REDWOOD SHORES, Calif. – When Ludelle "Lu" Morrow started as the manager of Provident Central Credit Union in 1958, it boasted one employee, $300,000 in assets and 2,300 members. This year, as president and chief executive officer of the credit union, Morrow has watched as the financial institution achieved the milestone status of reaching $1 billion in assets – and still growing. "We certainly expect to continue to accelerate our growth," she said. "The bigger you are the faster you grow." The only surprise for Morrow about Provident reaching the $1 billion plateau was the fact that it happened a few months sooner than expected. "Our goal was that by Dec. 31, 2001 we would be a billion dollar credit union," she said. "It was a long time goal." Provident, begun in 1950 with teachers as its original field of membership, today operates 18 branches in five counties throughout the San Francisco Bay area. It also maintains one branch in Eureka in far northern California and another in Sacramento, the state capital. The community-based credit union with its 230 employees serves 1,500 select employee groups with some 87,000-plus members. Morrow gives much of the credit for Provident's success to her management team. She also points to a strong focus on members, along with keeping up with technology to serve them, for the credit union's success. "Keeping up with technology is the biggest challenge today," she contended. "Keeping up with technology to keep the costs down and to meet members' needs." She noted that the credit union's approach to technology has been not to be on the leading edge, or as some would call it, the "bleeding edge." "I don't like being a beta tester," Morrow said. "We don't try to be leading edge," she explained. "We try to be a close follower. Once we bring something out, we want it to be done well and ready for the member. Sometimes people on the leading edge don't do things right the first time. So we're willing to let somebody else make those mistakes." Asked if she had any advice for other credit unions that would like to emulate Provident's success, Morrow suggested they concentrate on their strengths. "Keep the focus on the members and do what you do well," she said. "Don't try to be everything to everybody." Morrow said that other credit unions could also take a lesson from her board of directors. "We have a seasoned board that is very knowledgeable and supportive of management," she said. "They have a lot of confidence in us. They let us operate the credit union. "I think that's been a great advantage," she added. "It wouldn't hurt for some other boards to hear that." It's little wonder that the board is pleased with Provident's operations. Reserves are at 13%, delinquencies are extremely low, and the institution boasts a strong loan portfolio. In addition, the credit union owns its 165,000-square-foot building outright. That building includes a child-care center for 43 youngsters, exercise room, cafeteria, training and conference facilities and offices which are rented to others to bring in additional income. Provident is also trying to make a difference in the lives of its members, offering such things as a variety of scholarships to the children of both members and employees. The credit union emphasizes its local ownership and has created a strong local identity and name recognition, she noted. That local emphasis obviously hasn't gone unnoticed. Provident receives at least one letter a day "telling us how important we are to our members and how we helped them when they needed us most," Morrow said. Morrow said talk of her retirement is still a little premature although she admitted those plans were in the works. She will be leaving the credit union in an excellent position when she does depart. "I expect the next CEO to come in with new and fresh ideas and build on top of the foundation we built," she said. "I hope the credit union soars." Morrow came to the credit union with an accounting background but no knowledge of what credit unions were about. "Once I learned about credit unions, I never wanted to do anything else," she said. "I've had a wonderful career. It's been very rewarding, very exciting, and I've loved every minute of it." -

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