Unless the Milwaukee Brewers come calling for him to play as shortstop, Patrick Basler, president/CEO of Chicago-based First Financial Credit Union has found his niche by helping consumers change their perceptions of credit unions.
A longtime lover of jazz, Basler played the saxophone and went to college as a music major. Realizing early on he didn’t want to be a starving artist, he switched his major three times. and it turned out that business, finance and marketing struck just the right chord.
“I’m excited about the opportunities that credit unions have to finally take some market share from banks. As technology evolves, it levels the playing field,” said Basler. “We can compete if we leverage technology, keep talking to younger members communicating that maybe a megabank is not the best place for their money and credit unions are a great alternative.”
The Trailblazer 40 Below added that the competition has changed.
“The competition is whoever out there that provides the most convenient access to products and services that best meet consumer needs,” said Basler. “Look at American Express and Walmart’s partnership to offer the Bluebird account, our competition now includes big box stores that consumers view as a one stop shop. So your competition is not just that bank down the street or your online competitors, but anyone offering and delivering those products and services consumers want. Consumers are very astute about researching and finding the right products and services for them, so our challenge as an industry is to adapt to an environment that changes so quickly as far as delivery channels, technology, and overall consumer expectations.”
For the past five years Basler has been doing just that as he set high service delivery expectations, challenging everyone at the $62 million credit union to think outside of the box for consumer solutions.
It has resulted in initiatives ranging from data processing conversion and integration of tablet technology in operations, to the elimination of all paper documents for board meetings and mobile apps. In addition, First Financial CU has become portable in its service delivery from opening accounts to making the loan process more convenient for members.
“In defining innovation, there’s a great variant of a quote by musician Charles Mingus - Anyone can make the simple complicated, creativity is making the complex simple,” said Basler. “So use what’s been developed and ask simple questions. Our latest mobile app enhancement came about through a conversation that started with, ‘wouldn’t it be cool if I could apply for a loan and sign all the documents without ever leaving my couch, or wherever I’m at. A bit of brainstorming the details to confirm the idea had value lead to the important first question of ‘why can’t we do that?’ I try to live life with as few regrets as possible so do my best to strike that balance between avoiding mistakes and not being afraid to take chances.”
A believer that good ideas come from across the organization, Basler has been particularly proud of strides made in training and development.
“I got my start at a $20 million credit union and having the opportunity to help people, that’s what really motivates me. Helping others better themselves whether it’s staff development or members’ financial success, is what I most enjoy, having the opportunity to make a difference.”
With a focus on education, Tuesday mornings have been dedicated to full-staff training and development. The offices are closed for 90 minutes to focus on product & service training, and ideas and projects in the works are discussed as a way to ensure engagement in the process across the organization
“If you want to foster an environment of true innovation then it’s important to have an open door policy. We have regular brainstorm sessions where no idea is a dumb idea. We ask is it something valuable to the organization and then put in the commitment of time and energy to make it work,” said Basler. “Sometimes the simplest thing you can do to encourage everyone to share their ideas is to look at doing more to empower your staff. For example, if they aren’t trusted to reverse a $25 fee then why would they feel they could be trusted to come up with an idea that would significantly affect the business? Staff needs to know that you value their input so they make use of that open door policy or suggestion box.”
Any success the credit union has experienced Basler said has come from the dedication, input and effort of the team.
“Instead of centralizing efforts we made a shift in our business model to decentralize,” said Basler. “Over two-thirds of our offices are one-person locations within our SEGs. To make those locations full-service, our employees need to have a high level of knowledge and be empowered to make decisions. In today’s society consumers don’t want to be passed along to someone else. We’ve been able to keep a very personal approach, and utilize technology to efficiently deliver those products/services. We’ve grown and served more members without lowering our service expectations. Staff training has been critical to that success.”
He added not to underestimate the value of real collaboration.
“What I’ve learned is that sometimes, especially with our limited resources, there’s no way around finding an outside partner to get that idea out to market,” said Basler. “There are a lot of credit unions facing the same challenges. Imagine what we could accomplish if we found more ways to really collaborate and partner for solutions?”
He added that while it’s important to celebrate successes it is equally important to move on quickly to the next idea.
“The world is constantly changing so you have to keep being inquisitive,” said Basler. “You don’t need to have all the answers just know how to find them to accomplish your goal.