While the artist’s life was not for her, Debra Schwartz, president/CEO of San Diego-based Mission Federal Credit Union, has been quietly creating a masterpiece across the canvas of the credit union industry.
“I was actually an art major,” said Schwartz, who was recently named an at-large director on the NAFCU board. “While I thought I was talented in high school, I quickly realized it wasn’t the talent needed for a career. I always loved economics, marketing, tutoring others in statistics and so changed paths. I started out in the banking world working part-time as a teller at a bank while working on my MBA.”
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It was amid the turmoil and merger activity in the banking industry during the 1980s and early 1990s that Schwartz got introduced to the credit union difference by a friend, and she has never looked back.
After serving in senior executive positions ranging from executive vice president at San Diego County Credit Union to chief financial officer at First Future Credit Union, she joined the $2.3 billion Mission Federal in 2007. At the time, the credit union was under numerous regulatory pressures. Under her leadership over the past five years, the credit union has grown in membership, given back to the community and provided employees with an exceptional salary and benefits proposition.
According to Schwartz, the turnaround has been the direct result of the entire Mission Federal staff and the directors working together.
“I think it was clear we needed to make changes,” said Schwartz. “So it wasn’t just me saying something had to be done because everyone knew we weren’t at the top of the heap and financially changes needed to be made. The board support was helpful, and I had an opportunity to build our own senior management team. The road map of what had to be done was clear, so every strategic initiative was measured in terms of financial soundness.”
She added that making expectations clear from the beginning helped with buy in.
“I believe in transparency, being open and direct, really direct. No one has to guess what I’m thinking,” said Schwartz. “I try to lead by example. I get from behind a desk to regularly visit branches, attend staff meetings in any department that will have me and work on team building, communication, focus on members and even have a little fun.”
She also found that there’s no such thing as over communicating.
“I’m a fast processor and personally I don’t like to hear the same thing 20 times,” said Schwartz. “I’ve come to recognize that different people learn in different ways, so information needs to go out numerous times across various channels in different ways to ensure everyone is on same page and headed in the same direction.”
For example, wanting to foster a true culture change within the organization, where employees feel valued and empowered, more emphasis has been placed on recognition for outstanding achievements.
“With the focus on hard work and getting things done. it was important to make time to recognize that effort,” said Schwartz. “It’s about open communication so everyone is aware of what’s going on. We have quarterly updates sharing what’s coming, getting input across departments, discussing the strategic plan, what’s been achieved, where we are headed, what’s been done well in that quarter and acknowledging achievements. Everyone knows what the initiatives are, and there are a lot of good ideas out there. So sometimes we’ve had to say not never, just not now to a few. It’s not a bad idea. It’s just whether it correlates with our strategic initiatives and having a laser focus on what needs to be accomplished.”
Given her prior experience at big banks, where only million-dollar ideas mattered, she has driven to create an environment that fosters innovation.
“To me, innovation is just doing things a little better,” said Schwartz."I remember how demotivating it was that you’d only be rewarded for ideas that saved the bank a million dollars. I think coming up with a $500 idea or 10,000 ideas that improve things in little ways are just as important.”
Some of the initiatives at her credit union she’s been most proud of have ranged from having a more robust enterprise-risk management program that has become an integral part of how the organization is run to marketing enhancements that have led to a greater impact on the same budget. Given the changes over the last five years, for Schwartz, a recent survey that revealed 98% of employees were excited about the future and 99% reported they knew they were important to the success of the organization meant the most.
“That said a lot about the team we have here,” said Schwartz. “We just celebrated our 50th anniversary last year and looking ahead we want to continue that member focus as community impact is part of our strategic initiative and, as always, work on product enhancements for our members.”
Not one to be overly concerned about the ever growing and changing competitive landscape, Schwartz believes in remaining relevant by doing the best for members.
“There’s lots out there to choose, from banks, Internet providers, Google wallet, affinity programs, mobile, the competition continues to come fast and furious,” said Schwartz. “My perspective is you can’t do much with what else may be happening out there. Be aware, but it’s not one of the things I’d lose sleep over.”
It’s the economy and the challenges associated with it that keeps her up at night.
“It’s been tough on members, and there’s much that’s out of our control–unemployment, home prices continue to fall and over regulation,” said Schwartz. “We’re a big credit union and our compliance team is very talented, and the regulations are a distraction. Very few of the things coming through offer real benefit to members. They cost credit unions more and shift the focus from developing new products and innovation to dealing with font sizes in disclosures.”
She added that it doesn’t help that credit unions in general remain a best kept secret and awareness continues to be a challenge.
“Consumers still think of credit unions as less convenient than banks. That’s less true here in San Diego but true overall,” said Schwartz. “Another myth is that moving accounts out of banks is too much trouble, some insurmountable task. We need to get the word out that credit unions are a better alternative and make the switch relatively painless. The good news is that once consumers come over, they stay, but it’s getting them to make the move.”
Her advice for future leaders in an ever changing environment? To be flexible, open to change and calm.
“You never know where your next opportunity will come from so work really hard, build a strong educational base and take those projects no one wants,” said Schwartz. “You’ve got to keep learning, whether its classes, attending conferences or volunteering. Personally I’m not a big mentor fan because I think you learn different things from different people. I’ve learned more from bad bosses as far as what I’m never going to do. I take it all, the good and the bad, as a learning opportunity. I had the chance to go through a bank failure. I knew we were merging and asked to work on the merger and acquisitions team, knowing I’d be out of a job in six months. I was in my mid-20s, and what a phenomenal experience, and I learned skills there that I use to this day.”
She added that nothing derails more careers than ego.
“Being afraid to admit your wrong or not willing to admit you don’t know something gets in the way of good decisions,” said Schwartz. “A little insecurity is a good thing. I know I try to make sure I’m always doing my best with what my board wants, meeting employee expectations, doing what’s right for the members. Honestly I am always a little on edge. I never walk into a room or meeting thinking I own it.”