Maria Martinez On Leadership

The CEO of Border FCU, who began her career in accounting, explains how serving the underserved hews more closely to social work than anything else.

 
 

CU QUICK FACTS

Border FCU
Data as of 12.31.19

HQ: Del Rio, TX
ASSETS: $151.8M
MEMBERS: 25,222
BRANCHES: 6
12-MO SHARE GROWTH: 3.4%
12-MO LOAN GROWTH: 1.0%
ROA: 1.36%

As a teenager, Maria Martinez wanted to become an accountant. Perhaps prophetically, a high school career aptitude test suggested an alternative path.

“It said I should be a social worker,” says the CEO of Border Federal Credit Union ($151.8M, Del Rio, TX). “I didn’t want to be a social worker.”

So, Martinez became an accountant. For six years, she worked at what is now Generations FCU ($551.8M, San Antonio, TX), first as the accounting manager and then as comptroller. 

When her husband took a job in the border city of Del Rio, TX, in 1994, Martinez began a monthslong job search for employment in the small community located 150 miles west of San Antonio. She joined Border — which at the time had slightly more than $30 million in assets — as the vice president of lending and three years later threw her name into the ring when the CEO announced his retirement and the credit union started looking for a replacement. She earned the job.

Here, Martinez talks about her leadership style, her accomplishments, three decades in the industry, and why credit unions need to focus on the underserved. 

On career pathing …

When I was in high school, a career test told me I should be a social worker. I wanted to be an accountant. I worked for a savings and loan bank after I graduated, and that’s when I decided I wanted to be a bank president — I even wrote it down and thought about how to qualify for that job. 

Of course, I’m a credit union CEO now, which is better because credit unions have a social responsibility to serve the underserved. We take pride in it, and I think we do a pretty good job of it. It’s funny to think that all these years later my career test was right. It’s not exactly the way I imagined it, but social work was my true calling. I love accounting and the numbers and all that, but I also love to help people.

On seeing potential …

During my initial interview with Border, I discovered the CEO was going to retire in a few years and there was opportunity for me to assume that role if I prepared for it. During our interview, I saw just how much industry knowledge he had and how much I could learn from him. I did a lot of preparing on my own, too. 

On leadership styles and influences …

Maria Martinez, CEO, Border FCU

I previously worked for a CFO who was tough. He was a hard critic and would red line everything. To me, that was a challenge. If he gave me red marks, it was an opportunity to correct what I’d done wrong and show him I could do what he expected. It prepared me for future challenges. I knew if I could overcome the obstacles he was putting in front of me, I would be well prepared in the future.

I learned a lot from him, but I’m not mean. I have my red pen, but I work through things with my staff to see how we can do better. The more heads we put together, the better our results will be. I have an open door policy, and I love to mentor others. We started a young professionals program at Border so younger employees can learn from one another and understand better what they want from life and from their career.

On building teams …

Everyone has different strengths and weaknesses. There are some you give a job to in black-and-white terms and they can run with it. Others need more context, more insight. Over the years, I’ve learned how to work with folks differently to get the best from them.

When I hire someone, I do it with the idea that we are going to make it work. That could mean three months and they’re off on their own. Or, it could mean years of development. As long as I see potential, I’m there for them. Sometimes leaders give up too quick. Everyone is going to be different — and you don’t want all the same people in the room anyway.

On finding inspiration and motivation …

I tell my staff to do one good thing every day. That’s my philosophy: If you do good, good is going to come back to you. Then, if you’re having a hard day, give yourself the time and space to recoup. It’s not easy, but it has worked for me and I think it can work for anybody. 

On the biggest accomplishments as CEO …

Del Rio is a low income, underserved community. When I came to work for the credit union, we had $32 million in assets and 32 employees. My objective was to create jobs and make the lives better for the people we hire. Then, offer benefits that make them want to stay. If we do that, our people will be happy, work well, and give us better results.

I love accounting and the numbers and all that, but I also love to help people.

Maria Martinez, CEO, Border FCU

We’ve created programs for the low income, the underserved, and the unbanked. We offer free financial counseling and income tax preparation. We also volunteer in the community.

Within the industry, I helped found the Network of Latino Credit Unions and Professionals (NLCUP) in 2006. It’s a networking group of mainly Latino and Hispanic credit union CEOs that meets once per year in Washington, DC, during the GAC. In 2017, I received the Herb Wegner Memorial Award from the National Credit Union Foundation. It was the best night of my life.

On what the industry needs more, of less, of …

We need to establish more programs to serve the underserved. I believe Border has done so well because we are helping those who are not being helped by others. That includes the Hispanic market, a loyal group that brings friends and family with them in their financial lives.

We serve members with credit scores from 400-600, and we do it well. You can look at my financials and see my delinquencies and charge-offs are low, my losses are low. I serve a good market that needs my services, and I think credit unions need to be doing more of that.

Being a CEO does not mean just giving orders. You need to mop when you need to mop. You need to be visible in the community. I serve on local and national boards, like CUNA’s, and I firmly believe if someone offers you an opportunity to volunteer, then you should raise your hand.

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