When Sarah O'Brien started her career at Navy Army Community Credit Union, the Corpus Christi, TX, cooperative had approximately $45 million in assets and 32 employees. The institution recruited O'Brien — a fresh-from-college graduate with two years of credit union experience — to be its vice president/controller. But O'Brien stepped in as interim CEO a year-and-a-half later when the credit union underwent an overnight shake up in management.
That was 25 years ago. Today, O'Brien is back at the helm following the retirement of longtime CEO Wayne Vann in August 2013. Here, she talks about transition, culture, and growth at the now $2.1 billion institution.
Tell me about the working partnership between you and former CEO Wayne Vann.
Sarah O'Brien: Wayne and I ran this shop together for 25 years. I was a part of every major decision. He had lending, collections, and marketing, and I had the rest. We had a unique way we ran the business, but we ran it very well.
How does it feel to be the CEO after working beside Vann for so long?
SO: It took a lot of getting used to, but this was not something that happened in one day. We worked on this transition for several years.
Can you give me an example of how the credit union prepared for your move?
SO: When you're a $2 billion institution, you have to know who's going to step in if something happens and who's going to move up. When our vice president of operations retired, we asked our then CFO, Dana Sisk, to be our COO. I was being groomed to be the president and started pushing things to her, which gave me time to learn some of the lending and marketing side of our business.
Tell me about your transition with the board?
SO: The most interesting thing was that I had to interview for the job with our board. When I walked in, I said, "This is my first job interview in 27 years, so I'm a little rusty."
There are pros and cons about working here that long and moving up. I've been with five of the board members since the day I started. I'm not the same person that I was back then — I'm not quite as hotheaded — so I had to get past that with the board of directors and let them know I could handle this.
How else have things changed since you became ceo?
SO: Wayne and I are complete opposites — that's why we were able to work so well together for so long. He was very much a "we're in charge" guy. But you run a $45 million institution different from a $2 billion one. When we got to the stage where we knew we couldn't run this as a mom and pop shop anymore, we put people under us. When we got to $250 million, we added more. Then we hit $1 billion.
Now I see us as a team. We have people who are experts in their field. They bring a lot to the table, and I am big on figuring things out together.
Is it ever difficult to cede control?
SO: I'll just say it: I think my ways are right. You have to build trust with a person before you can let them take over pieces of the business.
How does your senior management team share responsibilities and expectations?
SO: There are no lines in the sand, and no one is totally in charge of anyone else. In our branches, the member service reps do loans and report to the branch manger. The branch manager reports up through operations, not up through lending. But our lending team does all the training. They all work together.
As you build a professional senior management team, how does that change your discussions with the board?
SO: We have to grow the board's expertise as we go along. Every board meeting we bring in some kind of training and board members also go to one or two conferences a year. They're getting more educated and making more decisions, but they're out of the weeds — which is where they should be.
As your credit union grows, how do you make sure entry-level or front-line employees are living the credit union's brand?
SO: We are big on making sure employees know they are important. We have good benefits. We have great compensation and incentive programs. We believe in promotion from within.
Do you have a leadership or staff development program?
SO: We do. We created a leadership program eight or nine years ago that we put 12 people a year through. And we have a career path program that outlines the training employees need to advance.
How else do you show your employees they are important?
SO: We have a wellness program to help people stay healthy. I meet with new employees on their first day and talk with them about what they can expect from us and what we expect from them. We have luncheons where we discuss the history of the credit union. Our managers take their employees to dinner every quarter. We have a tellers' night out and a lenders' night out twice a year. We also do family picnics and employee appreciation dinners.
How do you communicate up and down the organization about what's going on in the credit union?
SO: Several years ago Wayne started meeting with employees to explain what went on the year before and what they could expect in the coming year. I continued that. I had 23 meetings with staff this year that ranged from an hour to an hour-and-a-half depending on how many questions there were.
You have to build a relationship with people so they trust you enough to ask questions. We know we have gaps in communication or operations, but we won't know where they are if we don't ask our employees.
You converted to a state charter in 2011 and moved into the Rio Grande Valley. If you were looking for growth, why not find a merger partner?
SO: We're not big on mergers. I've not found other organizations that have the same philosophy we do. My employees understand from day one that the member is No. 1. I know I can count on them to figure out how to say "yes" more than "no." That's a huge piece of how we do business.
What's the next step for NavyArmy?
SO: By moving to a state charter, we increased our potential membership by 1 million people in Hidalgo and Cameron counties. So the next three to five years will be focused on expansion down there.