When your CEOs serve an average of 25 years, some people might worry about a lack of fresh blood and new ideas.
Others might take the approach of Penn State football coach Joe Paterno: If we’re winners, why change?
On Jan. 1, Tom Johnson became only the fourth CEO in the 76-year history of Spokane Teachers Credit Union. He replaced Steve Dahlstrom, who retired after 30 years at STCU, including 20 years as president/CEO. Presidents prior to Dahlstrom were Clare Chapman (1969-1991) and Ernie McElvain (1934-1965).
Johnson acknowledged that when he was on the board of STCU, he pondered the issue of CEO turnover.
"Certainly those thoughts went through my mind when I sat on the board," he recalled. "I think the telling tale is really the success of the credit union. If it were not as successful, one would have to step back and question the business model. But if you look back over the history of this organization, it has done remarkably well, particularly in these past two years when we’ve gone through this recession period. Last year we grew between 8% and 9%. The prior couple years we were growing at a rate of 20%."
While educators are no longer the majority of STCU’s members, they are still the largest single occupational group in the field of membership. The credit union can trace its roots to Lewis and Clark High School, where the credit union’s original office was an English teacher’s classroom.
"Washington State has a progressive approach to chartering," Johnson explained. "As the state expanded its charter provisions, we moved right along with that. About 10 or 12 years ago the board adopted a statewide charter. So we have our roots in education but are now a community charter credit union."
Johnson brings to his new job strong background in both finance and education. On the financial side, he’s a CPA with a bachelor’s degree in business and industrial administration from the University of Illinois in Urbana and an MBA from Clarkson University in Potsdam, N.Y. In addition to serving on the STCU board of directors from 1994 through 2006, he became vice president/administration in 2006 and was promoted to executive vice president early in 2010.
His credentials in education include vice president for business affairs at Whitworth University, an appointment to the Washington Higher Education Facilities Authority and service on the Spokane Public Schools diversity advisory committee.
The board also retains a strong connection to the education community. Johnson estimates that a majority of the 13 board members have background in public schools.
Such first-hand insight into the needs of teachers may prove helpful in anticipating member requirements as the state wrestles to overcome a $6 billion budget shortfall projected for the next two-year budget cycle.
"The State of Washington, which funds most K-12 education expense, is struggling. Our legislators are just returning to Olympia. Funding for education has been cut in the last couple years as the state has struggled to balance its budget, and frankly, just because of the magnitude of the state’s budget challenge, it’s likely more severe cuts are coming," Johnson predicted.
In addition to teachers, employment levels for police, firefighters, state employees, public university faculty and staff and others will be threatened, "and that will be a challenge for a good portion of our membership base."
Johnson believes he has brought from his other jobs skills in working with people. The credit union, he noted, is a high-service, high-touch institution.
"We believe training our staff, and treating our staff well, translates into our staff treating our members well," he said. "We spend more per member than the typical credit union, and that’s part of our secret sauce. I think what I have brought to this role is a strong sense and understanding of that. I have spent most of my career working in nonprofits, so I understand the culture of nonprofit businesses. Our management team and our directors have to model for our employees what it means to be good to each other and what it means to be good to our members."
He indicated his service on the board gave him an understanding of the STCU culture. Being on the board also helped him develop one-on-one relationships with the management team and offered a chance to observe first-hand the kind of systems and programs that are in place.
"I knew from being on the board that this was a special organization in terms of how they treat people and their focus on doing the right thing for the member. Some of that shows up in a front-line situation where a teller or an MSR is working with a member on their particular problem," Johnson said.
Given that positive assessment, Johnson doesn’t anticipate major shifts in the direction the credit union has taken. The board’s judgment is that things are going well, and the idea is to build on that success rather than introduce an outside factor.
In fact, when the board began its search for a new CEO, the consultant STCU retained was advised that the board wanted to look internally. If there wasn’t anyone already on board, only then would the consultant be asked to look outside STCU.
That doesn’t mean there are no changes. The online banking platform, bill-pay system and authentication system have been revamped. By the end of March the credit card program will be converted. Perhaps the biggest change will be a conversion to a new core computer system.
What role does Johnson see for a CEO in such changes?
"You have to be a leader," he answered. "You have to be out in front of your people, painting a picture they can understand. Why are we making this change? You have to motivate them to do the training we will all receive during the next several months. They have to know how to deal with the member who gets caught in the change and either for personal reasons doesn’t like the impact or for technical reasons has problems."
He also sees a need for the CEO to motivate the board as their task becomes more complicated.
"The amount of time our volunteers invest is sobering," he declared.