It used to be that a new board member at the $350 million Salal Credit Union would prepare for his or her new position with the Seattle credit union by simply participating in a sit-down orientation session with the CEO.
Now, the training process includes participation in online courses, guest speaker events, webinars and meeting agendas that center on strategic planning for the credit union’s future.
Salal CU’s revived training program has resulted in board members who possess broad knowledge and a deep awareness of current credit union industry issues, say President/CEO Russ Rosendal and Board Chair Alan Lederman. This, they add, makes a positive impact on the credit union’s success as a whole.
The 31,900-member credit union, which serves residents throughout Washington state, was launched in 1948 by a group of doctors and maintains a close tie to the healthcare industry.
Historically, the credit union has nominated potential new board members via a committee that was specifically appointed for that purpose. Now, a governance committee that meets year-round for a variety of purposes is in charge of identifying potential board members in the community, Lederman said.
When selecting board member nominees, Lederman says the credit union typically looks for individuals with some level of financial expertise and experience in a business-related field such as legal services, human resources, business operations and information technology.
Candidates with a background in the credit union industry are highly valued – Lederman calls such experience a “luxury skill the credit union recruits for.” Having a board that includes men and women of different ages, and one that is representative of its membership, is also important to Salal CU.
“We like to have a board that includes professionals in healthcare, since that is our target market,” Rosendal said.
One way that Salal CU prepares candidates for board membership is by allowing them to serve on a credit union committee first. This is something that Lederman, who has a background in finance and health insurance, did himself.
“Bringing potential candidates on at the committee level first helps get them acquainted, and if they decide to move to the board, they’ll be ready,” Lederman said. “It helps integrate them into our culture and bring them up to speed.
Education for a new Salal CU board member begins with the basics — a meeting with Rosendal, in which he explains the credit union’s balance sheet, income statement, critical lines of business and generally how the credit union makes money, Rosendal said.
Since 2011, Salal CU has been utilizing the Credit Union Executives Society’s Center for Credit Union Board Excellence, a program that provides courses, educational videos and printed materials to credit union board members.
Debbie Marks, Salal CU’s training and development manager, said the credit union’s board members are scheduled to complete four online courses per year through the program. Course topics include board governance, understanding financial statements, advocacy and risk management.
To further the education of the board, Salal CU sends several members to CUES’ annual Directors Conference and has brought in various experts to speak. For example, the asset/liability management education firm C. Myers has hosted webinars for the board.
Rosendal said the board recently revised the focus of its monthly meetings to include strategic issue discussions. This way, when it comes time for board members to embark on their retreat, they’ll have a head start on discussing plans for the credit union’s future, he said.
“We’re trying to get the board away from the day-to-day topics and more into the strategic issues,” Rosendal said.
The fact that board members take their CCUBE courses online provides several benefits, Rosendal and Lederman said. First, the online format provides flexibility for members who can’t be present at the credit union on a regular basis. Some board members travel, and one lives out of state, Rosendal pointed out.
The CCUBE online course system also tracks board members’ progress, which Lederman can view at any time. Additionally, Salal CU provides each board member with an iPad and credit union email address, which helps to streamline communication.
Staying on top of industry changes is critical for maintaining board excellence, Rosendal and Lederman said. To do that, they encourage board members to regularly attend industry conferences, and in between monthly board meetings, Rosendal sends an email to board members summarizing industry news, which typically includes information about legislation happening in Washington, D.C.
Lederman lists the following as current hot button issues for Salal CU’s board: emerging types of technology such as mobile banking, lending market trends, changes in the economy and how they affect the credit union, and opportunities for mergers and participation lending.
Rosendal added that lending risks and offering the right mix of financial products are key topics for board members to study.
One benefit of a comprehensive board education program is an improved ability to make informed decisions, Lederman and Rosendal said. For example, Lederman explained that the board’s knowledge came in handy when it voted to reintroduce a credit card into the credit union’s lending portfolio.
“The risks and opportunities were well understood, so we were able to quickly make a decision to reintroduce the credit card,” Lederman said. “Having the background and understanding of the risks and rewards involved helps us to make good decisions. We know which questions to ask and the risks we’re taking.”
Rosendal added that the education process is helpful for board members without a strong financial background.
“We have some non-financial people on the board, and this stuff can be intimidating,” Rosendal said. “We want them to be more comfortable asking questions.”
The board members’ expertise has trickled down to the overall success of the credit union, Rosendal and Lederman said. According to the credit union’s financial performance report, assets grew from $328 million in March 2011 to $350 million in March 2012, and membership grew from around 30,100 to 31,900 during the same time period.
“One of the key roles of a board member is to promote ongoing success,” Lederman said. “That helps us promote a better long-term plan for business to grow and thrive. Looking at our financial results, there’s a lot for our leaders to be proud of.”