Jeff Baxter used music to demonstrate how both the military and credit unions could benefit from looking at big problems in some of the ways musicians do.

BOCA RATON, Fla. — CO-OP financial Services’ annual THINK Conference lived up to its reputation for presenting credit union industry leaders with unexpected and diverse ideas as consultants, CEOs, academics and other professionals shared their histories and approaches.

A famous guitar player who became a defense consultant and the man who revolutionized how to run baseball teams led the two days of presentations with strong messages to credit union executives about the approaches to reinvent and revitalize the credit union industry.

Both men addressed the largest THINK Conference to date, with an audience of 542 credit union executives representing 150 credit union.

Jeff Baxter spent years as the lead guitarist with the Doobie Brothers and Steely Dan as well as a equipment and strategy consultant for the Defense Department.

“Essentially, I see the big banks in your world as the New York Yankees in mine. They are the very big competitors with large budgets and large organizations, but credit unions are like special operations teams, smaller, more agile and motivated to make change with few resources,” Baxter explained.

He entertained and involved the audience with the contrast between his former life as a musician and his later life as part of the defense and weapons infrastructure. Baxter explained the shift, in part, by sharing a longtime interest he had in science and aerospace.

He also used music to demonstrate how both the military and credit unions could benefit from looking at big problems in some of the ways musicians do.

“What a jazz quartet does, for example, is solving a problem presented by a piece of music. They see it as a problem that needs a solution that each of them will share a part in solving,” he said. He described the solution process as taking the very big problem presented by the entire piece of music, breaking it into separate parts or chords, and then reassembling it in a different way.

Baxter drew from both his experience as a musician and as a military consultant to demonstrate how the fundamentals of a song or military tactic can remain the same but also change. Chords can be substituted within chord groups to sharply change the sound of a song, while the song’s lyrics remain the same and tactics can keep the same goals but be adapted to meet different situations.

He demonstrated this idea using a guitar. Baxter played a bit of Pachelbel’s “Canon.” Then he played the same piece with very slight changes in the chords and revealed how the piece, while essentially the same, was nonetheless sharply different.

Billy Beane, general manager with the Oakland Athletics, sharply changed baseball management by demonstrating that player performance statistics need to play a much larger role than emotion or tradition in making baseball management decisions.

Beane shared the lessons he learned about studying data and trusting numbers as means for making decisions instead of simply trusting in tradition and emotion as guides for decision making.

He began by describing the importance he and his management team began placing on tracking and valuing every bit of data. Baseball has always used statistics, he noted, but had not collected them with a much of an eye toward seeing how they reflected reality.

The Oakland team faced a significant problem. Baseball was changing and smaller market teams like Oakland’s faced being priced out of the game because it lacked the income to support an expensive payroll. To counter this, Beane and his team identified the qualities in the statistics most correlated with scoring in baseball games, in this case getting on base. Then, they sought players who were not as strong in other areas but were very strong in getting on base and was able to sign them for a significantly smaller amount of money than they would have had to pay otherwise.

“One of the most important things I learned was that the numbers do not lie and that if you trust the numbers they will work,” Beane said. 

(CO-OP CEO Stan Hollen discusses the evolution of THINK over the past five years in this video.)