Jeff Johnson has spent the past 15 years helping his credit union and the industry itself compete in the fast-changing world of delivery of financial services.
His co-workers and peers say he has helped set new standards for bringing together technology and member service, figuratively and now literally. Johnson is the senior vice president and chief information officer at the $1.6 billion Baxter Credit Union in Vernon Hills, Ill.
A Lawrence University graduate with a degree in economics, Johnson arrived at BCU in 1997 and since then has made a sharp impression on his colleagues, who have seen him tear down silos and cross boundaries to help create a credit union known for its ability to develop and roll out member-facing technology while boosting internal efficiencies.
“Since joining BCU, Jeff has been the driving force behind numerous notable initiatives,” his nomination letter from BCU peers said. “He has proven leadership skills and is immensely respected across all functions in the organization. His team of more than 24 IT professionals, many with tenure of 10-plus years, works tirelessly to carry out Jeff’s vision for maximizing operating efficiencies and maintaining strict cost controls.”
They have plenty to do. “When I started in ’97, the main remote delivery channels were IVR (interactive voice response) and ATM. Both were mature and proven platforms that hadn’t changed much in the past five years and weren’t going to much in the next 10,” Johnson said. “Flash forward to 2012 and you have the Web, mobile Web, mobile apps, Web-enabled desktops and Web- and app-enabled mobile devices, text/SMS and social media.
“Add to the mix the small screen of the smart phone, the 7-inch screen of those emerging Android devices and the full-size tablets like the iPad. The funny – and costly – thing is, none of the delivery channels go away.”
Making processes and people work together has been a constant, though, and it’s a particularly strong suit for Johnson, his BCU colleagues said.
They list his accomplishments as:
• Working with a cross-discipline team to help put risk management at the center of all new process implementations and daily operations.
• Customizing infrastructure that empowers BCU to offer multiple brands and languages to support both its large SEG sponsors and Spanish-speaking members. “This helps provide a significant strategic advantage for attracting new business opportunities,” Johnson’s nominating letter said.
• A flexible staffing model that allows IT to rapidly grow or shrink its staff to meet changing needs.
• A partnership with human resources and local high schools to provide internships that typically last through college, benefiting the students and BCU alike.
• Virtualizing the network environment from data center to desktop, including cloud technology.
• Deploying a data warehouse/business intelligence infrastructure that ensures everyone across the organization has a detailed understanding of each other’s operations.
• Building a “robust, extensive and expandable” middleware infrastructure using .net tools, providing new levels of back-end integration and “a unified experience for members.”
As for Johnson, asked to name his biggest challenge, he said, “The need for IT to focus on the end game. That is, serving the member. Technology is a means. This requires us to have a flexible staffing model which can readily expand and contract, the infrastructure must be extendable, and there must be consistent and targeted execution on the spectrum of demands from support tickets to complex projects.”
Among the most complex of those projects has been the creation of CUFX, an acronym for Credit Union Financial Standards. It’s an effort that Johnson and his fellow members of the CUNA Technology Council are devoting considerable time and energy to seeing come to fruition.
The CUFX project is seen as an answer to the need to integrate business and technology requirements specific to the world of credit unions. Its history traces to the beginnings of software that, among other things, made the Internet a business tool.
Middleware to connect multiple platforms first emerged, as did well-known standards such as XML (the standard for much of the early integration) and then OFX (standardized specs for the financial industry to use to, for instance, download online banking transactions into Quicken.)
Now, here comes CUFX. As Johnson describes it, CUFX is a set of industry specifications that will increase the speed of delivery of new business functions, simplify integration and reduce the cost of vendor-provided and credit union-created offerings. That will allow the industry to spend more time focusing on value-added issues rather than back-office integration, and allow them to more quickly adopt technologies.
Tech-savvy credit unions have long been building their own solutions, but, Johnson said, now is the time to bring them together and work with vendors so that back-end systems speak the same language and the wheel doesn’t have to be re-invented each time a new channel or service comes along.
“We as an industry spend far too much time and capital managing redundant systems integration, taking valuable time and resources away from efforts to quickly launch innovative solutions and deliver a seamless member experience across delivery channels,” Johnson said. “In order for credit unions to meet the increasing expectations from members and effectively compete against the large financial institutions, our industry needs to establish this set of standards.”
The CUNA Technology Council formally began the project last August. The first areas of focus are personal financial management and mobile payments, and Johnson’s own BCU will be among the first to use CUFX. But it won’t be alone.
“The response and support has been awesome,” Johnson said. “We have had numerous volunteers developing specifications and a long list of people wanting to contribute. Everybody who hears about CUFX seems to ‘get it.’”
That includes what many figured would be the toughest nut to crack: the vendors, including core processors, who serve the industry and have a financial stake in protecting their technical turf. So far, so good, participants said, including one veteran middleware specialist.
“In short order, Jeff has accomplished much more than I thought would be possible,” said Brian Bodell, CEO of Finivation Software in New York, who cut his teeth creating one of the first middleware firms in the credit union space, qbt Software.
“He has pulled in advocates from both the credit unions and the vendor community, including from several core processors that I thought would be absolutely against the concept,” Bodell said. He also credited Johnson with planning the project on both business and technical levels, including software architecture, and setting up the standards development process.
“In my opinion, the credit union movement is far too complacent and needs more leaders like Jeff to effect positive change in the midst of economic malaise,” Bodell said. “Efforts like CUFX can make a real difference, but without Jeff continuing to advocate, motivate and push, credit unions won’t be able to innovate at the pace the modern consumer demands.”
Johnson shares that concern and expects nothing less.
“One of the biggest advantages credit unions have is meaningful collaboration on an industry level,” he said. “Collaboration is in our DNA. My friends at banks do not have that benefit. If I were at a bank, I would have neither the perspective nor the opportunities.”
He added, “I firmly believe this country needs an alternative to large financial institutions, and credit unions are that alternative. If we don’t make bold moves like CUFX we could miss a great opportunity.”
Johnson added that the human element has been a particular pleasure in the creation of the new software standard for credit unions.
“I have gotten to know some wonderfully competent, intelligent and ambitious people,” he said.
The feeling is mutual.
“I’m very impressed with Jeff’s large-scale initiative of creating standards for the credit union industry,” said last year’s IT Executive of the Year Trailblazer award winner, Heather Moshier.
“He’s a very passionate person who believes in changing the credit union industry for the better and has dedicated numerous hours and obtained support from various credit union vendors to (help move) CUFX forward,” said Moshier, executive vice president at the $5.5 billion San Diego County Credit Union and chair of the CUNA Technology Council.
Johnson’s efforts to help the industry extend beyond CUFX, Moshier said, pointing to his chairing of a regional roundtable for CIOs that included networking opportunities at host BCU. He also is active with advisory boards for Symitar, PSCU Financial Services, Wescom Resources Group and OpCon/SMA, as well as the CUNA Technology Council.
“As part of his oversight on the Technology Committee, Jeff led the initiative to create an app for the CUNA Technology Council, which will be deployed to all the CUNA councils in 2012,” Moshier said. With his passion and positive attitude, I know we’ll be reading about his technology initiatives for years to come.”