MADISON, Wis. -- He describes himself as a "rehabilitated attorney", but when Mark Meyer came to the Filene Research Institute three years ago, the energetic, tell-it-like-it is leader soon learned some of the skills he acquired in the law field would come in handy.
Meyer, 39, executive director and CEO of Filene, is slowly building a reputation in the industry as a proponent of credit unions stepping out of their traditional zones and taking more risks in a "landscape that is ripe for change."
"It is absolutely, extraordinarily stimulating," Meyer said on his time at Filene. "The type of people you're exposed to in this job, you can't put a dollar amount on it."
With that said, Meyer, who first came to Filene in January 2003 as the director of innovation, can't mask his concern for credit union CEOs who sincerely want to push the envelope, but say they are shackled by regulatory thresholds and nervous boards. Meyer provided an outlet for executives looking to "think out the box" when he founded i3, a group comprised of next generation credit union leaders focused on identifying and implementing new products, services or business models aimed at transforming the credit union industry.
"Credit unions need to get around the talent issue and this whole notion of governance," Meyer said. "It's not right that credit union CEOs are not encouraged to take an appropriate amount of risk. That's not how other financial institutions operate. The other piece is leadership. Is transformation happening now? It's good that we have Jim Blaine and Stan Hollen, who have created CEOs."
Meyer is in awe of Filene's role in the movement and how the institute has worked to establish connections with noted academicians and other purveyors outside of the movement to bring a "relevancy" and an awareness that may have not been apparent to the uninformed.
The importance of building alliances probably goes back to the eve of Meyer graduating from Northern Arizona University. The Iowa-born, Phoenix-raised soon-to-be-graduate recognized that having a Bachelor's degree would not mark the path to a leadership role he aspired to have one day. Earning a law degree from the University of Nebraska, Meyer said the experience, along with working at a prestigious Denver firm, helped to hone his reasoning and logic skills. While working in commercial and insurance litigation proved to see both sides of cases that are often tricky to prove who's at fault, Meyer soon discovered that there was a stronger calling.
"I quickly found that within six months, I was going down a path that was not aligned with my path," Meyer said.
Meyer's first exposure to credit unions came through his college roommate, who had worked at Arizona State Credit Union. The roommate was preparing to leave the job upon which Meyer seized on the opportunity to talk with the CEO about filling the vacancy. In 1995, at the age of 26, Meyer came aboard as vice president and legal counsel at Arizona State CU--a career elevation that startled him at first.
"How many CEOs would venture to hire a 26-year old in an executive role," Meyer recalled thinking. "You have to grow up through the ranks" is usually how the chain of command went.
During his six years at the credit union, Meyer made quite a few friends at CUNA Mutual Group. Ready for another transition, his exposure to some of the company's top executives led to a series of phone calls, a face-to-face interview and eventually a position as assistant vice president-credit union enterprises.
"It was a fascinating experience coming from a small organization with 300 employees to one with 5,500 employees," Meyer said on his two years at CUNA Mutual. "It was run like a mini [General Electric]. My role was to work across product areas. It was a powerful experience."
When CUNA Mutual changed guard at the top, Meyer said he was ready for a new career move and through a series of meetings, landed the director of innovation role at Filene. In 2000, the institute's board recognized the myriad of new challenges within the credit union industry and set forth with research projects reflecting those changes, Meyer said. His first project was a check cashing initiative for members and nonmembers led by a series of academic studies by John Caskey, a professor at Swarthmore College. Meyer worked with a half dozen leagues on implementing the new model, which led to REAL Solutions, a project partially funded by the National Credit Union Foundation and led by Lois Kitsch to bring "relevant, effective, asset-building, loyalty-producing" services solutions to those of modest means. Then, the concept of "i3" started to take shape.
"I had this very strange title--director of innovation. In collaborating with several leaders and talking to boards, what I kept hearing was missing was no one was provocatively looking at what it takes to get to credit union 2.0," Meyer said.
Twenty-five "innovators" came together for the first time in 2004 to form i3 with Meyer at the helm. In addition to identifying and evaluating innovations that met members' needs, the group, none of which are CEOs, also worked together to develop strategies to lower costs and increase credit union operational efficiencies, build member loyalty, and meet the special needs of member segments. Some of the group's well-known projects are a prize-based savings account and an "always a member" system that helps credit unions to move members seamlessly from one part of the country to another. Through brainstorming, i3 members asked the hard questions.
"What does it mean to be a cooperative," Meyer said. "Is CAMEL running credit unions? What is the required competency to be a CEO today? That led to 'where is the future of credit unions' and are CEOs in a better position to lead credit unions."
The discussions probably also centered on some of the pressing issues of the day including membership growth, banking group attacks and the thorny bank conversions.
"I'm a believer in market forces. If a credit union is going to convert to a bank, the process needs to be fair and equitable," Meyer said. "Filene has done research on other alternatives. It's pretty much about equality."
The unease still rumbling below the surface of the Wings Financial/Continental merger shakeup
may have been a wake-up call, some in the industry have said.
"I didn't like it," Meyer simply said on Wings/Continental. "I had this feeling in my gut that this is something big. But look at what we can learn from this--the notion of member value. We're so hung up on ratios, which are key indicators of success, but what are we doing for members?"
Putting on his research hat, Meyer said there are quantitative ways to look at member value and whether they even know "value proposition."
"I see the Wings thing as the glass being half full," Meyer said. "Why do credit unions exist and do members understand why they exist?"
His role at Filene has been an "extraordinary experience," Meyer said. Filene continues to work with bringing in experts from outside of the credit union industry to help see issues from a different perspective. Meyer is in the very early stages of creating a sabbatical model where credit union CEOs would be "on loan" to Filene for three, six, nine or 18-month periods to assist with major research projects. On the road nearly 60% of the time, Meyer presses forth with building more alliances.
"One thing I'm struggling with is we always have to be swift and nimble," he acknowledged. "We've always had a small staff so it's now, how can we create a mechanism to bring others in. Some of that has been through the research council and i3."
With all that he juggles, Meyer said he is a "tenacious believer in work and life balance." He "revels" in being a dad to his three children and is working towards running in a marathon in Chicago later this year. Meyer and wife Alicia will soon embark on a third hike of the Grand Canyon. The "quiet" history buff often looks to the past as lessons for the future. Meyer describes his leadership style as one who "leads from the middle." He much prefers to build a team and then push them to push the envelope.
"I would say I'm not the alpha, out-front person. If you're looking for my name to be all over Filene, that's not my job. I use the collaborative method. I'm learning more about who the real position players are. They're not always in a focus group."