Volunteer of the Year: Richards Pushes for Innovation
A commonly-used phrase in his native Jamaica, “try a ting” succinctly captures the spirit of John Richards, board director and former chairman of The Partnership Federal Credit Union.
“It's a testament to the perseverance with which we charge ourselves in whatever we do in life,” CU Times’ 2016 Trailblazer Award winner for Volunteer of the Year said. “Try something, do something and keep at it until a roadblock worthy of slowing you down presents itself, then try something else.”
He's no stranger to perseverance. After his parents immigrated to New York, a young Richards worked many jobs – including sweeping floors, being a cabbie and selling real estate – until, to his father's relief, he found he really enjoyed attending university classes and discovered his niche in law.
Now the associate general counsel for Freddie Mac, he has been a part of the credit union industry since the beginning of his career. Richard began as an attorney for Fannie Mae in the early 1990s before rising to Fannie Mae Federal Credit Union's general counsel and eventually joining its board in 2008. In 2012, the board recognized the need for the then $16 million credit union to merge and found the right fit with The Partnership in Arlington, Va.
Even though he sat in and joined board discussions as a non-voting guest on The Partnership's board during the merger process, he admitted the environment was initially a bit daunting when things became official. However, once he became part of The Partnership's board, he learned the importance of always asking questions to clarify, even when he thought the question might be too silly or basic. He added accountability standards among the credit union's board and leadership team has fostered a safe environment in which meaningful discussions are encouraged.
“I think the greatest lesson from the experience is that it's okay to not be a management expert on all things retail financial services or even the credit union movement and serve on the board,” Richards said. “These things develop as you go along. Every volunteer contributes their own expertise and experiences in service of the members. What matters most is that ability to be collegial and to have a willingness to learn and grow.”
Those who nominated Richards said he represented “the rare breed of exceptional volunteers who choose to spend their additional time to not only lead but help others achieve extraordinary results.”
While honored by the kind words, he said none of it would be possible without his entire team – board members, president/CEO, senior staff and employees – all working in tandem to return value to members at every turn.
Richards’ particular skill set of listening actively and offering a helping hand to act on launching new initiatives has paid off for The Partnership. Faced with the challenge of thriving in a difficult regulatory environment with increased threats, the $146 million credit union's response was to deliver greater value. The decision resulted in the roll out of the credit union's Value in Partnership program and launch of a ZipLINE credit builder product, which helps individuals with no credit, limited credit or poor credit establish a payment history and develop a lending relationship with The Partnership. Positioned as an alternative to payday loans, the ZipLINE program also allows members to qualify for additional credit with higher limits and/or lower rates as their credit improves.
“We have to be willing to take a chance on expanding the credit box,” he said. “Credit unions, particularly those well-capitalized and well-run like ours, should bear in mind we are not here to serve exclusively A and B paper. We, as an industry, can do more outreach to folks with less than stellar credit and put them on the path to develop and improve their financial footing.”
Developed as a member engagement strategy, the VIP program is based on the idea that members who really use the credit union deserve more value, he said. Since its inception in January 2015, the program has given back more than $30,000 to members in the form of fee refunds, increased rates on certificates, and discounts or cash rebates on vehicle loan protection products and first mortgage closing costs. The model has also benefitted the credit union's bottom line. Last year, The Partnership grew its loan portfolio by 13.59%, more than doubling the previous year's loan growth of 6.24%, and blew past its budgeted 2015 growth of 8.10% while registering improvements in its delinquency ratios.
“We cannot grow, improve ourselves or expand our outlook if we’re not willing to experiment and own it if and when we fail,” he said. “If we don't admit to mistakes made, then we’ve forgone the opportunity to learn from them and improve.”
Since joining The Partnership board, he's worked with president/CEO Theresa Mann to refine the existing board governance structure, resulting in the creation of two new board committees – the governance committee and human resource/CEO relations committee –as a way to develop a formalized HR compensation structure and process at the board level, as well as help free up members of the executive committee.
He also spearheaded efforts to develop a board succession plan based on a competency matrix. This involved creating success metrics to identify current and future skill and expertise gaps among board members, as well as potential board member contacts and engagement opportunities that could help further the development of the credit union's business strategy. In addition, Richards led the charge for a more structured associate board of directors program, in which prospective directors are given an opportunity to participate and learn by attending live board meetings.
The opportunity to be a part of two dynamic credit union boards has reinforced Richard's personal belief that drawing top talent has more to do with finding people who want to be active participants than those interested in monetary compensation. He said from a business perspective, for a small to mid-sized credit union such as his, it wouldn't make sense to seek a board position for the money as the final payout would represent nothing more than a token amount at best.
“At that point I’d question their priorities,” he said. “It's just my opinion, but for me, serving on a board is all about retuning value to the membership.”
That's why when his personal and professional life got particularly hectic last year, he stepped down as chairman.
Out of the many initiatives advanced by the teams he served on, Richards said the board education and training infrastructure efforts brought him the most joy. They set clear guidelines for directors to go beyond the NCUA's baseline requirements to sharpen their skills in risk, compliance and financial literacy, and engage in learning through conferences, webinars and more.
“The additional, continuing education follow-through on our commitment to excellence and becoming better board members is a powerful message to send to examiners,” he said.
Richards passes on his father's lessons in adaptability, tenacity and accountability to his own 11-year-old son, Duncan.