OC Chapter CEO Panel: How Leaders Are Dealing With COVID-19

OC Chapter CEO Panel

The Orange County Chapter recently held its very first virtual CEO Panel in which Financial Partners CU CEO Nader Moghaddam, La Loma FCU CEO Daniel Penrod, and Kinecta FCU CEO Keith Sultemeier discussed the impact the COVID-19 crisis has had on their credit unions.

More than 50 attended the Sept. 17 event, which was moderated by Adam Denbo from Samaha and Associates and raised money for the Richard Myles Johnson Foundation.  The panel included one Shapiro-sized credit union, La Loma FCU, to provide the perspective of a smaller credit union.

Among the questions Denbo asked the panel was one about what successful strategic approaches each CEO had found to keep staff engaged and committed to the credit union culture despite a disruptor like COVID-19.

All three CEOs said that communications was key. Sultemeier added that credit union volunteers “need to be a part of the equation as well.”

Moghaddam said with 75 percent of the staff becoming remote due to the pandemic, the credit union decided to hold voluntary video meetings every Friday. These meetings provide an opportunity to discuss the performance of the credit union as well as  how it has made a difference in members’ lives and recognizing employees for that.

For Penrod and LaLoma, the entire staff remained in-house and the credit union never closed.  “Our lobby traffic never slowed down, it actually picked up during the quarantine,” he said. However, the Friday staff meetings had to stop due to restrictions on large gatherings. That was difficult on communications until the meetings were changed to virtual.

He had the chance to work the teller line, which Penrod said added some calm to the chaos, and also helped the front-line staff feel like they were not alone.

So, what long-term impact did the CEOs feel a post-COVID environment would have on branch strategies? All three remain committed to the branch model, though they did acknowledge the use of technology during the pandemic has brought about some changes.

Penrod said his membership didn’t really use technology much before the pandemic hit. But he saw its use increase significantly in the months since. Circumstances nudged those who were hesitant to use technology and many found they liked it.

“Hopefully a lot of them have learned that that is a functional piece to add to their service from their credit union,” he said, but added that he sees still a need for high-touch services.

Due to the use of video teller technology for the past six years, Financial Partners CU members didn’t see a change to how they conducted business. None of the branches closed, but “our tellers, though, were sitting at home,” Moghaddam said.

Still, the credit union is committed to branches; it has opened three since January. Moghaddam said branches in the future may be smaller, nimbler, and more technology oriented.

Sultemeier said while he doesn’t discount what he has read about the impending death of the branch, what he has seen is that when a new delivery channel is introduced, “the members don’t switch channels, they just demand the new one too.”

He added that while credit unions need to keep up, they don’t have the ability to win with just technology. “Where we win is with the relationships,” he said. “I don’t believe that branches are going to be eliminated altogether. There’s no substitute to a relationship.”

When asked how strategic planning looks in the age of COVID and the ensuing economic crisis, Penrod said that it’s important to have multiple scenarios to plan for and to make sure the credit union is nimble enough so that it is “able to do what we need to do to keep the credit union strong and members engaged.”

Moghaddam said one of Financial Partners’ primary focus is on the youth—their health, learning, and financial education. While Sultemeier is stressing to his board and executive team: “We need to be short-term flexible but not lose track of what we’re trying to do long-term.” Kinecta needs to meet current needs for both employees and members, while still focusing on what it is trying to achieve down the road.

Any silver-linings from the COVID-19 experience, the CEOs were asked. For Kinecta, it was not only the idea of remote work losing its stigma but also that it has opened up a talent pool. “We can look for talent across the country,” Sultemeier said. Another benefit: the credit union got to showcase its value to the community, in part due to providing Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans to small businesses in the region. That generated positive good will.

For Nader, it was seeing his teammates step up with a can-do attitude and successfully deal with the crisis head-on.  He also was amazed by how many small businesses were shunned by banks and discovered Financial Partners for PPP loans.

At La Loma, the crisis gave the credit union an opportunity to deepen relationships with SEGs.

“When a struggle like this hits, you find out who’s really in your corner,” Penrod said. “We went out of our way to continue to sponsor events, help them (SEG groups) with education. … It opened up an opportunity to show that we wanted to be a partner in the process.”

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