The $1.7 billion GECU of El Paso, Texas, just selected GECU Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Crystal Long to succeed President/CEO Harriet May following her retirement on March 31. Meanwhile, the $5 billion, Palo Alto, Calif.-based First Tech Credit Union is saying goodbye to President/CEO Benson Porter, who will begin his new position as president/CEO for the $9.7 billion, Tukwila, Wash.-based Boeing Employees Credit Union in April.
And those changes are just the latest moves in and out of the corner office.
Faced with a surge of retirement announcements and a shrinking talent pool, finding the best candidate to fill the top leadership role is no easy task in the credit union industry, explains David Hilton, president/CEO for The Woodlands, Texas-based CU consulting and outsourcing firm D. Hilton Associates Inc. Hilton, whose 25-year-old company has conducted around 2,500 executive searches and works with 150 to 200 credit unions every year, said the industry suffers from a terrible shortage of CEO talent.
“Not only are we faced with so many CEOs retiring, but there is a scarcity of people with the broad scope of skills needed for the CEO role,” Hilton said.
The disparity of individuals with well-rounded skill sets stems from the fact that credit unions now employ several executive vice presidents, assigning each a specific set of responsibilities, while in the past just one executive vice president was typically employed, Hilton said. Relocation issues also bring roadblocks into the CEO search process, he said. Many candidates can’t afford to sell their homes due to housing market woes, and others want to stay put for personal reasons, such as children or aging parents.
But many credit unions will have no choice but to face the challenge of finding a new CEO in the next decade, according to Hilton. In a D. Hilton Associates Inc. article titled, “The Changing of the Executive Guard,” he writes that 91% of the CEOs working for credit unions with $100 million or more in assets are expected to retire in the next 10 years.
The credit union CEO search process varies according to the amount of time allotted for the search, Hilton said. Timeframes often correlate with the current CEO’s reason for leaving–retirement notice lengths can vary from three to nine months or more, but other reasons, such as termination, disability and death, can leave CU boards of directors and human resource departments with less time.
BECU had the luxury of a full 18 months to conduct its most recent search, the credit union said. Board Chairperson Desiree Serr said the CU’s board of directors began the process by having discussions about desired characteristics for the new CEO and appointing a six-person committee from within the board to lead the search. Anne Shannon, BECU’s senior vice president of human resources, said defining desired characteristics was crucial prior to beginning the search.
“Our biggest investment was in the front-end planning,” Shannon said. “We wanted to be very clear about the attributes before getting the search underway.”
Next, they enlisted the help of a Seattle-based executive recruiting firm, Herd Freed Hartz and conducted rounds of interviews–first with 25 candidates, then 12, and finally six. Serr said the CU chose Herd Freed Hartz in part for its experience with recruiting executives in cooperative industries.
“We really wanted our search to be a fair process and to cast a broad net out there,” Shannon said of BECU's decision to work with the firm.
Hilton added that enlisting the help of an executive recruiting firm guarantees CUs that they’re getting a slate of the very best candidates out there. As CUs and their partner firms interview candidates, Hilton said the key traits they look for include strong leadership skills, a high level of trust and a good knowledge of how to run a business. Some seek specific technical skills, such as multi-lingual capabilities or a background in mortgage lending. Top-notch communication skills are also a must, he said.
“We find the executives with the most potential are those who can successfully communicate with all the voices in the credit union industry, whether it be members, employees, auditors or boards of directors,” Hilton said.
Serr said the top characteristic BECU desired in its new CEO was experience that would allow him or her to be true to the culture of the credit union. An ability to grow BECU’s executive team, a deep passion for the cooperative philosophy and strong customer-centric skills were also high on its list.
Credit unions are often forced to look outside the credit union industry in their search for a new CEO. BECU said it looked at candidates from a variety of industries, and Hilton said there simply isn’t enough viable talent in the CU industry to fill every CEO position, so his firm looks at candidates from within the entire financial services industry.
A major part of the credit union CEO search and selection process is determining a compensation package for the chosen candidate. Serr said BECU has a year-round compensation committee, which conducts annual reviews to ensure their executives’ packages remain competitive in the market.
Hilton said early on in a search process, his firm presents the credit union’s board of directors with verified salary information from other credit unions and then works on coming up with a figure that board members can agree on. Retirement plans and other benefits are also an important part of the equation. In “The Changing of the Executive Guard,” he writes that talented executives are now being paid salaries at the 75th to 90th percentile of the market, and credit union executives should be no exception.
“How are you going to retain your young, talented executives?” Hilton writes. “The easiest way is by establishing and executing a strong compensation philosophy. It’s no longer adequate to pay your executives an average salary based on the market’s 50th percentile (median) or mean.”
GECU and First Tech CU declined to comment on their CEO selection processes for this article. But GECU said Long’s promotion to the president/CEO role comes after 32 years of service with the credit union, and GECU Chairman Greg Watters commented, “Harriet May, GECU’s former president and CEO, mentored Long and recommended Long as her successor because she has vast experience in our credit union and is uniquely qualified to continue building on GECU’s momentum, strength and commitment.”
First Tech CU said Chief Financial Officer Hank Sigmon will act as president/CEO until a new leader is selected. Chairman John Weidert stated, “It’s been a pleasure to work with Benson over the past five years. We knew that with his strong leadership and the great work he’s done for us, this would catch the attention of other organizations.”
BECU noted that in choosing Porter, a native of the Northwest, as their new CEO, they’d not only have a CEO that’s experienced and talented but also one that’s tied into his community.
“He’s a very seasoned executive and has done well in the credit union industry,” Serr said. “He’s also from the Northwest and he understands our community and every community is a little different.”