Trailblazer 40 Below: Jeff Russell Backs Investments in the Future
Jeff Russell may have started working with credit unions as a college freshman simply because the position at The Members Group paid better than food service, but the president/CEO of TMG Financial Services has since become credit unions' biggest advocate.
“I didn’t know anything about credit unions when I started, even though I walked past one of the largest credit unions in Iowa everyday when I was in junior high school,” said Russell. “Most of what I work on is new product development, developing new business models, identifying growth opportunities and how to help credit unions grow in the competitive financial marketplace. It’s exciting because there are no typical days when it’s about what the future will look like or the next thing.”
Russell encourages credit unions to use the economy’s challenges as a reason to go out and build membership by selling the credit union advantage. For him the fun has been finding ways around, over, or through obstacles and constantly challenging the default thinking to develop unique and innovative solutions to advance the credit union industry.
He’d like to see more of that forward-facing, long-view perspective within the credit union industry.
“So much of the focus is on today that sometimes the urgent gets in the way of the important. The biggest issue is how leaders can focus their time on things that are important for the future when what’s urgent can take up all your time,” said Russell. “The world feels like it is changing at a faster pace, and it’s kind of like a train where credit unions either get on board or get run over by it. How they do that as an industry, is to be innovative, collaborative, not look like another bank and be different in how they meet consumers’ needs.”
He added that too often CUs look down the street at the community bank, national bank or even other credit unions as the competition.
“The next generation of consumers in that 18-35 year old range, they do banking in a different way than their parents so the real competition is even beyond ING but Apple, Google, Amazon, Walmart and Greendot. Because they are not depository financial players, they approach business from a different retail perspective of the experience not just on individual products,” Russell said. “I recently bought a new water heater for my house, and it was the biggest bummer to buy. But I like hot water. Credit unions need to think in the same vein. People don’t want a car loan, they want a car. So Google, Apple and others in the retail environment focus on what that experience is going to look like and that is a big thing credit unions have to deal with in the future.”
Given the more diverse players poised to enter the changing competitive landscape, Russell has some concerns regarding the industry’s future.
“One of the biggest challenges is that it is more likely credit unions become irrelevant than insolvent,” said Russell. “How do credit unions become known as the place for financial services? I as a consumer want innovative technology services or good value at a fair price. All the buzz that should happen in credit unions every day. How do credit unions do that every day and not have a global meltdown or Occupy movement to figure out what a credit union is? It’s not about this idea of one national brand, but how individual credit unions offer product set and value relevant to that consumer is the biggest challenge in the next two to 10 years.”
He added that there is a need for the industry as a whole to rethink risk.
“One structural issue that happens in financial institutions is that most often people are promoted for how well they do in managing risk, yet the role of the CEO is to take risk. Not necessarily be risky but take calculated risk to grow membership, market share, and in the economy we’re in, it’s easier not to take risk. It’s important that each look at their own financials, but you still have to invest in innovation and the future,” said Russell. “We’re in a time of transformational change and what makes one grow and be attractive is trying new things, pushing the envelope a little so consumers look to credit unions as a place they can get their financial needs met with the value credit unions always known for.”
That dichotomy of growth and fear of the other shoe dropping, like double-dip recession and the like, often has many pulling back when they should be pushing forward.
Not just one to issue a call to action, Russell has lived it and finding the opportunity in challenges led to the creation of the collateralized advance program funding vehicle and a new company, CU Structured Finance LLC. CAP was created in 2008 about a year after the launch of TMG Financial Services when regulatory hurdles forced the company to look for different ways of funding the portfolio purchases it was making.
Through CAP, credit unions were paid a competitive return on their investment. Those funds were secured dollar-for-dollar with high-quality credit card receivables owned by TMG Financial Services. The win-win solution benefitted TMG Financial Services and CAP investors, who were able to put their excess liquidity to work at a time when the return on traditional investments was at an all-time low. Today, the CAP has funding commitments exceeding $125 million from more than 60 credit unions.
Recent challenges faced by the corporate credit union structure created a void in funding availability as corporate credit unions had been the go to financial resource for credit unions and CUSOs. CU Structured Finance, LLC, was developed in September 2010 as a way to help other CUSOs secure and collateralize their debt needs. As a wholly owned subsidiary of TMG Financial Services, it filled the void by offering a secured line of credit approach that allows the CUSO the capacity to grow by tapping credit unions outside their ownership group looking for loans with strong returns from CUSOs that run solid operations.
“The idea is that in crisis there is both opportunity and danger,” said Russell. “Some of the most successful businesses start in a recession and some companies that began in the great depression are still around today. Apple, Microsoft both started in a recession and now feels like a real opportunity for credit unions because there is a buy local trend.”
He added that technology has been a great equalizer that credit unions can integrate and leverage to bring back the personal “everyone knows my name and what I want or need” experience consumers want and expect today.
“The question we need to ask ourselves is how as an industry do we keep moving forward, innovating,” said Russell. “So many seem to be waiting for things to return to normal, when really, the new norm will never again be the old normal. Forget that and instead focus on how you can continue to reinvent, to be what consumers need and for the next generation find solutions that add value to their experience. Credit unions need to reinvent themselves to make sure they are not like the bookstore that has to compete against Amazon.”