Trailblazer Award: IT Executive Chad Graves Takes Holistic Approach
Like many executives, Chad Graves begins his day by reading The Wall Street Journal, USA Today and his local newspaper. Only Graves is not a CEO or CFO, he’s the chief technologist at Ent Federal Credit Union.
The senior vice president of information technology at the $3.7 billion Colorado Springs, Colo., credit union said his co-workers sometimes tease him for what might look like an old-school activity that has little to do with the daily activities of an IT shop.
But his reasoning is simple. “Our focus is on how to return the most to our members, and that includes not only the ways we can use technology to improve member service through faster response times and so on, but also the bigger picture, the market forces that we have to keep up on and try to understand.”
“We don’t want to constantly be in a reactionary mode to the trends that are out there. The reality is that as leaders we have to always try to understand those trends, to stay with them and even get out in front of them when we can.”
This holistic approach to his job–and a focus on working to ensure strategy becomes reality–has made Graves an established figure in credit union technology and leadership circles in general, and also has landed him selection as the IT Executive of the Year in the 2013 Trailblazer awards from Credit Union Times.
An Idaho native, Graves, now 40, joined Ent in 1999 with a background in software development and a career that began as the Internet itself was in its infancy. Professionally, he grew up with online banking, leading the creation and integration of electronic services into the operations and mindset of management alike at his Colorado credit union.
While he has a technologist’s training, he’s the first to admit he’s not purely a techie anymore. “My staff won’t let me touch anything,” he said with a laugh. “I’m not the guy you want configuring your router. But we’re fortunate at Ent that we’re big enough to hire people who can specialize in that kind of work, and that we’ve got a management team that understands the value of why we need a router and why it needs to be tinkered with as we work to meet our members’ needs.”
He now leads a staff of 41 responsible for a technology infrastructure that can develop and deploy traditional and new products and services and maintain a bricks and mortar and online presence that’s always on, 24/7, wherever and whenever its 222,000 members need them.
“Chad is a different breed of technologist in that he understands very clearly how important the member experience is to everything we do,” said Ent President/Chief Operating Officer Randy Bernstein. “That includes not just online banking and mobile banking but all the touch points where our employees are dealing with members and the importance of system stability to get information quickly and efficiently.”
And while Ent is large by credit union standards, it’s not by bank standards, and Graves has helped his credit union become a leader in industry cooperation, working with credit union colleagues and vendors from across the country to develop new technologies and improve existing tools.
His industry work has included leadership roles with the CUNA Technology Council (and helping with the current work to create a new payments committee), the Symitar Alliance Board, the Cornerstone IT Roundtable and the ORCC User Group.
Graves’ work extends beyond the traditional domain of an IT manager. He also spent two years in the Filene Research Institute’s i3 Program, where he led efforts to create Debt in Focus, a confidential tool for credit union members to identify specific steps they can take to reduce their household debts. A number of credit unions now offer the program, including Ent, where more than 650 members used it in 2012.
Another initiative he led was the creation of a Visa debit card that included access to campus dorms, buses and other key services at the local branch of the University of Colorado. Mobile banking is now a major focus, with more than 40,000 members using that channel, and in the back office, accomplishments last year included the completion of a backup center that supports the credit union’s 27 service centers.
While Graves has never worked for a bank, his credit union has hired a number of bankers over the years and that they soon learn that the two business models, while very similar, also contain some sharp differences. That includes the consumer-facing side–members vs. customers–but also in relationships with those all-important providers of technology to today’s modern financial institution.
“As a credit union we have a much different perspective. We’re here for our members, and we remind vendors that every dollar saved goes back to the members in the form of dividends on deposits or better loan rates,” he said. “Along those lines, we try to collaborate with other credit unions to find vendors who understand credit unions a little more, who can provide us solutions with a little more value than we otherwise might get.”
A headline of that collaboration currently is the work toward creating the Credit Union Financial Exchange, common software standards that will allow credit unions and vendors to more easily create and connect integrated solutions, saving time and money.
“CUFX is important because the industry lacks common specifications, which results in higher costs for credit unions and vendors,” Graves said. “A CUFX-enabled world reduces costs for credit unions, results in faster time to market for new products and allows core vendors like Symitar to focus on innovation instead of supporting more than 2,000 vendor interfaces.”
Graves said he and his colleagues have completed work on a CUFX standard for personal financial management, are close to completion on one for new account opening and have online banking and mobile payments on the agenda for 2013.
“Independently, the majority of credit unions are not large enough to influence the outcome of topics like industry standards and payment solutions, but when hundreds or even thousands of credit unions get together with one voice, we can make a difference,” he said, also pointing to the CO-OP network of 30,000-plus ATMs as another example.
Graves’ work on joint initiatives has earned him notice from his colleagues.
“I’ve had the privilege of working with Chad on many industry committees,” said current CUNA Technology Council Chair Heather Moshier, executive vice president of information technology at the $5.8 billion San Diego County Credit Union. “He consistently has valuable input and has been in a leadership role on these committees. He is always looking for new ways to collaborate for the benefit of the credit union movement.”