Millennial CEOs Lead Credit Unions Into the Future
Those first born into the millennial generation in the early 1980s are climbing up into the executive ranks, and a few have become CEOs of their credit unions. While baby boomer CEOs made invaluable contributions to the movement, millennial leaders understand they need to lead differently than their predecessors to help the industry survive.
Three millennial CEOs shared insights into how they use a collaborative management style over executive “command and control” to attract and retain millennial talent and members to grow loans. They also shared why being a little quirky over stuffy and formal can help credit unions stand out from the blank bank landscape, and what they think may strengthen the industry's future growth.
Sam Crane was only 31 when he was named president/CEO of Grand County Credit Union in Moab, Utah, and he was scared to death.
That was in 2012 when examiners had concerns about the struggling credit union's future. And, Crane admits, the examiners were worried about him as well.
“They were concerned that I had a lack of accounting experience and rightfully so,” he said. “I have a business degree, but I have never worked as an accountant. At a small credit union, you kind of need a president that knows a little bit of everything. There were a lot of things that I didn't know, but we were able to lean on some resources, get some people trained up and make sure that there were plenty of stopgaps in the areas that were lacking.”
Loans grew from $4.5 million to $29 million, assets increased from $14 million to $28.1 million, membership jumped from 2,290 to 4,127, and the number of branches increased from just one to three.
As a millennial executive, Crane believes it's critical to have a lot of trust and faith in employees, and encourage them to take the initiative to solve problems. And even if an idea doesn't work, it's not considered a failure – it's an experience to learn and move on from. Crane said he continuously tells his staff that it's only a mistake if you do it twice.
“Some of the best things we’ve implemented have been from our people seeing the bottlenecks and asking why we do it this way and trying a different solution,” he said.
Shortly after becoming CEO, Crane set the example of always asking why when he focused on the credit union's loan process. He asked his loan officers why they were using a process that was onerous.
“The answer would be because we’ve always done it that way and probably 90% of the processes we changed were done out of just sheer tradition,” Crane, now 36, said. “We got rid of the old loan process. It used to take a member a week to get approved and we got it down to within 15 minutes in some cases. We probably had about half of the people who applied for a loan walk out with a check rather than waiting for a week.”
Crane knows a mobile banking app is a must to attract and keep young members. Even though he admits the credit union's mobile app is not “top shelf” like the big banks’ apps, it works well enough to satisfy the needs of young members. He also added features like bill pay to the mobile app and a feature that shows members shared branch locations and fee-free ATMs.
To keep attracting and retaining young members, Crane believes credit unions should continuously promote the shared branching and fee-free ATM benefits.
“It's something that we try to get out to people all the time. It's something that when people open new accounts, we’re talking to them about it,” he said. “Any time somebody calls with an issue and they’re out of town, we help them locate another branch or an ATM. But I think that there are still a lot of people who don't know about shared branching.”
Andy Fogle became president/CEO of the $68 million Serve Credit Union in Des Moines, Iowa (formerly Des Moines Police Officer's Credit Union), when he was 34. Through two mergers and organic growth, he increased total loans from $28 million in 2014 to more than $65 million at the end of last year and more than doubled membership.
But Fogle, who was appointed in May as president/CEO of the $98 million Affinity Credit Union, also in Des Moines, said the positive results will come – but only if you first focus on your employees.
“My whole goal at work isn't necessarily to maximize ROA or anything like that. One of my personal goals of work is to be able to give everyone a great career where they can advance and take care of the family,” Fogle, now 38, said. “In order to do that, we’ve got to provide good benefits for people, we’ve got to provide good pay, we’ve got to provide a unique atmosphere, and we’ve got to make sure the employees know they’re making a difference when they come in on a daily basis, and why they’re making a difference and how they’re making a difference. We don't want to come in and tell them, ‘Hey, do more teller transactions.’ We want to tell them, ‘You need to do teller transactions because you’re helping more people. This is the impact you’re making on people's lives.’”
Fogle is not sure whether being a millennial gives him a better understanding of what people from his generation want from a financial institution. But he does know it's critical to attract and retain young talent.
“When someone walks into a branch for the first time to join the credit union, they want to see people of like mind and background,” he explained. “We want young people, but we also want a diverse workforce because we want to attract a diverse membership.”
In addition to offering competitive pay and benefits, professional development and work-life balance culture, Affinity recently offered a new benefit to help employees pay back their student loans.
According to a survey of 5,000 job seekers by Beyond, a career network firm in King of Prussia, Pa., 67% said they would be willing to accept a job offer if student loan repayment was included in the benefits package. The average student loan debt for a 2016 college graduate was more than $37,000.
For Fogle, he believes credit unions can secure an even brighter future by doing more collaboration.
“I think one of the things that's going to change in the industry that I work on all the time personally is collaboration amongst other credit unions,” he said. “I think we do a fairly good job of that in Iowa, but we could definitely do better. Instead of continuing to see mergers of small credit unions, how can we see collaboration of two like-minded and like-sized institutions to collaborate to be more efficient on new products and services, technology and back-office support? I think we’re going to see more of that in the coming years.”
Since Brandon Michaels became president/CEO of the $588 million Mazuma Credit Union in 2012, when he was only 32, millennial membership has increased by more than 30%.
“Millennials were raised during a time of incredibly fast technology. They were really quite different than most other generations,” Michaels said. “I think that from my perspective, there is a knowledge and an understanding that it's about the people. It's about culture and it's about making sure that everyone in the organization is aligned toward a common purpose, not making sure that the financial engine of the organization is humming at all costs, no matter what the costs are. So the perspective, I think [from a millennial's view], is a little different.”
What's more, Michaels was not afraid to make the Overland Park, Kan.-based Mazuma a little bit different, quirky and funny to help it stand out in a marketplace filled with financial institutions that seem to be the same brand of bland, boring and stuffy.
“We are one of the few credit unions to have a spokesperson [Mazuma Mike] who is a little quirky and kind of gets to the heart of what millennials fear and what millennials find funny. It's about our happy brigade where we just pile into a car and go do good things in the community such as giving dance lessons to nursing home residents or giving cupcakes to construction workers downtown. I think it's doing a spoof on the [TV game show] ‘Cash Cab,’” Michaels explained. “I think just by being different and marketing ourselves differently, having a fresh brand, a fresh look, the way we talk, the way our website is and all of our branding material. All of that is just light and fresh and not old and stodgy.”
On its website, Mazuma makes a humorous pitch to people to join: “So you wanna be a Member? Can't say we blame you. It's super easy. You’ve seen Fight Club, right? Yeah, we’re not like that. Here's the scoop:” The copy goes on to explain if you live or work in certain counties, are related to a current Mazuma member, or are a federal employee or a member of a SEG, “then hop on this Mazuma train, because you’re in, baby.”
Michaels said he understands that there are probably baby boomer executives who may think the whole notion of culture, and being a little quirky and funny, is rather ridiculous and fluffy.
But to that criticism, he said, just take a look at Mazuma's performance.
In addition to strong membership growth from 52,455 to 60,091 over the last five years, total loans grew from $298 million in 2012 to $405 million in December 2016, while assets increased from $470 million to $580 million over the same five years.
While Michaels is optimistic about Mazuma's growth outlook, he has mixed feelings about the industry's future.
“I’m afraid for the industry, because I don't know whether or not the industry will change before [credit unions] are changed,” he said. “I think that I’m fearful for the industry because the largest credit unions are growing faster than the bottom 3,000 combined. There are a variety of reasons for that but I think a lot of it is that they haven't changed with the times because they don't have visionary leadership or they don't have the resources. You can have the most visionary leader, but if you don't have the resources to accomplish your vision, that's problematic. I’m not sure what could be done about it, but I think we just have to be bold.”