SAN DIMAS, Calif. -- There is no way anyone can come to know Sarah Canepa Bang for very long without asking about her name. It has a lyric quality of syllables and vowels the somewhat explosive ending that makes it easy to say and even easier to remember--qualities Bang appreciates. So it's ever more ironic that she began using her maiden name almost as a defensive strategy.
Bang has served as the CEO of the Financial Service Centers Cooperative Shared Branch Network since 1999.
Bang recounted how soon after her marriage to Steve Bang, a man she met while working for CUNA in Madison, she met with a group of credit union executives and how she was called to the front of the group by the meeting's leader who said "now let's hear from bang Bang."
"It became apparent fairly quickly that being Sarah Bang might not be very good for my career," Bang said. "I was being called whiz-bang, bing bang, any of the bang phrases you can think of." But the breaking point came, she said, when she called a credit union CEO and had him drop the phone because he laughed so hard when she said her name.
"The thing is that he went on to become a really good friend of mine and I wouldn't want to embarrass him now," Bang concluded.
In many ways Bang's name and how she turned it from something which might have to be awkwardly overcome into something which she could use to popularize her ideas and her organizations can serve as a metaphor for her career. Moving and building on her skills as a communicator and educator, Bang has come to a point where she has become widely and personally recognized as the face of both the FSCC specifically and shared branching generally, as well as its most well known advocate.
Sarah Canepa Bang started life as Sarah Canepa in the little town of Baraboo, Wisconsin, where the Ringling Brothers Circus headquartered its operations from 1884 to 1918. The town is not too far from Madison, where there had long been a thriving Italian community so the name Canepa was not terribly unusual. Madison, of course, is the informal headquarters of the credit union industry in the U.S. and it was only natural that Bang wound up after college working for CUNA in the trade association's Internet office.
Looking back, the job seemed to foreshadow her later career as it combined elements of technical proficiency, which she would have to learn, with elements of the communication and education degrees she earned from the University of Wisconsin and that came more naturally to her.
While at CUNA Sarah Canepa met the man she eventually married, Steve Bang, an executive with a software company headquartered in Europe and a 12-year board member with the $1.5 billion First Technology Credit Union, headquartered in Beaverton, Oregon.
Sarah married Steve while working at her third credit union related job, as an educator and trainer for the Massachusetts Credit Union League and it was in working with those credit unions that she said it became clear that she would need to use her maiden name as well as her married name.
From Massachusetts Bang moved back to the Oregon Credit Union League, where she had served as education director before working at Massachusetts, and it was during her second time with the Oregon League that her career began to take on the mixture of familiarity with technology and commitment to education that has marked her term at FSCC.
Bang served the Oregon League as both an executive vice president and as CEO of CU Access Oregon, an ATM and shared branching network which the Oregon League ran (with a corresponding organization in Washington State) and which, Bang admitted, was in a state of disarray--a time that some of her longest associates remember well.
"It was during this period before Sarah came on board with CU Access that I learned the meaning of the term, 'cash burn rate,'" said Steve Dahlstrom CEO of the $854 million Spokane Teachers Credit Union, current FSCC chairman and then a board member with CU Access. "The phrase 'cash burn rate' refers to the rate at which you are burning through cash to the point where you don't have any more--and I think CU Access was down to six months worth."
Bang, who was CEO of the CU Access Oregon network, said the network suffered from a variety of technical and organizational problems. On the technical side, the network was unprepared for the possible technical problems which might arise from Y2K and could probably not be prepared completely in time. On the organizational side, Bang said the network had problems with everything from procurement to accounts receivable. All of these things, Bang said, could be overcome but paled beside the deeper problem: neither the shared branching network nor the ATM network were big enough or had sufficient volume to be sustainable over the long term.
"A back of the envelope summary of the situation was that the shared branching network was losing money and the ATM network couldn't make enough money to cover the losses," said Bang, and Dahlstrom agreed. "What we realized was that shared branching simply would not work on just a state basis," he said.
So the ATM network at CU Access was sold to CO-OP Financial Services and the credit unions who were part of the shared branching network were assisted in becoming part of the much younger and smaller FSCC, where Bang was asked to come on board as CEO in 1999.
Bang said she came to FSCC with the lessons from her time with CEO Access fresh in her mind: first the need to keep on top of technical developments and seek out the cutting edge of technology whenever possible and practical and, second, the need to do much more education about the benefits of shared branching.
Bang tackled the first by convincing FSCC to help its member credit unions adopt the ISO 8583 message standard for their shared branching transactions and the second by honing her communication skills further and hitting the road.
"I think that we chose Sarah to be CEO of FSCC because we saw the need for her particular skill when it comes to education and communications," said Tom Graham, CEO of the SunCorp Corporate Credit Union. Graham was on the board of FSCC at the time the organization hired her and he said FSCC understood that, especially with the new message standard that its credit unions adopted, the chief obstacles to shared branching were in attitude more than technology.
"Sarah is particularly good at both the speaking part of communications and also the listening part--and that turned out to be key," Graham said. "She knew how to listen to the folks who had objections to shared branching or fears about it so that she could reassure them."
A Concept Grows
And as she has evangelized the credit union industry on shared branching, Bang has watched as the idea has gained converts. From when she began in 1999, Bang said the network has grown from about 100 shared branching outlets to more than 1,000 directly affiliated with FSCC, and over 2,400 available nationally through affiliation with CO-OP Financial Services.
But as important as she believes FSCC to be, Bang makes sure that another one of her other passionate ideas--CUs helping sick children--also gets a fair amount of attention. Bang has been an instrumental part of getting the CUs For Kids program with the Children's Miracle Network going and was one of the key founders while at the Oregon League.
Bang, who has never had children, said she was invited to come with him to visit some children at a hospital by Tom Sargent, CEO of First Financial Credit Union.
"Back then, the conditions were pretty rough for the kids and there wasn't a whole lot of support and there was no way you could go visit these kids and not come away with your life changed," Bang said, adding, "It changed my life."
Bang and FSCC have since become enthusiastic and hard working supporters of the CU For Kids program, not only providing the effort with a public face but working hard behind the scenes as well.
Joe Dearborn, director of the CUs For Kids program, said Bang has played a pivotal role in helping him connect with credit union supporters of the program, which can be a challenge because there are so many of them.
"Usually when we have a sponsor, a company or an organization, we have one contact or maybe two," Dearborn said. "With credit unions we have many. We have the credit unions themselves and then we have the trade associations like CUNA and then we have the different service organizations and vendors. Sarah has helped me establish the connections I need to have with all these different people."
Between her work with FSCC and CUs For Kids, Bang spends much of her time traveling and, though she will not disclose her age, said she is nowhere near being ready to retire or to leave FSCC for something else, in part because FSCC and the shared branching part of the credit union industry keeps evolving.
"When I look ahead to everything that shared branching is going to be able to bring credit unions, it really is a great time to be involved in it, even if that means that sometimes I wonder which airport I am in now," Bang said.
She added that she is fine with having become something of the brand for FSCC, the image and person most clearly associated with the organization.
"I think we had a task of putting a human face on a concept, letting other credit union members use our credit union services to meet their needs and if mine has been the image and personality that has helped spread that message," Bang said, "I am pleased."
Dahlstrom said that FSCC is also pleased with having Bang as both its CEO and chief image--even as he acknowledged that eventually Bang, like anyone else, will leave.
"Well, first of all, Sarah is never going to leave," Dahlstrom said, chuckling, "but when that day does finally come then the organization will have to change--but change is what ever organization has to do to thrive, so we are fine with that."