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RICHMOND, Va. -Many credit unions might call it a sales culture, but Jane Watkins prefers to describe Virginia Credit Union’s focus as inform, educate and advise. It’s a natural approach for Watkins, VCU president/CEO. She grew up working in a family florist business where her parents stressed customer service. In fact, she laughs, “My father didn’t like to hear the phone ring more than twice before someone answered. It was a great experience, and I think that’s where I learned the fun of customer service.” Just as she hasn’t moved far from that philosophy, she has also stayed rooted geographically. A Richmond native, Watkins graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University with a degree in accounting. Back in the mid-1970s it was a field where men significantly outnumbered women. But she was hired by Peat Marwick Mitchell, now KPMG Peat Marwick, as an auditor. One of her first clients was Virginia Credit Union. “I was auditing other financial institutions at the time, and I knew when I walked into the credit union on the first day I recognized a significant difference in the environment and culture,” Watkins recalls. A few years later, after she had left Peat Marwick, a former colleague alerted her that the credit union was looking for an accounting manager. Within about 20 minutes after she met with then-CEO Dorothy Hall, the job was hers. She rose to other positions, and when Hall retired in January 2000 Watkins became CEO. While there may not be many women CEOs in the Billionaires Club ranks, it isn’t unusual for VCU. After all, Hall was the credit union’s first paid employee and served as president for 42 years “I’m seeing more and more (women as CEOs of large credit unions), which is good,” Watkins says. “I’m seeing more women with financial background. Certainly in accounting there is probably a majority of women now. When I entered it the majority were men. Times have changed. Boards are more accepting of the fact it’s really the individual and the commitment to the mission of the credit union that guides success.” Although the VCU field of membership has diversified, state and local government employees continue to form the core. The average member is about 35 to 50 years old. That has remained true for about 15 years, which pleases Watkins because she sees it as a sign that as current members age the credit union is attracting new, younger ones. The typical member has a household income in the $40,000 to $49,000 range. “It’s an everyday kind of person. We believe that person is looking for reasonably-priced services. They also want somebody they can call and trust to give them an answer. We have what we consider a very high-touch call center,” says Watkins. “I believe one of the reason for the success of that call center is there’s a human on the phone. You can call and get answers to specific questions. I think all of us have been challenged by the selections on automated systems. It’s an expensive service, but we do think members value it,” Watkins says. “Our employees are one of the big keys to our success. They really get a lot of job satisfaction out of supplying a member with a solution or answer. That’s in our culture, and it’s something the board and management have instilled over a long history.” One sign of VCU’s growth is the fact the credit union has broken ground on a second operations center. A decade ago the existing one was expected to meet the need for ten years, but for five years now the credit union has been forced to lease additional space. What accounts for its success in not only surviving, but reaching Billionaires Club status? “Continuing to focus on the needs of our members is probably the biggest contributing factor,” Watkins answers. “When you meet their needs, growth comes along with it. Another fact is we’ve always been conservative in our financial management. I think strong financial management has helped us provide consistent, high-quality service no matter what’s happening in the economy.” At the same time, she continues, there have been changes. “Saying things were simpler in the old days makes me sound old. But the old days seem like five years ago. The whole market is certainly more competitive – in our area, very competitive. A lot of startup community banks seem to thrive here. We have one in business only five years that is already $1 billion. “In fact, we have a lot of community banks throughout the commonwealth. They are in a growth mode and very competitive on rates. When it comes to the loan side, that’s where we see competition from the major banks.” Another challenge is continuing to meet member needs as the membership becomes more diverse in terms of ethnic, financial and geographic mix. “We have been very fortunate in winning the trust of our members, and one of our tasks is to keep that trust. They join the credit union because they feel they can trust what we’re providing for them. In our surveys members say, `I know you’re looking out for me,’” Watkins notes. Part of that, she says, means trying to deliver service in the way members want rather than driving them to particular channels. So VCU is adding a little bit of everything from branches to technology. Even younger members who cheerfully boot up their computers to contact VCU also seem to want a conventional branch nearby. The credit union currently has nine branches in Richmond, two branches outside and another that will open in February. Members can also use a shared branching network. VCU board and management are working on a five-year facility plan. The credit union certainly consumes time, but Watkins puts considerable emphasis on family. She and her husband have two sons, 10 and 13 years old. They own a family farm that serves as a retreat they visit as often as they can. Another popular destination is a place her husband’s family owns on the Potomac River. “I guess our hobby is getting out of town and heading for either the farm or the river,” she says. Like almost every working mother, she finds the years flying by and does wish she had more time to spend with her children. “I brought them here whenever I could when they were little and I had to work. They’re very familiar with the credit union and what I do. “I try to set a good example for our employees. Family has to come first, and I think our employees know I mean that. Anything that comes up at home they’re concerned about, they realize they have the backing of everybody here,” Watkins declares. -

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