Trailblazer Awards: PrimeWay CEO: Turn Around Culture, Earnings Follow
Annette Zimmerman in a PrimeWay conference room, where the CARING logo is featured on a wall.
If Annette Zimmerman had a motto it would be that culture matters, because turning PrimeWay Federal Credit Union around meant changing the cultures of two credit unions.
“When I arrived in 2010, I had to cope with the damaged culture of two struggling credit unions,” said Zimmerman, president/CEO of the $443 million PrimeWay in Houston. “There was the culture of PrimeWay, which already had very high employee turnover, low loan origination and rising delinquency, and TexasOne's culture after the merger.”
Zimmerman is CU Times’ 2015 CEO of the Year for her ability to bridge the two environments and put PrimeWay on a path to profitability.
The credit union and the then-$125 million TexasOne Community Credit Union, also in Houston, merged in June 2010 after the NCUA and the Texas Credit Union Department told the smaller cooperative it had to merge or close. That edict was brought on by TexasOne's low net worth ratio, which plunged to 1.93%, according to NCUA data.
TexasOne also had negative income of more than $665,000 at the end of March 2010, its last call report on file.
While Zimmerman did not downplay the impact of TexasOne's financials on PrimeWay's situation, particularly the challenge of TexasOne bringing just $2.43 million in capital into the merger, she stressed that the cultures of both credit unions were her biggest and most immediate challenge when she became CEO.
Zimmerman declined to dwell on the details, saying they were better left in the past.
However, PrimeWay's culture suffered from previous leadership's focus on cutting costs to boost profitability, she said.
This expense-cutting environment resulted in employees who had not kept up with training while trying to do their jobs with outdated technology that no longer fit PrimeWay's needs.
“I can't remember who said it,” Zimmerman said, “but the old saying is really true, ‘you can't cut your way to profitability,’ and there had been a lot of that thinking at PrimeWay.”
Meanwhile, TexasOne's culture was damaged on a number of fronts, she recalled. First, because the merger came under emergency financial circumstances, it traumatized and tore at the fabric of the closely-knit TexasOne.
Additionally, significant external fraud losses within TexasOne's larger member business loans degraded the credit union's financial situation that eventually led to the merger.
Both of these scenarios, Zimmerman said, sparked a lot of resentment, finger pointing and drama that PrimeWay had to overcome in order to move forward.
“I had to find a way to help people from both credit union communities leave the past behind and have confidence that, together, we were going to build a stronger, better institution,” Zimmerman said.
Family night for Annette Zimmerman means board games and family pets. From left, Annette Zimmerman, president/CEO of PrimeWay FCU, Athena the dog, husband Brian, daughter Emily, daughter-in-law Misha and son Ben.
She began by visiting each of the credit union's departments, listening to the staff who worked there and asking questions. What about their positions made the most sense? Which procedures worked and which did not? Which equipment or technology helped the staff better serve the members and which did not?
Then, in the face of some staff skepticism and continued low morale, Zimmerman reversed the previous leadership's direction and started investing in the credit union.
“Of course, we still had to contend with financial realities,” she said. “We couldn't go out there and spend like crazy. But, within reason, if we needed to increase staff training, we increased it and did what we could afford to improve the technology our people used.”
As an example, she cited the credit union's core processor change in 2012. Zimmerman said as staff implemented new training and began offering new services to members, the inadequacy of the previous core processing system became apparent.
Under her leadership, PrimeWay moved forward with a product from Corelation, a relative newcomer to the credit union core processing market. The financial institution became one of the first 20 credit unions to sign up with the new company.
Zimmerman cited the processor's browser-based interface and simplicity of use as factors for becoming a client along, with the credit union's ability to expand on the system with little additional cost.
Because Corelation used an open architecture platform, Zimmerman said PrimeWay was able to integrate an internally developed loan application onto the core platform without having to spend thousands of dollars on another product or component.
“Corelation allowed our staff to focus more on serving members and less on working with our software to make that happen,” she explained, adding the upgrade furthered the credit union's goal of improving service to draw better earnings.
Zimmerman implemented a management approach under the acronym of CARING: Compassion, accountability, real value, integrity, new ideas and guidance.
Her thinking was if you put a CARING management style into place and are patient with it, better earnings will come.
“Earnings are a lagging indicator of what you are doing correctly or incorrectly,” Zimmerman said. “If you put quality service first, better earnings will follow.”
Data from the NCUA support that philosophy. According to financial performance numbers, at the close of 2010, the year of the merger, PrimeWay had a net worth ratio of 8.88% versus 10.28% for its peers. Its delinquency ratio was 3.81%, double peers' 1.62%. Net charge-offs were also higher than peers at 1.12% versus 0.95%. In addition, PrimeWay's overall loan portfolio shrank a bit each quarter, decreasing from $237.9 million in June 2010, when the merger took place, to $225 million by December that year.
By contrast, in September 2014, the most recent quarter peer data was available, PrimeWay's net worth ratio stood at 8.27%, compared to 10.86% for peers.
However, its delinquency ratio dropped to roughly half its peers at 0.59% and 0.94%, respectively. PrimeWay's charge-offs also decreased to 0.60%, compared to 0.44% for its peers.
Additionally, in December 2014, PrimeWay's loans were $311.4 million, capping a year of steady growth from the $258.4 million that it held at the close of 2013.
To Zimmerman, one of the most important numbers was not found in the NCUA report but from human resources files.
In 2010, turnover at PrimeWay was roughly 40%. That figured dropped to 24% in 2014.
Zimmerman said she doesn't take exclusive credit for any of PrimeWay's successes, praising the board, staff and members for their willingness to have patience and wait for the changes she directed to take shape.
That's part of the point, she said. Cultural change is what drives economic change, and cultural change doesn't happen overnight.