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With the philosophy of life being too short to do something you don’t enjoy, seven and a half years ago Nathan Anderson, executive vice president/chief operating officer at Mountain America Credit Union, had an opportunity to take his career in a different direction and has never looked back.

A member of the West Jordan, Utah-based credit union since 1995, Anderson honed his sales and leadership skills while working at Black & Decker/DeWalt for five years and Newell Rubbermaid for four years.

“I got tired of all the travel,” said Anderson. “The ultimate goal at the credit union is to serve members, and there’s not too many opportunities out there to know that what you’re doing improves people’s financial lives. With this industry you get to have your cake and eat it too by doing something that makes a difference and you enjoy. What I tell new hires here is for most companies, the goal is to create a product, get consumers to buy it to increase the shareholders’ wealth. Credit unions, in general, are focused on improving the members’ situation, so you’re in it for a better cause.”

For Anderson, staying in neutral has never been an option as he constantly pushes himself to give nothing less than 100%.

“Early in my career, I got great advice that I’ve found to be true. Don’t worry about the next position, just do the best in your current position. So often people get concerned with the politics and where they want to be that they lose focus on where they are. Giving your all to your current job is the best way to contribute,” said Anderson. “From my perspective, we have an amazing goal as an industry to serve members and figuring out ways to help improve their financial situation is really what drives me.” 

He takes that service philosophy to heart, and as far as he’s concerned, sales plays a big role in providing real member service.

“As I see it, looking at the way things have been done and hoping it will return that way will ruin a lot of credit unions,” said Anderson. “The myth is that if we treat the member well, we’ll come out on top. It’s not enough. We also have to provide the right products, services, rates and, yes, sales are important. It’s crazy to me, coming from another industry, that sales is viewed as a negative or dirty word when really it’s education and a way to help members.”

When he started at the $2.9 billion credit union as vice president of sales, he immediately went to work building a sales culture focused on this idea of member service. This included tapping employees for feedback, implementing a loan rescue program and developing the AAA Sales Philosophy, which encourages frontline employees to assess members’ financial needs, advise them about the options and assist in getting members’ needs taken care of. The unique combination of sales and service has become a key part of Mountain America’s culture and has helped increase the number of services per household from 4.858 to 5.706. Anderson said it’s a constant work in progress and there has been a shift in the mindset as many have come to realize that it’s their responsibility to educate members.

“You can say hello, shake their hand, call them by their names and that’s all nice, but you’re still not serving them unless you help them,” said Anderson. “So with our rescue loans, we feel it’s our responsibility and our job to take a look at our members’ loans, credit cards and if we can rescue them from paying higher rates or fees. We’ve called it our search and rescue mission. It’s been an evolution, and each year we’ve seen improvement. In 2011, we rescued $91 million in loans and the previous year it was $50 million. Each year gets a little better, as more employees catch the vision.”

When Mountain America’s sales and marketing departments merged in 2005, Anderson took on additional responsibilities, and two years later, he was promoted to the position of chief marketing officer. He brought all creative work in-house, built a strong group of talented employees and created an event marketing team. In 2008, he was promoted to his current role as chief operation officer overseeing the credit union’s 62 branches as well as lending, the investment program, business services, deposit operations, the call center and electronic services. During what has been one of the toughest economic downturns, Mountain America has experienced growth in areas such as business services and commercial and real estate lending.

For Anderson, innovation has less to do with technology and more to do with viewing the world through a different filter.

“While technology can be innovation, it can occur with the simple thought to change the way things are done today by changing the outcome. We’ve noticed that the best ideas come from tellers, people who do something on a daily basis questioning why or suggesting if we do it this way instead we’d get this much in productivity. So to me it’s looking at process, procedure and tweaking or changing it for a better outcome. Again, it can be huge or small but the idea is to follow up with members on how to do something better, simpler and make a difference,” said Anderson. “For example, with overdraft protection, one person suggested when members swipe the card at the moment it’s declined why not send them a text that gives them the ability to opt-in to overdraft protection immediately? It was thought provoking and made a big difference for our members.”

The credit union’s early development and adoption of an overdraft privilege opt-in program has resulted in an over 75% opt-in rate. Other innovations have ranged from creating a new loan workout department, to help members affected by the poor economy avoid defaulting on their loans, and a member assist program, which includes early reminder calls to provide members options when approaching delinquency, to Quick Close mortgage closings.

“Credit unions as a whole cannot afford to be in a wait and see mode,” said Anderson. “There’s added competition that didn’t exist before, non-brick and mortar online banks, investment firms, Apple, Google and other companies that aren’t in the financial services space. We have to continue to develop and figure out how to get that income. For us, at Mountain America, we’re keeping an eye on the payments front and doing the best we can to stay up on how we can evolve, change and offer as much as we can in mobile, online channels for our members. We’re continuing to test and push the envelope and figure out ways to be a part of that change.”

He added that looking ahead, true collaboration will be key to credit union survival in the future.

“Our biggest flaw as an industry is the division, whether it’s CUNA’s and NAFCU’s different agendas, or the leagues if credit unions as a whole can’t meet together and figure out if the top two or three initiatives will hurt us as an industry if we don’t have one voice,” said Anderson. “Look how well CUSOs have worked out and shared branching, we have to continue to move forward and figure out a way to work together to help push the industry forward as a whole.”

As for the national branding campaign many say is needed, Anderson has doubts it will happen.

“I would love to see it come to fruition like the Got Milk? campaign, but I just have a hard time thinking we can do that as an industry when we’re so siloed and about advancing individual institutions…. It might be more realistic to focus on initiatives to push through lobbying and trade organizations. Generate more support amongst credit unions to have more unification about the top issues such as the member business lending cap and lifting secondary capitalization regulations.”