Never tell Michael Bell, attorney and counselor at Royal Oak, Mich.-based law firm Howard & Howard, something can’t be done without a ready response to two simple words: Why not?
“It’s an almost visceral response. For someone to say you can’t do that, well, you’ve said it to the wrong guy. I believe once we talk it through, we’ll find there truly is no reason to say that, and you don’t even believe it yourself,” said Bell. “It’s true, you really can do anything you want, it’s just a matter of finding a better way for it to be done. There is always a way. I refuse to believe there’s not. Some ways are better than others, but never is there a can’t.”
The expectation of a positive outcome has always been ingrained in Bell since he was young. And now he's the latest Trailblazer 40 Below from Credit Union Times.
“No means not yet. And I don’t mean that in an adversarial or negative way. When I was a kid, it may have bothered my mom a bit, but that’s always the kind of person I’ve been,” said Bell. “What’s always inspired or motivated me has been this burning desire to work with people to achieve a goal that’s cutting edge. That’s what’s great about the credit union space, working together to achieve and maybe do something never done before. It’s like the icing on the cake.”
For Bell, his leadership and communication style have always been about being direct, factual and working alongside clients as a co-worker to make a difference.
That can-do tenacity has driven Bell to help credit unions lift the veil of commonly perceived obstacles to discover new opportunities through innovative solutions.
For example, Bell has worked alongside St. Joseph, Mich.-based United Federal Credit Union as it became the first federally charted credit union to acquire a thrift with the acquisition of Griffith Savings Bank. He also has advised Garner, Mass.-based GFA Federal Credit Union as it navigates its purchase of the $83 million Monadnock Community Bank in New Hampshire. The unprecedented transactions, which have broken new regulatory ground, could open the door for other credit unions to follow suit.
“Human nature, whether a client or regulator, is to say no,” said Bell. “But the truth is, if you look at a problem and in looking at all the reasons why you can, you’ll find that the biggest why you can do something is if you don’t find anything that specifically said you can’t.”
He added that while others may complain about the NCUA, he has nothing but good to say about the regulatory agency.
“They have the right attitude about them in saying, let’s figure this out together and keep taking things as they happen,” said Bell. “If you do find that wall or red flag, then it becomes about jumping over, around, digging below it. It’s about taking a positive approach of let’s do something great, innovative that’s never been done before and shift from no.”
He added that the conversations with anyone involved, whether regulators or the board of directors, essentially boiled down to constantly asking the simple question, “Tell us why not and give us the chance to find a solution.”
For Bell, some two to three first-evers represent just the tip of new credit union opportunities.
“There’s a new twist every time,” said Bell. “To truly innovate, I think it’s important to get out of the silo of the credit union only space that all we can do is what has always been done, and we’re stuck here in these self-imposed parameters. Break out, because there is a whole world out there bigger than ours that includes thrifts, banks, direct competitors.”
He added that throughout history regardless of the topic there has always been someone to break new ground with a first.
“The biggest myth that holds people back is this idea that because something has never been done before it can’t be done,” said Bell. “To that I say, O.K. let’s think back, someone at some point made the first auto loan or residential mortgage, so why not be the financial institution that is the first to blaze the trail for others? Someone’s got to do it. Why not you? People talk about innovation as thinking outside the box. What I tell people to do is live outside the box by building new boxes. That’s what we did with that first transaction with United Federal and put a name to it, and it carried through to a new path, new trail for growth.”
Given today’s competitive environment, Bell said a break from the norm is essential.
“Looking ahead, the industry’s competition is honestly credit unions themselves. It’s internal and organic. There’s pressure on all sides, including from emerging nontraditional financial services players. It’s no longer about looking across the street but taking a hard internal look and realizing that you’ve got to find new pathways,” said Bell. “And I’m not talking about growth just for growth’s sake but getting the senior leadership team and board around the table to discuss how to break out of the mold.”
He added the most important question in terms of strategy has to be how to improve upon the status quo.
“I’d like more credit unions to ask what have we never done before? What haven’t we thought about,” said Bell. “A good place to start is to go through your traditional basket and look at ideas or projects that you’ve said no to before. Forget everything you’ve always assumed. Rethink it. Is the answer truly still a no? In 2011, the idea of a credit union buying a bank would be nuts. That would be like moving to Spain to speak French, and yet it’s been done in 2012.”
He doesn’t claim to have all the answers but said credit unions should take it on as a fun challenge to replace every no with why not?
“Do you want to continue to compete head on, like others in financial services and swim in the same ocean, ride the same waves or break free and try something different? Grow in a way the competition is not growing,” said Bell. “Your competitive advantage is to grow a new way. There is a new flexibility, and this is the perfect spot to be.”
He added that the change in regulations and current atmosphere rather than being a burden represents opportunity for credit unions.
“There are institutions that are not in trouble but are simply tired of the growing regulations, laws, and they just don’t want to play anymore,” said Bell. “Transactions like this present a unique opportunity to expand the credit union industry’s slice of the financial services pie. Beyond that, these types of transactions also allow jobs to be saved and communities to continue to be served by a financial institution. It offers a unique opportunity as well for thrifts and community banks by giving them another choice for a partner when one is needed. So credit unions can be that alternative...it’s a win for everyone involved.”