Getting to the heart of things is a passion for Ben Morales, whether it's making the most of his credit union's core processing system or helping his employer focus on the core values of being a credit union in the first place.
That kind of thinking has guided Morales as he led the transformation of his 24-member staff from a traditional IT department into a "customer satisfaction-driven team," and it's the reason he was chosen the 2009 IT Executive of the Year by Credit Union Times.
Morales is senior vice president and chief information officer at the $1.4 billion Washington State Employees Credit Union (www.wsecu.org) in Olympia, and at the age of 44, already a 25-year veteran of the financial services industry, including the last 15 years at credit unions.
Of course, now times are tough and the uncertain economy has enterprises of all kinds examining how to survive and thrive. Getting back to basics is one way, Morales said.
"Right now, the biggest challenge we have in this economic environment is for us to define, 'what is our core,'" he said. "In good times, that core becomes bigger because we have the resources to expand, but in declining times, we have to really narrow our focus and find how we can keep our competitive advantage by leveraging the core things we do best."
"That may be delivering quality service to existing members through leveraging our existing assets, focusing on things like relationship pricing and other ways to help our members save more and borrow less. Now, that may sound counterintuitive to what we normally do as a lending institution, but if that's what right for members, then that's what should be doing," Morales said.
Helping his credit union do the right thing has been a hallmark of Morales' time at WSECU, according to his colleagues.
Morales came to Olympia from Nevada FCU in Las Vegas in 2003 and since then "has grown our IT operation into a sophisticated, leading-edge workgroup that embraces the best of what technology has to offer in order to provide world-class service to our members," said Sharon Whitehead, WSECU's senior vice president of administration.
"He has helped to lead our credit union through times of great change and great growth," she said.
Those changes include upgrading traditional tools, such as helping to lead a million-dollar phone system project "that touched every one of more than 500 employees at WSECU," said John Cruz Iglesias, who was WSECU's chief lending officer and now is president/CEO of $230 million Group Health CU in Seattle.
"Ben led his IT team well and expertly provided me with the advice I needed to accomplish our highly visible and mission-critical service enhancement, which included replacing all phones and infrastructure at over 22 locations throughout the state," Iglesias said.
And on the leading edge, Morales is credited with his 160,000-member credit union's early entry into the mobile banking, which included the in-house development of a proprietary platform and the launch of www.wsecu.mobi.
He also led the internal creation of a payday lending software solution that has saved the credit union's members an estimated $2 million in fees since its inception in 2004 and now is offered via CUSO to other credit unions across the state.
Whitehead said her colleague also recently led the transformation of his staff into a "customer satisfaction-driven team." She said, "At first blush, this may sound like a minor accomplishment. However, the work conducted was revolutionary for an internal support department in that it involved a long-term commitment to understanding other departments' definition of customer satisfaction."
Morales also has been charged with overseeing "WSECU's largest venture of the last 30 years-the construction of a new, five-story corporate headquarters building and parking garage," Whitehead said.
"Bringing all his organizational operational talents, he has this multimillion dollar project moving forward on time and on budget," she said.
Morales also is looking at how to bring together the different channels of product delivery and move members from one line of business to another without leaving the confines of the credit union. That entails learning from each other within the credit union and going outside for best ideas from around the credit union community, something Morales has much experience with in his work with the Filene Institute's i3 program and participation with CUES and CUNA Mutual working groups.
That breadth also makes him a "go-to guy" for others in the industry.
"One way to understand Ben is to think of him as the Wikipedia for credit union technology professionals," said Jim Morrell, senior vice president of support services and chief information officer at the $397 million iQ Credit Union in Vancouver.
"He is a person you can rely on to provide solid insight and well-researched understanding, while at the same time being humble and never putting himself ahead of the person seeking information," said Morrell.
Another colleague goes so far as to call Morales "a visionary."
"From our first meeting, it was clear that Ben was a visionary," said Symitar account executive Cid Smith. "Rather than accepting the status quo, he wanted to challenge conventional delivery channels, products and approaches to service offerings."
"He has created an environment where people are encouraged to come up with new ideas. Perhaps not all ideas are valid, but many are. This results in better member service, lower operating costs, and employees who feel empowered to help drive the credit union."
The Symitar staffer added that one person's "vision" can only go so far. And Morales points to collaboration as a reason he enjoys credit unions more than the banking world in which his career started.
"At banks, for me, it seemed like it was a setting where 'we know everything and do everything and make all these decisions on our own' versus the credit union environment. Here, we're very collaborative, open to discussion and willing to share," Morales said.
"And from that perspective, I can really show how credit unions today have become so much more valuable as the economy takes a downturn. It's because we can leverage that cooperative spirit and open doors and go out and network with great people and be able to use their great ideas," he said.
"I value that tremendously."