OLYMPIA, Wash. -- Working for two governors and then coming to the second largest credit union in Washington might be a cultural shock for some but not Wayne Kawakami.
In 2006, Kawakami was hired as vice president of funding and investments at $1 billion Washington State Employees CU--a newly created position at the financial institution. The executive oversees corporate treasury functions daily cash management, deposit pricing and ensures that the credit union has and maintains an adequate funding position. Kawakami also manages WSECU's entire investment portfolio. The credit union serves more than 150,000 members and has 19 branches across the state.
The Washington native has a unique career background in that he previously served as a senior budget assistant to former Gov. Gary Locke and Gov. Christine Gregoire at the state's Office of Financial Management. Most of his career is steeped in state government having worked as a fiscal analyst and senior budget manager for several Washington State agencies as well in the legislature. His experience with Locke and Gregoire, however, would provide the roots to carry him forth into the nonprofit world of credit unions.
"Generally speaking, there are similarities. One important one is values. Another is the mission of making someone's life easier," Kawakami said. "When I was with the state, I was on the budget side in social services and that was about improving the lives of Washingtonians."
He's noticed another parallel between the state and WSECU in that much of the decision making involves identifying the context, its impact, and whether the choices are the appropriate ones at any given time.
"That's what I did for both governors and I'm hoping to bring that here," Kawakami said.
If there is such a thing as a typical day, Kawakami said he kicks off his mornings immersed in the financial trades to assess the various marketplaces and how they might impact credit unions. WesCorp's daily commentary, The Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg are among his top sources. He then scans WSECU's deposit pricing and compares its performance to credit union peers. The daily cash coffers are tracked to ensure that there's enough there and daily investment rates are monitored. Depending on the time of the year, Kawakami is almost always juggling different projects. Right now, he's getting ready to participate in updating the credit union's business plan. The adjustments are done twice a year.
Lately, WSECU has received queries from members concerned about the safety of their accounts in the midst of a sluggish economic downturn, Kawakami noticed. The credit union is in strong financial shape, he said, adding members are reassured that WSECU was not impacted by the subprime debacle: "We're in a good position, we watched from the sidelines [during the subprime rush]."
"The focus is on member services and the CEO walks the talk," Kawakami said. "What makes me a little nervous--we can do the right thing for the members and everything falls in place--but we have to do the right thing correctly."
A former Boeing Co. budget analyst and banker, Kawakami said he has a better appreciation for the unyielding emphasis placed on member service and meeting their needs.
"On the banking side, improving the bottom line was the focus," he said.
In the two-and-a-half years he's been at WSECU, Kawakami said the biggest learning curve has been getting a better feel for the credit union marketplace. After all, the economies are different, but he feels confident that his financial background (Kawakami graduated from the University of Washington and the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania) has provided a solid foundation--"It's just the instruments and language has changed."
Another learning curve is understanding the organization's decision-making process and how its executed.
"It's not something in a desk manual. It's more of a cultural thing that I need to pick up on," Kawakami explained. "It's about how decisions are made and how can I best contribute. I try to keep that on the radar."
Kawakami, who doesn't have any direct reports but reports to the CFO, embraces different leadership styles and is constantly developing his interpersonal skills, which, he said, are essential to working on a team. All of the learning is central to what has come to be the most satisfying part of his job: making members' lives easier.
"That's the vision and those are the goals I like being involved with," Kawakami said.
One sign that WSECU may be onto something is an increase in the hiring of former state employees on the credit union's management teams, said Kawakami. It certainly falls in line with a 51-year legacy of serving Washington.
"One of the goals is to continue with consistent growth and one day we will transition," Kawakami said. "If we achieve our goals, I want to be able to help transition that growth."