PLANO, Texas - Intense. Creative. Focused. A builder. That's how Gary Base, president/CEO of Community Credit Union, figures other people would describe him. Those adjectives probably fit pretty well with the "Turnaround Specialist" label CUES gave him when naming him the 2002 Credit Union Executive of the Year. Base believes...
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PLANO, Texas – Intense. Creative. Focused. A builder. That’s how Gary Base, president/CEO of Community Credit Union, figures other people would describe him. Those adjectives probably fit pretty well with the “Turnaround Specialist” label CUES gave him when naming him the 2002 Credit Union Executive of the Year. Base believes it actually makes good career sense to move into situations where problems loom. After all, if there are no difficulties how are you going to prove yourself? Base is only the second CEO in CCU’s 51 year history. As he ponders that half century of change, he indicates the most critical period the credit union faced was in the late 1980s and early 1990s. “There were significant bailouts in the savings and loan and banking industry,” he recalls. “Nowadays there are some banks that are Texas based. But we went through a period where every major bank in Texas was owned by an organization outside the state. To this day most of the large banks are held by outside groups. I am one of the few presidents left of a (Texas) financial institution that was involved in business lending,” Base says. One spinoff was the fact Texas officials, after seeing problems with private credit union insurance in Rhode Island, required all Texas credit unions to become federally insured. So CCU went through the process of obtaining NCUA coverage. “As a CEO you have to question, `How did I get in this fix?’ When I came on board (in 1991), nobody realized how bad a situation we were in,” Base recalls. “I have never been in any situation where I felt so threatened careerwise. I could very easily be selling office supplies today.” Base called all the employees together, outlined the problems, and stated the only way the credit union was going to survive was if they all worked together. Survive it did. In fact, at that point CCU had $180 million in assets. It now boasts $1.3 billion and has 215,000 members. Today Base cites the need to shift lending focus from auto loans and signature loans to products of the future as a massive challenge facing many credit unions. He names mortgages and business loans as the up-and-coming products. But isn’t mortgage lending going to be hit by a decline in refinancing as interest rates rise? Base responds that almost anyone could succeed in mortgage lending recently. Most credit unions use third parties for their mortgages. They should hire their own professional mortgage officers, especially business development mortgage officers who call on real estate companies to establish purchase programs. Servicing your own mortgage loans is also important, he continues. “We service our own mortgage loans. Right now we have approximately half a billion dollars in mortgage service loans. That’s like building an annuity,” Base says. “We’ll be able to count on those loans being on the books for many years because most members won’t pay those off thanks to the low rates.” Base is also very positive about the future of in-store branches. At this point CCU offers 14 such locations, with eight more scheduled. Credit unions in many areas find it difficult to launch such branches because major banks have locked up key supermarket chains. “That’s what happened here,” Base says. “But I got on a plane, went to Boise, Idaho, and met with the Albertson’s company. They had never had a credit union (in their stores) before. I made a presentation on why Community Credit Union was a better partner than Bank of America. “They decided to give us a chance. Now all the new in-stores that have opened in Dallas in the past 24 months have been Community Credit Union locations instead of Bank of America. We broke that barrier.” At the same time, the CCU board is very focused on current members. The plan is to expand from the core out. Add new groups, but not at the detriment of the current membership. Another major focus is outreach into the community. Base notes CCU has always been a community credit union, and employees are active in volunteering with various groups such as the Dallas Habitat for Humanity. In fact, employees are expected to devote time to community service. The higher the employee in the organization, the larger the requirement. In 2002, Base donated 567 hours. Base began his credit union career 30 years ago after graduating from the University of Arkansas with a major in math. He planned to return to college to become an attorney, and took a job with an investment company in order to save money for law school. “Then I met my future wife, decided to get married, and realized I really needed to get a better job,” Base recalls. “I interviewed with a savings and loan, a bank and a credit union. I thought the savings and loan was dreary and wasn’t a very friendly place. It looked like there were a lot of sharp people around at the bank and it would be hard to get promoted. “I thought credit unions were an emerging group that would be fun to work at – plus, the philosophy of working for members instead of stockholders really appealed to me.” His career took him from Shell Credit Union to Spring Branch Teachers Credit Union, Government Employees Credit Union in Houston, Houston Area Teachers Credit Union, Amoco Credit Union, John Deere Credit Union and finally CCU. Base believes there are two ways to get promoted. One is to work 30 years at a great big credit union. The other choice is to move from a smaller credit union to a bigger one and on perhaps to a still larger one. “What happened to me was the regulators came to me and said, `We have some credit unions that have problems. Would you be willing to go into those credit unions and try to solve those problems?’ “It’s very hard on your family. My wife really made a big commitment to our children for me to do that. I don’t know that you have to do that as much today because there are more big credit unions than there used to be. Back then a big credit union was $10 million,” Base says. In addition to his family, he credits others for his success. “A key has been I worked for a number of people. I learned how I liked to be treated. I have never forgotten how that felt. I try to make sure I find the most talented person I can get, a person that is different than myself. I try to empower them to spread their wings so they can be as successful as they can be. Let them excel. It then lifts you,” Base says. -
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