote assets, such as the recent release of our new mobile banking platform and the upcoming release of our new online banking application. We’ll also make sure we’re putting adequate focus and attention on modernizing some of our back-office processes and remote-work capabilities.

At this point next year, what would you like to be able to say of your credit union’s performance in 2021?

GR: I’d love to be able to look back and say throughout 2021, PSECU did not miss a beat — from both an employee and a member perspective. As an organization, we managed to address the challenging situations posed by the global pandemic, and we did so in ways that satisfied the needs of more than 475,000 members and 800 employees — all while keeping health and wellbeing a priority.

To accomplish this goal, strategic thinking and planning will be important as we identify new ways to conduct business and invest in the long-term growth and stability of the credit union.

Teachers Federal Credit Union

Brad Calhoun, President & CEO, Teachers FCU

Brad Calhoun joined Teachers Federal Credit Union ($8.2B, Smithtown, NY) in June 2019.

What is the biggest lesson your cooperative learned this year from the pandemic?

Brad Calhoun:The biggest lesson from the pandemic this year is the importance of digital solutions. New York was at the epicenter of the pandemic early on, and we needed to act quickly to keep our team and community safe while continuing to serve members.

In just a matter of weeks, we developed an entirely new way of operating. The majority of our back-office staff was working remote, and our branches were serving members with proper social distancing and preventative measures in place. Simultaneously, we provided how-to video guides and redirected members to our website and mobile app to facilitate banking transactions.

What is your biggest opportunity for the year ahead? What are you doing to respond to it?

BC: The biggest opportunity continues to be to enhance and transform the member experience. We must make banking as convenient and as simple as possible. This year we added a new digital account opening process to our website, which makes it easier than ever for someone to join or further their membership. We offer the best member experience when in-person experiences meet digital experiences, which allows members to bank where they want, when they want.

At this point next year, what would you like to be able to say of your credit union’s performance in 2021?

BC: We aim to grow in a way that benefits members.At the start of 2020, we had $7.3 billion in assets and now we have $8.3 billion, which is a testament to our steady growth and financial dependability. We also funded more than $1 billion in first mortgage originations, a major milestone thatshows we have prioritized helping our members achieve the dream of homeownership. As we look toward 2021, my vision is that we’ll continue this steady asset growth, continue this strong performance, and further share the value proposition of banking with Teachers.

These interviews have been edited and condensed.

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