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We’d like to feature a credit union that is going above and beyond in a time of crisis. In April, we featured Wyoming-based Reliant FCU and how they are doing everything in their power to keep their locations available to guest members. This month, I was tipped off that Alabama-based Gulf Coast FCU is offering their employees hazard pay, and determined to have zero staff layoffs and salary cuts. I was curious to learn more about this unique situation, so I reached out to David LeNoir, President/CEO of the $41M credit union who is an outsourced accounting client of ours. He kindly took an hour of his time, waist deep in the middle of the pandemic (interview took place April 16th, 2020) to chat with me. Let’s dive in.
AD (Alicia Disantis): Thank you for taking the time today David. It seems like many credit unions are acting more and more like banks during this pandemic, and I wanted to reach out and talk to a credit union who is embracing the original spirit of the industry.
DL (David LeNoir): I appreciate that Alicia. I guess to that extent, I'm a bit of a dinosaur because I first came into credit unions when I met my wife in 1980. Her father was the founder of a very small credit union at our church. And I didn't know what a credit union was before I met him. I am one of those people that believes in the credit union mission 100%. I quote this to people from time to time - it's taken directly out of the Federal Credit Union Act of 1934: "make more available to people of small means, credit for provident purposes through a national system of cooperative credit."
I think that we have not done ourselves any favors in the industry as we move away from that original purpose, in exchange for wider delivery channels, expedience and convenience. We've lost that tactile relationship with the people that we have sworn to be here for. And it breaks my heart every time I experience that at another credit union. I have put up around my office in several different places, Living the Seven Cooperative Principles the Credit Union Way. To be constantly aware of and to meet the needs of the 6,200 members that have said “yes” to this credit union, who saw something here and wanted to join. We are bound to serve. My universe is 6,200 members that are depending on us to be here the way they need for us to be here for them. I know it's a little bit preachy.
AD: Not at all. What are some of the things that you're doing right now with your staff, with your strategy?
DL: Well, first of all, with the staff, I believe that the value and culture of our credit union is described by the staff and their relationship with the member in the 10 feet to the teller line. I can do everything I want behind the scenes, but if that relationship is not perfected and highly valued, then everything I do back here is for naught. Because I recognize that I'm not anything special, I'm just a person that came up through the ranks, I try to recognize the value of each person here. I try to identify through conversations and observation what their skill set is, what their talents are, what their passion is. And I try to get them to bring that to work with them and incorporate it into their daily work life. I discovered that they're very creative. I asked them, “Would you like to be in charge of keeping the branch decorated?” We have a Christmas tree that we keep up year-round and we redecorate it for every season. I let them go out and they buy decorations and they come back and employ some of their team members and say, “Let's all go decorate when we are not busy.” They take great joy and great pride in it. When members walk in, they say, “Wow, this place looks so good.”
And once the member's gone, they can go back to doing whatever they're doing because I trust them. They have shown me that they can keep their work areas up. We're all adults here and we're all in this together. The payoff for me has been that I don't worry about what goes on behind the scenes with them. I don't worry about the scuttlebutt. The payoff to them is I can walk up behind the teller line or walk into someone's office. They never have to feel alarmed. They never have to wonder if they're going to be in trouble or get chastised. It's a very mature and well-developed relationship to have with an employee because they truly feel like they're trusted and that they have some autonomy.
AD: I have not heard of that, especially for frontline staff.
DL: I don't close my door and shut my staff out of anything. We don't have closed-door manager meetings. I openly discuss everything with the employees. If I'm trying to make a decision, if we've got a big challenge, because to put up partitions is to tacitly say to them, “I don't trust that you have the intelligence or the insight or the experience to be a part of this.” And I find that to be extremely disrespectful to people.
AD: Wow. Diane, our CFO (and head of outsourced accounting), mentioned that you were giving your employees hazard pay during the pandemic. Tell me about your staffing pandemic plan.
DL: Yes. So what I decided to do, I went on the CUNA CEO Council discussion board, and I looked through a lot of information from CEOs across the country. I tried to create some type of amalgam that I could overlay on my credit union so that I could meet the needs of the members, meet the security needs of the employees, meet the regulatory needs of the regulators, the safety and soundness needs of the board, and still keep everybody working.
I told the board this: No one is going to be laid off or lose any pay. We're going to create a separate leave policy where we're going to furlough. We're going to divide the team. We're going to divide the workforce. We're going to close two of our offices (We have two smaller offices - we're going to close them temporarily.) And we're going to shuttle everything to our main office. Everything is run through the drive through. Now, at the main office, I've moved the employees into two separate teams. Team A and Team B are made up of people with like skill sets. I have lending people, new accounts people, operations and tellers/member service people on each team, and all three branch managers. My operations manager/ compliance officer here is working remote from her home. My branch manager/ mortgage loan officer is working remote from her home. My branch manager at my furthest branch is also working from home and they're receiving full pay.
If someone has to be off for childcare because their daycare is closed or the school is closed and they don't have childcare, then they stay at home and receive full pay. This leave is not associated with their hospital, vacation or sick leave at all. They retain and continue to accrue sick leave and vacation pay at their regular rate.
AD: Have you found that people been able to do their job function without any bottleneck?
AD: Yes, surprisingly, Alicia, there is such a harmonious relationship among these small, more intimate groups that they help each other a lot because the lobbies are closed. And everything that physically can be done through the drive through is now done through the drive through. If someone absolutely has to come inside to sign papers or some other rare occurrence, then we'll bring them inside and we'll sanitize behind them. But what I find is the person or persons that are working the drive thru get the support of the rest of the staff because they're answering telephones. And so much of what a teller used to do at the window is now being handled by tellers that are sitting in their workstations, working on their computers and the telephone. I've created a call center where all of the people that reside there are completely empowered to do so much more than they were doing just as regular tellers.
We're all shooting from the hip here. We’re not looking to place fault and we're not judging. We say, “Look, we have a mission to accomplish. Let’s assign some responsibilities.” And then let's move forward and everybody do their part. And that's exactly what we did. In the South, we call that a come to Jesus meeting.
AD: I want to talk briefly about your board's response to what you've done with your staff during this pandemic. Was everyone on board 100% (no pun intended)?
DL: I created a pandemic operating plan. I forwarded it to the board and said, “This is my plan for protecting our employees, serving our members, and protecting the different facilities while still being in compliance with the regulations. With safety and soundness in mind, they looked at it and one or two board members said, “Are we going to have enough people to be covered on every area, on each of the two teams”? And I assured them that we did.
Another asked me if I had budgeted for this. They asked, “What if this goes several months?” And I said, “Based on my plan, this is going to cost me $13,000 in additional funds to be able to do what I want to do through the middle of June. If this extends beyond the middle of June, then I have to revisit everything up to this point. I'm sacrificing my profit margin on my budget because we have plenty of capital. We're 14% capitalized.”
We're still lending money. We're still collecting interest on the loans that we've made. We're still collecting investment income. The budget will pretty much be blown, but if we were ever going to do something extraordinary, the time to do it is now, because if we don't take care of our people, then what have we really done? Then we're just straightening deck chairs on the Titanic. I have checked in with the board and they are very happy with the plan that I came up with.
AD: Well, that's very impressive! Thank you for explaining how you are operating in a time of crisis. My hope is that it helps other credit unions on their path.
DL: Well, I appreciate the opportunity to share with you. In closing, I would just like to say that we must remember the mission of credit unions is, People Helping People. This applies to members as well as the employees who serve them. Now is the time for making an investment in our loyal employees.
In a world of bad news, I hope you enjoyed this piece on a credit union that embraces the movement at its core and is going above and beyond to help its employees in a time of crisis.
Have a story to share? A credit union employee you’d like to feature? A unique situation that other credit unions can learn from? Contact Alicia at firstname.lastname@example.org. She’d love to hear from you.