Starting Small, Dreaming Big and Collaborating
Ten years ago when Garza was interviewing for a job there, he said he wanted to be president.
“So I’m thinking president, and they told me you’ll start in collections, part-time,” he said of what actually served as a great foundation for where he wanted to be. “It was the best area to learn what makes a good or bad loan, how to work with members, and to get an understanding of what credit unions do.”
He moved up the ranks to loan officer and prior to being named president served as vice president of marketing/collections for some six years.
“Years ago I wanted to finish my MBA and with the support of a great board of directors I was able to do that while working full time,” Garza said. “The board fully backed my decision and were very encouraging. I try and pass that philosophy forward, encouraging our employees to begin taking college classes or go back and finish what they may have started years ago.”
Despite serving in an area ranked in the top 10 for lowest credit scores, Gulf Coast Federal is one of the fastest-growing credit unions in the nation, said CU Times’ newest Trailblazer 40 Below.
“I’m a numbers watcher. I don't just look at our bottom line, I look at everybody's and if they’re better than us in a particular category I take it personally,” said Garza, who is motivated by the success and growth of the credit union.
“I’m a big believer that every employee should know as much about our credit union as I do whether it's an audit or our overall peer ratio growth,” he said. “I love making decisions, but we’re all a part of the process.”
Proud to loan out to the community, he noted that while the average credit union in the United States is about 70-80% loaned out, his credit union is in the mid-90s in a market where the average credit score is 580.
“Credit unions have the best product in the world – not Coca Cola or M&Ms. Those of us lucky to be in credit unions, it's our job to let people know how amazing our product is,” Garza said. “We help people in the area to build up their credit in the right way, not through a payday loan, and unlike a bank, we make our money to give back to members. If that's not amazing I don't know what is.”
With communication and collaboration key to success, Garza created a conference space in his office for weekly cross-departmental meetings as a way to break down perceived silos.
“I wanted everyone to feel free to talk and communicate as a team,” he said. “We start off with everyone sharing one positive in their life whether personal or within their department, then we’re in the right frame of mind to discuss, brainstorm and learn from each other.”
Eliminating barriers is something Garza takes seriously and his one piece of advice for every young professional is simple: cross train.
“There is so much more you can do and bring to the table when you cross train in other areas” he said. “You don't have to be an expert in every area but having a basic understanding helps when looking at the big picture. And it helps you become a better team player as well.”
He added that doing one's research and asking questions also goes a long way to being heard.
“Don't jump in and say, ‘Let me tell you what's wrong,”’ Garza said. “If you listen, people can tell you what issues there are or what's wrong with the organization. So ask questions, find out the whys and reasons behind policies, procedures, learn as much as you can, then do the research before presenting your idea.”
Since taking the leadership reins, Garza has had the team amp up its marketing by doing unconventional events such as an air guitar contest and battle of the bands. It's been a way to help get Gulf Coast FCU's name out in the community.
In addition, later this year the credit union will sponsor three college nights at the ballpark where college students can enter to win $500 towards their school expenses. Five prizes a night will be given out. This summer a car show will be held at one of the Gulf Coast FCU branches and all the proceeds will go towards a local charity.
Garza admits it can be a challenge and that active listening has been a skill he continues to work on. It also helps in creating an environment where ideas can be shared to deliver innovative solutions. For example the credit union offers an app that members use to apply for an auto loan while they are shopping for their car.“Innovation is listening,” said Garza. “We’ve got our competition beat on new apps because we’re listening to what's needed from our members and employees. There are no dumb questions or bad ideas. I’m the first to ask questions of everyone. So really listening is the number one thing we try to do here.”
With the number of credit unions dropping, he said now is the time for credit unions to join forces to make a difference.
“If we capitalize on our great public image there's no stopping credit unions, “he said. “It's time for a grassroots national campaign that helps consumers understand what is a credit union. I’m worried that by the time we have that fire under us it will be too late. I know we are on the Hill, have advocacy groups, but what about the people? They back us and we as an industry become stronger.”
Garza also sees lending as another opportunity for credit unions.
“We as an industry have got to take chances and think about going beyond just a number on the credit bureau report,” said Garza. “We can't just only look at A and B paper. We should all treat each other as equals. Whether a member has $1,000 or $100,000 if they want to talk to me I’m here to listen.”