PALM BEACH, Fla. — When Fred Johnson, CEO of CUES for the last 23 years, says he’s going to retire at year-end he means it. And he’s going to enjoy the life of a kept man.
Johnson’s wife of six years, Mary, manages a diamond store, which she plans to continue doing into his retirement. “I can cook. I can clean–not to her standards,” he quipped during an interview at CUES’ CEO Executive Team Network celebrating the organization’s 50th Anniversary.
For Johnson, who’s 70 and worked since the age of 13, he’s going to live a life of leisure, dabbling in watercolors and strengthen his German and French. He reminisced about his parents waltzing to the music at the emperor’s ball in Vienna as it filtered through their television set. It’s an event that he’s always wanted to attend. He and Mary enjoy taking ballroom dancing lessons.
“I won’t say I was selfless, but I had two wives with terminal illnesses and I had to take care of the home and that stuff,” Johnson explained. “I have hobbies, and I hate to say this because it sounds selfish, but I want to dig into those.”
Johnson also wants to devote time to the game that every businessman curses: golf. He made a deal with his wife for a condo at Lake Geneva, Wis., overlooking a green so he can practice chipping and putting.
He also plans to spend some time with his four sons, all of whom have served in the military, and three granddaughters–but not too much. One of the great joys with grandchildren is handing them back, Johnson added. He doesn’t intend on being anybody’s day care. There’s too much to cross off the bucket list.
“I suppose it’s my Army background, but when you change commands, you walk away,” Johnson said. The outgoing CEO clarified he would always answer the phone if his successor called, but he’s not going to be calling him.
Johnson added that he wouldn’t rule out serving on a credit union board at the right credit union. His introduction to credit unions was when he was recruited to volunteer at West Point Federal Credit Union, which was in dire straights at the time. Long story short, he paid attention to certain details, attention that had been lacking, and routed out fraud at the credit union.
In addition to credit unions, Johnson’s real passion was raising funds to support a lung cancer research center after the death of his second wife of 22 years who’d never smoked a day in her life. Lung cancer is by far the leading cause of cancer in women, he pointed out. Since then he’s read reports out of the center that have detected the cellular development that leads to lung cancer.
Within his role at the helm of CUES there were plenty of accomplishments under Johnson’s tenure as well. Internally at CUES, he said he was very pleased with the great staff he hired and starting Versatime, which allowed employees to work from home at least once a week. He smiled and said whether that program would continue was the first question out of CUES’ staffers when the organization announced its new CEO, Chuck Fagan, executive vice president of PSCU.
For CUES members, however, Johnson said he “couldn’t be prouder” of the CEO Institute, which launched at University of California-Berkley Haas Business School in 1995. The program expanded to Wharton School of University of Pennsylvania in 1996 and Darden School of Business, University of Virginia in 1997.
A couple of years ago, CUES also restructured its entire membership basis tiered not only to asset size of the credit union but also by where credit union professionals were in their careers. As a result, CUES membership grew as the number of credit unions declined.
And last but not least was the inauguration of CCUBE, the Center for Credit Union Board Excellence. “Directors are at once our greatest strength and at once our greatest weakness,” Johnson stated. Credit unions’ volunteer board members are great, when they keep up with what’s going on around them. “I have been hard on education because this stuff changes all the time. Just understanding what’s going on in the fraud business, payments systems–they’re changing all the time.”
That also means that CUES has had to keep up with the times. Johnson recalled that when he joined CUES, there was about one computer to every two or three employees. He explained that he was comfortable with technology because the Army had been the test bed for Windows, which he said crashed all the time. As a grandparent now, he swears the iPad was made for his generation. “As distant as families get, that’s the glue that can really hold you together,” he said.
“Now look at the hand held,” Johnson marveled. “We’ve got a whole demographic of young people who don’t want to do anything without their hand held…Technology is a force multiplier, as we called it in the Army.”
But one of the things that has made credit union executives’ lives more difficult throughout time is compliance. “Those guys in Washington create these laws, and they don’t care what size you are,” he sputtered incredulously. Compliance, Johnson asserted, repeals good that technology does.
Other than sticking a toe in with the technological advances at the time, Johnson lectured on leadership. “Education: it’s about leadership. In this day and age, people don’t think it’s important and it is. Managers don’t lead, they manage.”
Part of real leadership is developing people or products and then being able to let them go. Johnson cited studies, which have found that, “Entrepreneurs grow a firm and if they don’t sell it, they destroy it because of the control.” Bring in great people and you train them; be sad when they leave but you certainly can’t hold it against them, he said.
That’s not only true within his organization, but also all the members who’ve come through CUES. “What’s been so great for me in this job is people coming by and telling us how much affect our program has been on them,” Johnson said.
As a leader you also need to know when to compromise. Take things to your board and get unanimous or near-unanimous consent, Johnson advised. If your project is not going to reach that threshold, then find out the objections, modify it and raise it again. If you have two to three dissenters, they can make it difficult to get anything else done. Compromise is key, Johnson said.