W2W: CEO Lisa Brown Says ‘Sleep Is for Sissies’
"I often say sleep is for sissies, fuel up on coffee, roll up your sleeves and get working,” said Lisa Brown, president/CEO of Tallahassee-Leon Federal Credit Union.
“I’m a huge proponent of lifelong learning. The moment you think you know everything and stop listening is the minute you set yourself up to fail. What you’re learning or who you’re learning from is not as important as being open to the experience, listening and constantly pushing yourself and your organization to be better tomorrow than today.”
That drive to do more has served Brown well in life and prepared her for her role at the Tallahassee, Fla.-based, $39 million credit union.
“From an industry perspective, we suffer from an identity crisis. I kind of envision it as being awkward teenagers, where we’re not sure we know who we are yet. There are a few things we love but don’t embrace as a whole and we simply can’t be everything to everyone,” said Brown.
“So as an industry we have to come together and define this is who we are, what we do and then actually do it. Actions speak louder than words, so what we’re saying has to match what we actually do as an industry and that isn’t always the case today.”
She added that a similar reevaluation and honest look inward was needed when she stepped in to become CEO of the struggling credit union in fall 2010. Faced with NCUA examiners threatening to close the doors, she immediately took a three-pronged approach that focused on repairing the financials, getting back to basics and improving the member experience.
“I’m really proud of our delinquency ratio. One of my hot button issues when I first started, it was well over 5.28% and charge-offs ratio was 4.44%. We’re now down to 1.56% and 1.65%, respectively,” said Brown.
“It was hard work, but we set specific goals for contact with members, shifted our focus away from just reporting to working the accounts, added the additional resources and allocated them in a way that was aligned with our goals. We did a number of different things that led to restoration of capital ratio from 6% on Dec. 31 and now projected for this year to be about 7.7%. I am so proud of our team they really worked so very hard.”
She credited the tremendous progress in capital restoration to not only the collections effort but to a reorganization and the inclusion of the entire staff in the strategic planning.
“When I stepped in, we knew where we came from and where we wanted to go but struggled with the specific steps. That is where, internally, we as a team had to get input from everyone; tellers, back office, every individual had to be involved in the strategic planning,” said Brown.
“We needed ideas from people who touch members the most. If I’m just in my office then I lose sight of the why behind what we do and that’s why I’m constantly talking to tellers, member services, accounting [and] collections. With those different perspectives in the planning session we were able to quickly identify the issues that were most important. Then my job was to help facilitate and prioritize those issues and since it was a team effort there was an automatic buy-in as they were all heard.”
She added that in today’s ever-changing environment, leaders must have the ability to prioritize, find ways to become more efficient and effectively communicate that vision with the staff, board, members and community constantly.
“You don’t have the luxury to wait because you need it yesterday, and if you’re a poor or mediocre communicator, then it’ll be a struggle because you won’t be able to inspire others to do their best,” said Brown. “Particularly in a crisis, you have to make choices that are going to give the most impact and bang for your buck and what’s fascinating is that it has to happen at the 10th level not a seven or eight, while at the same time you can’t forget why you do what you do.
"It’s so easy when you are sitting across from an examiner, regulator or internal CPA and get caught up looking only as far as capital or market share. Don’t get trapped, find that balance, get out there talk to members, look them in the eyes and remember why you do what you do.”
Given the more solid financial footing, she said 2012 has been slated as the year of growth for Tallahassee-Leon FCU and already from refreshing the website to car sales, credit card promotions and social media campaigns the credit union’s name can be found almost everywhere around town.
“Our capital is targeted to be over 9% for the end of 2012 so we’ll be in a more comfortable position to really look for growth opportunities that really fulfill our mission to help members be better off tomorrow than they are today,” said Brown. “As long as you have that vision of where you’re headed then you can focus on the result, not the particular steps, and be flexible enough with several possible plans and as long as you’re moving forward and can see the vision in mind you’re almost there.”
She joked that there should be a certification for crisis management as she’d be an expert in that field. Since joining the credit union industry some 18 years ago at the age of 17, Brown has held nearly every position within a credit union and she worked for a CUSO for five years.
At the CUSO, she established temporary staffing agencies for credit unions across Florida. She completed her CCUE through self-study over the course of two years in 2005 and celebrated the completion of her MBA degree just three years ago.
As the executive vice president at PBC Credit Union in West Palm Beach, Fla., she helped see her credit union through the housing crisis. During that time, she sat on the board of the housing leadership council of Palm Beach – an organization that supports the sustainability of affordable workforce housing.
“At a smaller credit union you have to be an expert as much as you can in all areas because you don’t have vice presidents of everything at your disposal so you’ve got to have a high level of expertise in many different areas,” said Brown. “The number one issue small credit unions are faced with is increased regulation that’s constantly changing and our ability to keep up and that is across the industry.”
She added that good leaders making the move to larger credit unions has led to a lack of qualified leaders to steer small credit unions in the right direction. Having cut her professional teeth under such credit union leaders as Ron Fye of Florida Commerce CU, Ray Cromer of Envision CU, Larry Kirkman of First Florida CU and John Deese of PBC Credit Union, Brown is proof of the lasting impression effective leaders can have on a young professional’s life.
“I absolutely love what I do and want my team to feel the same way,” said Brown, “I treat everyone on the team with respect, and having been in almost every role I can empathize with the challenges because I’ve been in their shoes. That interaction with the members is the most rewarding part of what we do.
"We recently started a social media campaign that literally celebrates something every day and on International Credit Union Day we asked members to share with us what it was about credit unions that made their life different. The stories they shared were nice to know.”