OGDEN, Utah -- To those in Utah, it was hardly surprising last July when the $560 million Goldenwest Federal Credit Union walked off with top honors from the National Association of Federal Credit Unions as "Federal Credit Union of the Year" considering how they talk here of the CU's unique "employee culture."
Indeed, in both how the Ogden CU handles and trains its staff and its reputation in the community, Goldenwest has oftentimes been compared to Southwest Airlines as a CU success story of corporate growth against tough odds.
Only last month , Goldenwest was named "Best Company To Work For" in Utah by Utah Business magazine citing the CU's achievement in "work environment and corporate philosophy" among firms with 200-500 employees.
That "sales culture" and work ethic also figured in NAFCU judging which picked Goldenwest for its "best of" honor in the CU's size category.
Just how the Ogden CU has been faring in recent years ever since it converted from a state to a federal charter amidst that brutal banker fight of five years ago is reflected in the financials.
For instance, its assets of $560 million now dwarf the $201 million it recorded in 2000, a whopping increase of 148% while its membership has mushroomed from 41,000 to 65,000 members.
Meanwhile, ROA has jumped from 1.17% to 1.87%. As two other enviable markers, its delinquencies have been steady in the .4 range with net chargeoffs at .10%.
Though Shelley Clarke, the president/CEO of Goldenwest since 2000, credits the CU's successful track record to "the extraordinary dedication and hard work of the staff plus a determined group of volunteers," others both in and outside Utah lavish praise on Clarke herself for her leadership skills.
"She's a CEO who is superb at articulating a special credit union vision and delivering it in a style that employees and members respond to," explained Scott Simpson, the president/CEO of the Utah League of Credit Unions.
A former chairman of the Utah League who served during the height of banker attacks in 1999, Clarke "created a focus for the industry and her credit union," recalled Simpson noting how Goldenwest like others managed to withstand the banking onslaught which had imposed punitive laws and mounted court challenges aimed at putting the industry under water.
Under Clarke's leadership, Goldenwest went on to switch to a federal charter in May 2003 but faced further obstacles from a successful banker-inspired field of membership court case against NCUA blocking broader multi-county expansion.
A year later Goldenwest converted from a community-based FOM to multiple SEGs and the switch has proved a watershed event in helping cement CU growth.
"We found our members reacted favorably to a full line of products we could offer including mortgages and business loans," said Clarke. Meanwhile, her CU, she said, pressed ahead with a strong incentive-based sales program which caught on with the staff.
During some of the worst periods for Goldenwest following a negative FOM federal court ruling on the banker case, Clarke recalls the value of her board and top managers meeting with NCUA Region Five Director Melinda Love at a Goldenwest retreat.
"We invited Melinda to meet with us and outline what options we had in the face of the obstacles put up by the court ruling," said Clarke.
For her part, Love, who is based in Tempe, Ariz., acknowledged that in 2004-2005 there were a host of "due diligence" concerns faced by NCUA and the CUs it supervises.
Such sessions with boards, said Love, are considered a basic "customer service" offered to CUs on request "if they have something they'd like to talk about" in which case the agency tries to accommodate.
"After the Utah lawsuit, we worked closely with the four Utah credit unions involved to obtain a new field of membership," said Love. "In doing that, we looked at what their FOM was before conversion and discussed options with them. Goldenwest's multiple common bond FOM appeared to be the best way to get them up and running quickly."
Based on what might be called her "battle scars" in navigating a charter conversion and developing new FOM strategy, the Goldenwest CEO who started on the CU's teller line 33 years ago, became a reliable figure for smaller CUs in Utah to turn to for advice.
"We asked Shelley to meet with our board and let me tell you she was gracious but pulled no punches as to what we had to do to move ahead," recalled Michael Moyes, president/CEO of the $260 million Salt Lake CU, which later went on to add branches and a rebranding campaign.
Like other Utah CEOs, Moyes agrees that the cooperative spirit within the Utah industry "even though we do compete pretty fiercely" is really exceptional as compared to other parts of the U.S.
Utah CEOs are more than willing to meet and share experiences, something that "bankers would never even conceive of," observed Gordon Dames, president/CEO of the $2.2 billion Mountain America FCU of Salt Lake and a veteran of Utah banker wars who claims their attacks have boomeranged.
In fact, Dames echoing Clarke and other CEOs contends the bank attacks have actually spurred membership and demonstrated a positive CU role in Utah communities.
Also echoing Dames while congratulating Clarke on her NAFCU honor was Rick Craig, the president/CEO of the $4.1 billion America First FCU, who noted that bankers spent thousands in their attack ads complaining that CUs "don't pay taxes but offer lower rates on loans and higher rates on deposits."
And so, said Craig, once the legislature narrowly rejected the bankers bid to tax CUs," the public remembered that credit unions offered a better deal than banks and sought out a credit union to join."
Like Goldenwest, Craig notes that America First has shown sharp gains in members jumping from 330,000 members in April 2003 to 441,000, an increase of 33%.
"The population change in Utah from April 1, 2000 to July 1, 2006 was only 14.2%--317,000 people--so our growth isn't only from in migration," he said. "It has to be coming from bank customers."
In underscoring that co-operative attitude among Utah CUs, Dames whose CU structure mirrors Goldenwest, earlier this year was invited by Clarke to speak to the Goldenwest board to discuss his CU's highly successful SEG strategy.
"It was very productive and we thank Gordon for his message of doing what's right for the member above all else," recalled Clarke in recounting Dames' remarks.
In his Goldenwest message, Dames stressed the need for "honesty, mutual respect and trust" at all costs and that encouraging openness between management and subordinates has been the key to Mountain America's success.
Craig of America First noted that at about the same time Gordon Dames was talking to Goldenwest "I spent an hour and 20 minutes talking to the board and management of Deseret First, a $400 million plus credit union based in Salt Lake City, and answering questions about things we had done well and how they might be able to benefit."
As for Goldenwest's NAFCU accolades, Craig said he went out of his way to personally congratulate Clarke.
"When one credit union is recognized for superior achievement every credit union benefits," said Craig, adding "she congratulated us on winning the first ever Credit Union Times Political Action Award.
Regarding Goldenwest's NAFCU reward, Clarke credits an aggressive sales incentive program with helping win the prize and in that vein "having high expectation for our employees and then rewarding them accordingly."
The CU has declined to spell out the precise details of its incentive program but does consider it a "critical player in our long-term growth plans."
"Our sales culture can truly be defined as a service culture," said Clarke. "The impact of our sales environment is measured in our financial strength, employee retention, and return to member."
"At Goldenwest, we have the freedom to have fun," states Diana Windley, director of marketing. "We have no doubt that maximum productivity is achieved when the office atmosphere is positive and the work is fulfilling."
Top management, said Clarke, "truly sets the example for our 220 employees" and she added, "there are no personal agendas."
Clarke concluded that every Goldenwest employee is considered a member of the sales team fostering an internal energy "that can't be beat."