BECU's Leonardson Eyes Exit
For years many of the biggest tech deployment announcements in credit union land seemed to involve BECU, one of the largest credit unions in the country.
Butch Leonardson was behind a lot of that news. He has just announced he would step down later this year after 15 years at the $11.9 billion Tukwila, Wash., credit union.
“That's a long time in the same job,” said Leonardson, BECU's chief information officer and regarded by many in the industry as one of the first senior technologists to embrace and advocate for the integration of hardware, software and people.
Leonardson said his decision was driven by his age, 65, and the fact that his credit union is beginning a new three-year planning cycle next year. “I wanted to leave myself ample time for an encore career,” he said. “This year is a good time.”
He's quoted in CU Times’ archives as far back as 2000, in an article then about artificial intelligence software that would give BECU staffers real-time access to member profiles. Nowadays, that concept is widely in play as customer relationship management and cross-selling tools.
Later, Leonardson led his credit union through a massive technology infrastructure conversion that involved multiple systems, including Corillian's online banking platform and a core processing platform from Open Solutions, an interloper into the credit union industry that was making a name for itself by picking off billion-dollar clients.
Former Open Solutions Chairman/CEO Louis Hernandez remembers. “I worked with Butch on a variety of projects over the years,” Hernandez told CU Times last week, “including one of the first large-scale enterprise installations of DNA core processing in the credit union space. At the time, it was the largest of its kind. His insights and support ultimately helped DNA and Open Solutions become the innovative technology disruptor that changed the landscape of the industry capturing hundreds of clients along the way.”
The impact stretched beyond the Puget Sound. “Butch was the first to understand the power of collaborative technologies that allow people to connect in more powerful ways while delivering greater operational efficiencies. A true pioneer in the industry, he was always open minded, friendly and interested in others. I am proud to call him a friend and colleague,” said Hernandez, now president/CEO of Avid.
Steve Williams, co-founder and principal at Cornerstone Advisors, an Arizona-based strategic planning consultancy for credit unions and community banks, shared that take on Leonardson.
“Butch was one of the early symbols of professionalizing IT in the credit union industry,” Williams said. “I loved how he brought a feeling of optimism and growth to IT instead of the typical embattlement and resource constraints that unfortunately can take over a culture.”
That takes risk and persuasion and commitment from below and above, and Leonardson credits his now-retired boss – former President/CEO Gary Oakland – “for allowing me to participate in the industry like we did.”
Leonardson's first CIO job was at a children's hospital and then at Harvard Medical School. His big revelation, though, came in a consulting gig he did for another former employer, Arthur Andersen (later Accenture), in the 1980s.
“They had me come back and do an IT strategy plan for a client and I became by default that company's strategic planner,” he said. “I realized right then that the CIO needs to be right in the middle, in the vortex of any strategic planning.”
Values also play a part in the integration, along with the technology, he said, and one of his longtime colleagues said he's seen that play out throughout Leonardson's tenure at BECU, which also included mentorship and leadership roles in such growing organizations as the CUNA Technology Council.
“Butch once told me that it's as much about hearts and minds as bits and bytes,” said Steve Williams, co-founder of the Cornerstone Advisors consultancy in Scottsdale, Ariz. “I loved how Butch brought a feeling of optimism and growth to IT instead of the typical embattlement and resource constraints that unfortunately can take over a culture.”
Or as Leonardson puts it, “Many CIOs get to their position by looking through the lens of the functional parts of IT – the database administrator, the help desk, operations. They lead from that lens and that's a potential road to disaster.”
He said he instead has focused on what he calls outside-in thinking. “You start with the customer experience that the organization desires to deliver and you work backward through the technology so that the customer experience becomes the center of gravity,” he said.
Leonardson said that orientation has resulted in BECU so often finding itself on the leading-edge of new products and services to its members, by appealing to their hearts and minds as well as that of the staff he helped bring together to deliver those goods.
While BECU grew from a tech-savvy membership – Boeing and all the other high tech titans, including Microsoft, that make their home in the Seattle area, Leonardson said, “I don't know if the socioeconomic status of our members has really driven us. What's really driven us is the Net Promoter Score. It's part of our incentive plan, it's at the board level and it's very, very important to us as an indicator of how well we’re delivering a great member experience.”
But ultimately, it comes down to people, to relationships. That's what those metrics are measuring and by those measures, Leonardson has made his mark with industry leaders.
“His understanding of how technology can be used to bring people closer, his dedication to the credit union movement and courageous leadership in areas that only a few would be willing to go were matched only by his intense interest in learning, his ability to develop loyal, long-term relationships and his ability to deliver large-scale industry changing projects that others would only dream about,” said Hernandez, now chairman of Avid.
And sometimes that meant ruffling feathers. “Butch wore candor on his sleeve and loved to challenge your thinking, even if he suspected you were right,” said Williams at Cornerstone Advisors.
One former executive in a position to have experienced that candor also saw that impact.
“Butch was instrumental in transforming the IT culture at BECU from dictating how things would be done to partnering in creating the member experience that the member deserved,” said Oakland, the retired president/CEO of the big Seattle credit union.
“He always worked on ways that technology could enhance the member experience rather than using technology for technology's sake,” Oakland said. “He also mentored leadership within the IT department as well as with his peers.”
And that's apparently the plan going forward. Next up, “over the next 10 years, I along with others am planning to help develop credit unions’ CIO leadership capabilities and help CU boards and executive teams transform their IT teams into powerful parts of their growth and strategies,” Leonardson said.
He said he hopes to share his specific plans later this year.