We arrived in New Orleans on Saturday, November 5th – Bank Transfer Day. Three other Crashers and I had been asked to represent The Crash Network at the 2011 CUNA Lending Council Conference: Don Emmer from Best Advantage Credit Union in Brillion, Wisconsin; Maggie Camacho from Colorado Credit Union in Littleton, Colorado; and Rachel Richard from a local shop, NAS JRB CU in New Orleans.
New Orleans is a unique city with all of its sights, sounds, smells and energy that derive from the world-famous Bourbon Street in the French Quarter and stretch across the city limits. The culture of New Orleans is contagious, mainly due to its rich history and the people that characterize it. I, myself, went to New Orleans hoping to gain valuable insight into new loan portfolio analytics such as static pool analysis and indirect loan profitability, a few of the many other “best practices” our industry’s most experienced lenders were set to present. I can’t lie; I also wanted to try the alligator gumbo and some Gulf Coast oysters. While we Crashers did take some thought-provoking ideas back to the office with us, it was the personal interaction with today’s credit union leaders we would all find to be most valuable.
Proud As Heck
The conference began on a Sunday with a moving volunteer effort where close to fifty Council members worked to restore rundown areas of the KIPP Renaissance School in New Orleans. The event was nothing less than heartwarming – just ask Executive Committee member Bonnie Doolin, the enthusiasm and drive behind this amazing event. Through Bonnie’s dedication and everyone else’s generosity, the Council was able to raise over $1,500 in donations for the KIPP program in addition to giving their school a bit of a facelift. Seriously, how cool is that?
On Sunday evening we were asked to join some of the Council’s Executive Committee members for dinner. We enjoyed some local fare, including barbecued oysters and Dale Frankhouse’s flounder that was served whole. Also joining us at the table was one of the conference’s keynotes, Randy Harrington, PhD, a visionary strategist and expert communicator. At one point during the meal, Randy posed a question to the Crashers, asking how the title “credit union professional” made us feel. While the answer initiated several subsequent conversations, the general consensus from the four Crashers at the table turned out to be “proud as heck, man”. Our conversations with Randy were nothing less than enlightening. He’s a very smart guy with a very realistic vision of the future of this industry.
In Randy’s keynote presentation that followed a few days later, he plugged The Crash Network and supported the purpose, claiming credit unions should think outside the conservative box and “hire people with tattoos and stuff”, his presentation slides affectionately flashing a photo of NCIS character Abby Sciuto. The fictional Sciuto, hyper, happy, and uber-dedicated to her work, is a sort of “wunderkind” in her field and is a great example of the cliché “don’t judge a book by its cover” with her tattoos, piercings, and dark, gothic style. While the intent of Randy’s comments weren’t to suggest hiring our tellers at the local biker bar, his message was that as times change, what works today and what worked yesterday may not work tomorrow and credit unions have to evolve, focus on the real problems of real people, and stay true to innovation in order to succeed.
The breakout sessions on Monday and Tuesday offered a full lineup of informative speakers and experienced lenders presenting their best practices in all areas of lending. From discussions about centralized underwriting to MBL workouts to ideas on auto loan recapture programs, the Crashers dove headfirst into the deep end of the knowledge pool (without floaties). The sessions armed us with ideas, they incited our innovative sides, and for some, they caused a good amount of pain in the wrists. Luckily for this Crasher, taking notes on an iPad is much easier on the carpal tunnel.
Perhaps the most valuable ninety minutes of the entire trip, however, came late Tuesday afternoon when Don, Maggie, Rachel and I had the opportunity to sit down for a simple chat with three very influential leaders. The setting was small, intimate, and genuine, and the conversation was honest and meaningful. The headliners at this roundtable discussion were Lloyd Gill, President/CEO of City County Credit Union in Margate, Florida; Fawn Terwilliger, VP – Lending of Service Credit Union in Portsmouth, NH; and Phil Greer, Senior VP – Loan Administration of State Employees Credit Union in Raleigh, NC. Also present was Mike London, Director – Credit Product Performance, and Jason Osterhage, SVP/CLO, both from Delta Community Credit Union in Atlanta. And by a chance last minute encounter, we were pleased to welcome George Hofheimer, Chief Research Officer of the Filene Research Institute.
Put Me In, Coach!
While the topics in our roundtable discussion ranged from thoughts on the Occupy movement to corporate politics, the toughest thing we had to do as Crashers was ask about us; our generation and our future as credit union leaders. We as the youth of this movement want to be involved; we want to have an impact; WE WANT TO MATTER.
Now, it’s no secret that senior management teams across the industry aren’t getting any younger. In fact, our closing keynote Mark Sievewright quoted an interesting statistic that 35% of credit union CEOs are set to retire in this decade. Our generation of twenty-somethings to thirty-somethings are swinging their bats in the on-deck circle, waiting for their opportunity to usher the credit union movement into a new era. But, as some of us have seen, that seems to be the underlying concern of many NextGens – at what point does this opportunity arise? Or does it? We posed these questions to our panel of seasoned credit union veterans and while the response was far from a top-secret recipe for success, it was the encouragement, support, and compassion behind the panel’s thoughts that allowed at least this Crasher to see our situation through a different lens.
To start, Lloyd Gill acknowledged that not unlike many industries, there is still a mentality today for credit unions that one must pay their dues and earn their way up the corporate ladder. The days of “thirty years and a gold watch” have not yet left the credit union scene, and a lot of younger folks can attest to that. However, while there is this “hierarchal pecking order” that rewards seniority and experience, Gill says it shouldn’t stop young credit union professionals from trying out new ideas and seeing what works.
“Not everything’s going to stick,” Gill explained, “so you have to be willing to keep trying and avoid getting discouraged and whining about it”. Gill also suggests aligning our ideas and innovativeness with the credit union’s business model, making sure that what we’re working towards is relevant to the short or long term business objectives of your organization. He added that a mentor or an ally in senior management is a great way to transfer knowledge because the more experienced professionals can only help the younger people better understand why some things work and some things don’t.
Jason Osterhage, the 35 year-old Senior VP and Chief Lending Officer of $4 billion Delta Community Credit Union supported Gill’s comments about resiliency, claiming “You have to be able to be told ‘no’, accept it, and keep pushing forward”. Osterhage also added that good leaders require a good mix of drive, energy and maturity, something that comes from both passion and experience.
Fawn Terwilliger has been part of the credit union industry for 33 years and has not only been a great mentor for this particular Crasher, but has been an influential role model and an inspiration to many throughout her career. Fawn mentioned that although times are much different than when she was a loan officer or branch manager, it’s still important to commit yourself to your team. Going above and beyond to use your talents where your credit union needs them today will pay dividends down the road. In addition, Terwilliger also suggested “pick your battles wisely, but be willing to take chances for the things you believe in”.
Phil Greer closed out our meeting with some thoughts that will stick with all of us. Phil has been with $22 billion SECU for 32 years and he takes pride in the fact that his shop doesn’t always do things in what most would call “the traditional way”. He reminded us the importance of doing the right thing and how morals play an important role in the future success of not only the credit union industry, but society as a whole.
Phil also told us all a story of his three year old granddaughter and how she can navigate an iPad better than he can and that “one day she’ll be more technologically advanced than anyone in this room…on accident”. He encouraged us as the next generation to keep pushing, to keep taking initiative, but moreover, to “be patient, work hard, and be honest”. Today, where corporate greed and artificially inflated balance sheets have dominated headlines and brought the American economy to its knees, here stands Phil Greer, who has probably seen everything and anything in his tenure with SECU, offering the most simple and more than likely the most effective advice for today’s “up-and-comers” and that is to DO THE RIGHT THING. That’s what it’s all about; honesty, integrity, and making a difference for the guy next to you.
In retrospect, we spent a good portion of the conference talking about what has changed, what is changing, and what will change. In this day of constant innovation and accelerating change, the one thing that is guaranteed to stay the same is the fact that people need people and relationships matter. The four Crashers that were invited to attend this conference forged relationships with some amazing people and tapped into decades of experience. We asked the tough questions, and we were presented with the tough answers. We took advantage of an extraordinary opportunity and came away with a lot more than just a handful of business cards. We took with us the intangibles, the life lessons, and the wisdom from the people who have helped push this movement forward for decades. In New Orleans, we were told that it’s these kinds of experiences that shape us as individuals, and define who we become as professionals. We were also told that if each of us doesn’t wake up every morning excited to do what we’re about to do, then we need to be doing something else. My guess is that if you’re reading this article, you’re far from falling into that category.
In my own opinion, it is our responsibility as the youth of the credit union movement to make sure we continue to ask questions, continue to think critically, continue to innovate, but it would also behoove us to continue to listen – especially to those who have stood where we stand today. Yes, things are different today; we live in a different world. But as the young and the fast, we pride ourselves on challenging the status quo, right? Then why, I ask, do we not challenge the notion that the best lessons are those hardest learned? I’m not saying that our current leaders know everything about everything, but we, as future leaders, need to take the wisdom from the lessons learned yesterday and use it in tackling the challenges we will face tomorrow.
Minutes before our closing session, I had the pleasure of speaking with Mr. Charles Anderson, EVP and Chief Credit Officer of Arizona State Credit Union in Phoenix. Chuck and I spoke about the wonderful experiences the Crashers shared over the five days in New Orleans. I thanked him for having us, and he thanked us for coming. Chuck, who is retiring this coming spring, left me with this,
“I’m outta here in like fifteen minutes. I’m gone, I’m done. I just want those who we [as retiring credit union execs] leave in charge to remember what’s most important here. Remember the people, it’s about the people.”
On behalf of Crashers everywhere and the entire next generation of credit union leaders, I say “no worries”, Chuck, we will remember the people. And, for us four incredibly grateful Crashers, we will always remember New Orleans – especially the oysters, the alligator gumbo, and that freaky flounder…
BLOGGER’S NOTE: A huge “THANK YOU” goes out to the CUNA Lending Council’s Executive Committee and all of those who helped organize this amazing event. Your efforts were nothing short of spectacular. Also, thanks to Phil Greer, Fawn Terwilliger, Lloyd Gill, Jason Osterhage, and George Hofheimer for sharing your insights – it was certainly the highlight of our trip.