While everything may be bigger in Texas, Lynda Milton has an appreciation for the small.
For some 41 years the president/CEO of Houston-based Team Financial Federal Credit Union has devoted herself to saving, serving and supporting small credit unions.
“I always say if you get rid of all the small credit unions, where would all the larger credit unions be in the industry?” said Milton. “I think sometimes it’s like a love/hate relationship, but the reality is they both need each other. With small credit unions if you have a niche and work it right, then you’ll be around because your members will let you know whether you’re meeting their needs or not by making the choice to stay or go to another financial institution.”
She added that size doesn’t have to define what a credit union can do.
“We’ve diversified over the years, added SEGs and changed our name. We used to be totally Teamsters, that was a hard egg to crack. Add to that me being a black female executive serving an industry that traditionally consisted predominantly of white men, I had my work cut out for me,” said Milton.
“Unions at the time were very territorial but it was important for the three local mini Teamster credit unions serving them to be unified. That was my goal and we worked together to make it happen. For some, the fact that I was a minority was somewhat of a culture shock. But I was determined to prove that it didn’t matter, I could do the job and would do whatever it takes to help the credit union grow.”
Some of the moves since being named CEO in 2004 of the single-SEG credit union include a low-income community designation, a total of seven SEGs, a shift from shares and loans to becoming a full-service credit union and a name change to Team Financial.
“Relying on a single SEG put us in a vulnerable position and for our field of membership expansion to work we needed a new name,” said Milton. “It was a challenge and at first there was push back because our core members had such strong ties to the teamsters, but they came around and all our members are as happy as can be.”
She credits the credit union’s growth from $250,000 in assets to now nearly $6 million in assets–serving some 1,800 members–to constant clear communication and collaboration, not just among staffers and the board but with trusted local partners.
“I am not afraid to ask for help or reach out to someone for guidance,” said Milton. “I treat people as I want to be treated and it carries over to my communication style. Now some may not want to hear what I have to say, but if it’s something I believe in I don’t back down but may change how the information is presented. The bottom line is to keep delivering the service our members want and need so you find ways to make it work.”
She added that developing a network of trusted partners, not just in the credit union industry but across all disciplines and organizations in the community, that you can turn to can be critical to a small credit union’s success.
“There is so much more to leadership today, especially in a small credit union. To be effective, you’ve got to be committed and can’t just punch out at 4 p.m., but at the same time you’ve got to be able to delegate and find creative ways to approach your unique challenges,” said Milton. “You’ve got to look not just at the asset growth but also strengthening and further developing relationships with members.”
She is particularly proud of an education program she developed years ago when Team Financial FCU took in a SEG with a delinquency problem, which resulted in the credit union’s delinquencies of about 5% to 6%. Rather than writing off debts, she personally worked diligently with those members to help them get back on track and meet their financial obligations. It worked and the credit union delinquencies have dropped to 2.1%.
“I don’t want just a payment. I want to help them develop better financial habits,” said Milton, who graduated magna cum laude with a bachelors of arts in business from Prairie View A&M University. “Before getting bitten by the credit union bug I wanted to be a school teacher. My mother was so upset when I told her I was going to lead a credit union. She felt she didn’t need to send me to school to work in an office.
"What I realized, and she did too before she passed, was that in this role I still had the opportunity to educate, provide mentorship and do good for others. I had been raised to always give more than I received. It’s something that always resonated with me and everyday we help to empower people financially to achieve some of their life goals and dreams.”
Living her give-back philosophy, Milton at one point served as consultant-bookkeeper for nine small credit unions. Today she still does the books for three credit unions on a regular basis and performs audits for other small credit unions when needed.
In addition she’s active with the Houston chapter of the Texas Credit Union League and Partners for Progress, a small credit union support group she championed that has since developed into a statewide effort.
She also serves on the African American Credit Union Coalition and is chair of the National Federation of Community Development Credit Unions. She serves on the TCUL’s Innovation and Collaboration Task Force.
Viewed by peers as a champion for small credit unions, Milton somehow has found time to offer her services to Empowerment Community Development FCU, which she helped organize. Located in a depressed, underprivileged area of Houston, the credit union offers savings and loans to a segment of the population that hasn’t had such access. Plans are under way to offer checking accounts and debit cards to the $837,000 credit union’s 727 members.
“My mother and grandmother always used to tell me, ‘you are blessed to be a blessing.’ I never understood what that meant until I started serving in the movement. I simply can’t imagine having any other career,” said Milton. “I really have to give credit to the man who hired me. He stepped out on faith, and was really an inspiration.
"When he met me at school he told me he saw something in me that the credit union movement needed. So I want to inspire others. If I’m a small credit union and can do something that encourages others, then I’ll keep doing whatever needs to be done to help other small credit unions.”