SECU Board Follows the Credo of the Three Musketeers
For the State Employees Credit Union Board, "all for one and one for all" is not just talk.
Joined by what they describe as a common purpose of bettering its members' lives and those living in North Carolina, the 11-member board has found a way to function decisively and effectively with little dissent while delivering innovative solutions to members' challenges.
According to SECU Chairman Shirley Bell, the key is that the board's focus constantly revolves around looking for ways the Raleigh-based credit union can benefit its members and the North Carolina community at large.
"There is a strong sense of shared purpose and we take it as a social crusade of sorts," said SECU Vice Chairman Jim Barber. "Working with the credit union management and senior staff most of the board members come up with new ideas on how to best serve the needs of our membership. It keeps it exciting, so meetings are never the 'same old, same old' every year. We're all professionals and egos are checked at the front door, so our disagreements are never personal and everyone on the board has a voice."
In addition to having a voice every board member knows they will eventually serve as board chairman, which goes a long way toward fostering better board relations.
Another unique SECU move is keeping the board and management team directly plugged into the community with its more than 2,500 advisory board members statewide. Bell said many of SECU's products, services and enhancements can be attributed to the advisory board's ideas and suggestions.
"The advisory board is the intermediary between us and the membership. Each branch has its advisory board with volunteers across different job categories," said Bell. "People's issues and needs may differ across the state but input from the advisory board helps us look into projects and fund those that will have the greatest impact and help the most people statewide."
Last year, SECU's board helped ease North Carolina's student tuition burdens. When education loan fund providers pulled out of the market amid state budget shortfalls and growing concerns about the economy, SECU stepped in.
The board agreed unanimously that the credit union should ensure the ongoing success of the higher education system in North Carolina. The board approved an investment of $1.1 billion in July 2008 to help the N.C. State Education Assistance Authority refinance and provide funding for loans made by College Foundation Inc. to students and parents. An additional $500 million was also invested in December 2008, increasing the credit union's commitment to $1.6 billion.
The move also provided an added benefit to SECU members in the form of a rate reduction on N.C.'s extra education loan, while providing a reinvestment of $1.6 billion back to North Carolina's economy.
Another initiative that continues to give back to greater N.C. community is the SECU Foundation. Chartered by the board in July 2004, the focus of the foundation is to promote local community development, primarily through high-impact projects in the areas of education, health and human services. The members of SECU's board also serve as the foundation's board of the directors.
The funding for the foundation is provided primarily through voluntary contributions of $1.00 monthly maintenance fees on checking accounts, which would have otherwise gone toward the operation of the credit union. Currently, the funding accounts for over $750,000 per month.
"I think people would be most surprised to learn that such a diverse board can seamlessly work for the common good for our membership with very little disagreement," said SECU Board Director Cynthia Jolly. "It's in our culture to spend time as a board talking about how to develop effective communication with each other and with the executive and leadership staff. It is a continuous process."
Board Director Bob Brinson, who served on the board for two years, said it also helps that whether a board "newbie" or longtime member everyone feels they have something of value to add to the discussion at hand. He said that mutual respect helped in launching the IRS volunteer income tax assistance program as a way to boost the state's economy.
With as many as 25% of eligible North Carolinians failing to claim the earned income tax credit-representing an estimated loss to N.C. working families of as much as $176 million-the board approved offering the VITA program and all 220 SECU branches serve as VITA sites. In addition, the board provided a low, 12% interest, no-fee refund anticipation loan for members participating in the program-an alternative to high interest refund anticipation loans.
According to SECU, in just the first year the credit union helped 16,000 individuals claim more than $8 million in tax credits, $14 million in tax refunds, and saved North Carolinians more than $2.2 million in tax preparation fees. The program has been expanded to include training at least three SECU employees to serve the VITA program for the 2008 tax season.
"We're fortunate that we have an honest and bright CEO; the board and executive relationship is like a marriage if you don't get it right at the onset it is hard for it to prosper," said Board Director David King. "Because of that, we as a board have a willingness to take some well-debated risks beyond our comfort zone based on that faith in the staff and our judgment as a group. Our members trust the organization implicitly to do right by them, and we take that seriously, so all our decisions are weighted balancing cost, benefits and reputation risk. We won't do anything to undermine our members' trust, because it's true when they say you can spend a lifetime building a reputation yet it can be destroyed in 15 seconds."