Being president/CEO of a credit union may not have been Theresa Mann’s lifelong dream in college, but today she couldn’t imagine not being a part of the credit union industry.
“What I loved doing in college, or so I thought, was fundraising and although I got my degree in marketing and management,” said Mann, who is president/CEO of the Partnership Federal Credit Union based in Washington, D.C. “what I didn’t realize at the time, when I wanted to join the Peace Corps, was that throughout college whatever I enjoyed doing was basically about being a leader.”
As a college graduate, Mann applied as a management trainee at GSA Federal Credit Union in Washington and had the opportunity to make a difference doing everything from implementing ATMs to rolling out a credit card program and debit card program. Eighteen months into the two-year program, she was named acting CEO for six months and then was offered the position full time.
“It was a humbling, great experience and since no one was there to tell me otherwise, every day I was making mistakes, basically learned by doing and just got hooked on the credit union philosophy,” said Mann. “When they offered me the position, I had been accepted into the Peace Corps and was waiting to be assigned. I realized when I said no to the Peace Corps that what I wanted to do was help people, and I had the opportunity to do just that as CEO. It was the right balance from both a philosophical and business perspective and I’ve never regretted passing on the Peace Corps assignment in Sri Lanka.”
A huge advocate of personal and professional growth, Mann prefers to forge a new path rather than wait and see what the future holds. With an ability to see and communicate how things can be improved, she holds the firm belief that change should be embraced not feared.
“I don’t stop, I never give up and I’m not afraid to speak about how something can be better,” said Mann. “There is no rest. You never can stop talking about the vision, what it feels like and what it means for everyone. I think what I love about my job is that there is always something to do and it’s about constantly adjusting your sights to continue in the right direction.
"Not just change for change’s sake, but to make it different for the future. You can’t afford inaction, whether it’s making the changes necessary for yourself personally or your business. It may sometimes seem easier not changing, but it hurts in the long run.”
In 2006, FDIC Federal Credit Union was doing well, yet Mann, recognizing that the financial landscape for smaller credit unions was transforming and that no small organization could survive by standing still, began pushing for a change.
“The initial inclination was that everything at the time was fine and there weren’t any problems,” said Mann, “yet we lived the problems day to day. It was hard to retain good people and how we would bring value to the membership and stay solvent and strong. It finally clicked that we could change on our terms or possibly have the decision made for us.”
She asked one question of the board, “If you could create a financial institution today, how would it look?” The answer would start the then-$75 million credit union to create a new business model and 10 credit unions were approached for a proposed multiple group merger that would address the economies of scale and the new entity would gain efficiencies by consolidating back-office operations.
After about nine months, two credit unions signed a letter of intent to merge: FDIC FCU and Arlington, Va.-based NSF Federal Credit Union.
“The idea was to merge with integrity so all egos were checked at the door. There would be a name change, the board would be very equal and we’d spend money to build this new model. It was bold, scary, exciting and then of course the economy happened, but we did it,” said Mann. “We’ve made a point to celebrate our successes along the way as we make the constructive decisions that enact compassionate change and not be afraid to change mid-course in order to get it right.”
With a collaborative framework clearly established, building on the vision was simple; build a brand name that members and employees could relate to; bring leadership that knew how to balance business principles with credit union tradition; offer value-added products and services that enhance delivery channels; build an infrastructure to survive the future; and create a new work culture and lay the foundation to develop robust HR and risk management programs, product and project management methodologies, IT support and comprehensive training programs.
In addition, maintaining the boutique member experience in each branch was critical to member acceptance. Mann said it was a decision to invest in the future together. The project vision of ‘two strong credit unions, one strong partnership’ was realized as The Partnership FCU, with over $118 million in assets.
“Today’s leaders cannot afford to be more concerned about putting out fires than dreaming for the future, leading the organization and providing the vision of how to get there,” said Mann. “They have to push themselves out into the uncomfortable and accept that while day-to-day problems will come up, they can’t get mired in them. It’s not your job anymore. The economy changed that so leaders have to be more nimble, flexible, forward thinking, creative, more in tune with business acumen and that is not always comfortable.”
She added there is a need to bridge the credit union industry’s past with the future.
“There has to be a balance of respecting our history and looking forward, making decisions to keep us relevant,” said Mann. “Consumers simply aren’t going to accept an inferior online banking program for example. So if we want to compete we have to enhance their perception of credit unions and focus on delivering on their expectations of a financial institution with technology and even how we present ourselves online, and in branches, should be more professional and in tune with meeting their current needs.