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BAKERSFIELD, Calif. – If you’re a Californian, you’ve seen up close and personal the impact of high housing costs in most of the state. That’s one factor Vincent Rojas Jr., CEO of Kern Schools Federal Credit Union, expects will fuel the $1.2-billion credit union’s continued expansion. “Four or five million people are expected to move in to California in the next five years,” Rojas notes. “If this happens, there is no place for those people to live in the metropolitan areas because of housing costs, space and sometimes jobs. “So they will look to other areas. One of the areas that has been earmarked as affordable is Kern County and the San Joaquin Valley. The other is out in the vicinity of Riverside. As people come in, our challenge will be to meet their financial services needs and help them create a better lifestyle.” Rojas knows firsthand the changes Kern County has already experienced. He was born and raised in Bakersfield. He left to attend St. Mary’s College in the San Francisco Bay area, and after graduating returned to Kern County. One reason: the Vietnam War was raging and his draft board wanted him to report. He worked for a local independent bank for 12 years, sharing his knowledge of the community by developing a management training program for recently-hired college graduates. That job was interrupted at the six-year point when he was indeed drafted and served two years in the army. After being discharged he returned to the bank, where he eventually became a branch manager. Then Rojas grew restless. “In those days, when you reached a certain point you needed someone ahead of you to die or move. That wasn’t happening,” he recalls. “Someone talked to me about managing a railroad credit union, ESPEE Federal Credit Union. I happened to know about it because my father worked for the railroad and I had an account there. It was where I financed my first car.” After a couple years there as manager/treasurer, Rojas was hired by KSFCU as loan manager. It was already a much larger credit union in 1976 than ESPEE, boasting $45 million in assets and 25 employees. Rojas was named CEO in 1989. His management approach has evolved since then. “As we’ve continued to grow, I’ve learned to delegate a lot more. When I took over as CEO I hired a couple vice presidents to handle operations and I would oversee the lending area. “Today we have six vice presidents. They’re in charge of their areas and I try not to get in their way. If something happens, they’re held accountable. I give direction, and that’s my role.” In fact, he’s proud of the fact a couple employees have moved on to run other credit unions. He also applauds the devotion of the staff to KFCU, and hears a lot of members praise personnel from tellers to loan officers. His personal as well as professional life has also unfolded. He and his wife Linda have been married 36 years and have two daughters, one in college and the other married and living in the San Francisco Bay area. The extended family also includes a grandson. It’s been a busy time. “I used to play a lot of sports, and was active in adult basketball and softball leagues. All of that has dwindled. I used to ski, and I’ve even cut back on that. I do play golf, and I haven’t let go of that,” Rojas says. The changes that have taken place in Kern County since Rojas became CEO are reflected in the KSFCU membership. “Today our members are very diverse. Ten or 15 years ago they would have had a lot in common. In fact, one of our board members commented at a planning meeting that it is interesting to look at the individuals who are in our lobbies. They are not the same people who were there a few years ago,” Rojas says. “A couple days ago I was at a business and high school function called Principal Partners. Business people go out to the high schools and see what’s happening there. The education system is trying to make sure the business community understands how the education system is going. “The high school I visited has been in existence for 45 or 46 years and has 2,800 students. The principal said there are 117 languages spoken by the students.” As a CEO, Rojas is very active in the local community. In fact, the board of directors felt he needed to be visible because the credit union itself is so conspicuous. Bakersfield has a population of 247,000 and KSFCU has 137,000 members, a larger market share than any financial institution except Bank of America. With the population expected to boom, it would seem easy to adopt a build-a-branch-and-they-will-come approach. That’s not what KFCU is doing. Instead, marketing involves a gradual process. Tehachapi is a good example. Members there said they would like to use the credit union more and wanted additional services. So KFCU installed a cash-dispensing ATM in a shopping center. Volume increased every month, and members indicated they wanted to make deposits. So the credit union installed a deposit-taking ATM. Transactions have continued to grow. The next step would be an express branch with no tellers but a couple employees who can show members how to use various electronic access features and can also take loans. If demand continues to build, the credit union will move into a full-service office. “There’s a community north of Bakersfield called Delano. We started out this way and last year opened a full-service office. Up in the northeast part of Bakersfield the same thing has happened. We moved it from an express branch to a full-service branch and the lobby is full of people,” Rojas says. “We don’t hesitate to put up brick and mortar. But we’ve researched it, had some practical experience, and know there is a demand there.” That doesn’t mean getting business from members is a slam-dunk. Member loyalty to a credit union isn’t the same today. “There are members who will walk away from a loan who years ago were loyal and would try to work it out and make the payments so the credit union didn’t suffer a loss. Now we may be just another provider as far as that consumer is concerned,” Rojas says. Overall, Rojas believes KSFCU is pretty typical of credit unions that have joined the Billionaires Club. “We all have basically the same philosophy. We understand you exist because of your members. If you don’t take care of your members, you’re not going to be up there very long,” he states. “One of my most difficult challenges is reminding staff that we’re here for the members, even though we get larger and larger.” -

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