Women to Watch: CEO Kucey Sees Reward in Risk Taking
Jeanne Kucey, president/CEO at JetStream Federal Credit Union, has always been a believer in the philosophy that great risk leads to great returns.
“I do think that leadership and courage go hand-in-hand whether it’s tough decisions on expense reduction and efficiency or going in a new direction. Taking risks is an essential piece of leadership,” said Kucey. “And while I’m definitely a risk taker, at the same time I do my homework and understand the importance of implementation and follow through. You can’t just throw a bunch of ideas without seeing the whole process of a project and what the end should be or look like. Don’t let fear rule any aspect of your life.”
Even the move to credit unions after working for two banks, one which was the most expensive bank failure and the other, which was the largest bank failure in history, was something she tried out at the suggestion of her very good friend, Deb Schwartz, CEO of Mission Federal Credit Union.
“She had just made the switch to credit unions and encouraged me to do the same. and it’s been the best experience,” said Kucey. “It never occurred to me, a Southern California girl, that I’d be working in Miami at a credit union. I studied finance at school and wanted to be like a Wall Street broker, but when I got into it and realized that when you work on commission, all your free mental time is working on making that commission. It just wasn’t a right fit for me. At the banks, I really was there to help people, but with the bank structure you could never be on the same team as the customers. What I love about credit unions is that you are not just saying that you look out for the best interest of your members, you actually are on the same page working together, doing what’s in each other’s best interest.”
Always one to embrace new experiences, Kucey believes that the definition of leadership has evolved into something more complex.
“In the past it was fairly simple. You work to increase revenue, contain expenses and improve the quality of the internal process to maintain exceptional member service experience,” said Kucey. “There’s so much more to it now with navigating the regulatory environment, unpredictable economy, financial stress in member households that leaders today need a broader and deeper understanding of every aspect without losing sight of who we are there to serve.”
To that end, communication has been key.
“What’s most important boils down to articulate communication,” said Kucey, who was hesitant to use the word visionary. “You need to be able to clearly articulate the vision, and the buy-in happens when everyone on staff feels they are a part of it and are empowered. At a credit union as small as ours, it’s always a challenge. While I want senior managers to divide and conquer tasks on their own, I want to make sure every senior staffer knows what’s going on as far as the bigger picture.”
She said while she tends to have a hands-on approach, no good can come from micromanaging, so she limits senior manager meetings to month ones and prefers holding quick impromptu meetings as needed. She also asks her staff to come into meetings with ideas in hand for everything from revenue generation to unique ways to building brand awareness and stand out from the competition.
“It’s about balance. When I was younger I was too hands-off and learned quickly that not everyone has the same levels of dedication and work ethic,” said Kucey. “I’d rather have staff that makes mistakes, thinks for themselves about researching problems, finding solutions and presenting options, than just asking me, ‘What do I need to do?’ The big thing is supporting them right or wrong and having their back. Certainly, everyone makes mistakes and we learn from them. Working through those mistakes helps generate new ideas from everyone because they know they won’t get thrown under the bus.”
The $133 million Miami Lakes, Fla.-based credit union’s accomplishments under Kucey’s leadership include obtaining grants in 2011’ implementing business lending, mobile banking and training programs; a return to profitability in 2010; and net income growth of 320% in 2011. The team also significantly improved efficiencies through technology, furthered a culture that promotes employee development and plans are underway to add student loans to its products and services.
As a resourceful, creative and solution-oriented leader, she places a high value on coming up with new and innovative approaches to address common membership challenges.
With Miami hit harder than most cities by the economic fallout of the past three years, one big challenge has been how to lend to those with low credit scores.
“About 40% of Americans FICO scores are below 650, which is now considered a low FICO score, so there are people who need our help in looking past the raw credit scores and working with them to help them achieve their financial goals,” said Kucey. “In doing research, we found that 75% of our members are in a low-income ZIP code. We already have a low-income designation and are becoming CDFI certified, so we will have more resources to help meet members’ needs. For example, in Hialeah, a predominantly Hispanic community, there is not a city with a higher concentration of small Mom and Pop businesses that need small start-up loans, and no one has been meeting those needs. Big banks, community banks have pulled back, and we’ve been doing what we can to promote local growth at the grassroots level one small business at a time.”
She added that looking ahead her hope for credit unions as a whole is that they will continue exploring ways to further leverage the strength of their cooperative roots and collaborate even more to help meet those unique needs of the communities they serve. It starts with being a true community partner. For example, one initiative she has been particularly proud of has been JetStream FCU’s involvement with community organizations like the Marlene Ericca Empowering Workshops, which promote economic independence and address the needs of women who are in life transition. The organization has worked collaboratively with community-based rehabilitation centers that address the needs of disadvantaged women. The workshops offer participants a chance to gain life skills with mentorship support to improve their future as well as the future of their families through educational workshops.
“Most of these women have come out of prison or had substance abuse issues, and we teach a series of classes from how to write a résumé or interview to financial literacy,” said Kucey. “I’ve found these women to be incredibly bright and to be able to help fill that great need for a group that has endured so many challenges has been an incredible experience. They are more attentive than any other students. and they have so little available to them and hopefully they in turn pay it forward as a woman-to-woman mentoring program.”
For Kucey, it’s the relationships formed within a community, across the industry and even outside the credit union world that matter and can help create the biggest differences in consumers’ lives. Over the years, Kucey has served on a number of political and industry committees. She serves on the board of directors for NAFCU in addition to Southeast Corporate's supervisory committee. She recently testified on behalf of NAFCU in favor of H.R. 3461, the Financial Institutions Examination Fairness and Reform Act, before the financial institutions subcommittee of the House Financial Services Committee. She was also chosen to represent small credit unions on the newly formed Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s small business review panel.
“The advice I’d share with upcoming leaders, I would say, is to understand the value of association and get involved in the credit union industry,” said Kucey. “Network, be a part of trade association boards, committees, volunteer on the board of local business partners, get together with others who share your passion. It’s important to be active in the industry and talk about what you’re doing to as many people as you can because you never know where you’ll find the right bit of information that can help you get to the next step. It could be someone standing next to you at a golf game. We are so lucky to be in an industry that’s willing to work together so be willing to share.”