Remembering Gene O’Rourke

Industry co-workers and friends remember the legacy of Mr. O’Rourke.

Most of us love to watch a train wreck. Maybe we won’t admit it, but we do. I think we like to watch train wreck stories because we feel they are about others, and we have the right level of separation to feel safe as voyeurs.

This is why I am having a good time watching the primary season this year. In reality, presidents don’t affect my day-to-day living very much. The level of separation between them and me diminishes my risk, and in most cases makes their statements and actions simply theater more than anything else.*

Consider these comments: the system is rigged, we need better deals, someone else should pay for this, forgive and forget; the comments were only in the moment, simply competitive position statements, etc.

I could continue to be entertained by the lunacy of their approach. But think about the freedom these people use to influence our system, challenge the status quo, and slay their opponents. Wow!**

I wish we all had the same sense of freedom to redefine our industry and influence our existing structures. These kinds of comments are used privately and almost daily in conversations about the NCUA, vendors, small versus big credit unions, etc. but generally not on the stage, not in front of cameras, and not in print meant to sway opinions in a big way.

Why are we not freely emulating what is working on the political stage in our system? Imagine if we used more personal and organizational freedom to stop self-editing our comments for the sake of our traditional narratives and started a new narrative to risk inspiring a revolution for evolution to save our members, ensure their success, and save the system.***

There’s An Audience For Game Changers

What gets everybody going is that these crazy tactics are working better than ever before!

There seems to be an appetite for people brazenly calling themselves game changers and backing it up with their narrative and their idea that now is the time to change or we might never. The audience seems ready to support them, to help them, and to send a message to the status quo: that it has be found lacking.

I do not think this audience (American voters or credit union stakeholders) expects literal cart-upsetting events. I think they simply wish to push our system to react differently, send a signal that it can be influenced, and move the needle not break the gauge.

They want evolution, and to get it, they will sing the praise of those who appear revolutionary.

Could our system, the credit union system, include people with the same appetites for change, for some signal that we are listening, for voices that are willing to inspire evolution with revolutionary energy and expectations?

Why not? Our consumers are voters in both spaces. I believe they are just as likely to be frustrated with any part of our credit union system that seems indifferent, entrenched, and no longer focused on them.****

Imagine An Industry Election Process

Could you imagine a national primary or election process in the credit union industry that would bring out the revolutionist in our community? Two or three elections that really captured our imaginations and our comments? Maybe an election for an NCUA board of directors with three candidates circling around splitting the insurance fund from the regulatory environment, isolating the NCUA as an insurer and sending all regulation compliance back to the states, screaming for real innovation in the examination process to lower cost, trying to win votes with some kind of budget reform for the agency, or by-the-letter ROI forensics on crisis management.

Imagine the speeches and posturing if we had a better process than the NCUA board seats being the equivalent of a parochial pro-quo, pro-party favor.

I doubt there ever will be an election like this, but how can we use our voices now to push for evolution by risking revolution? Raise our voices like we are trying to win now!

Could you imagine a national primary or election process for a trade association post that really captured our attention, got people involved and voting, and got media coverage of the promises in that industry to in your face earn the tax deduction? Not earning it by donating to law makers and their agendas but by having to win the vote with local consumers and communities that understood the power of their ownership as the deciding vote. What would we promise our communities? What would we use to measure our cooperative health, qualify our non-profit status, and walk-the-talk as democratic champions?

I doubt there ever will be an election like this, but how can we use our voices now to push for evolution by risking revolution? Raise our voices like we are trying to win now!

Maybe this year’s election process is not as much of a train wreck as I have been thinking. Maybe it is pointing to something timely and required for our close-up, day-to-day expectations from ourselves and the leaders we follow: burn the playbooks, rewrite them for the future, and be ready to risk a revolution to ensure evolution. Credit union leaders, I think we can learn more than we think from all of this. Tell me why I’m wrong.

* Now if this was a primary to hire regulators I would be truly engaged. Regulators, the rule makers, make the world go round, yet our lobbyists pander to the law makers who seldom ensure the rules are congruent with their hopes.

** Some people consider themselves earth movers, but most of us our happy to simply just rake our lawns pity.

*** Do we even let ourselves consider the revolution that could reverse the decline of our system?

**** If we needed a new leadership profile in the industry where would we send them to develop?

This post appeared originally on the blog Tell Me Why I’m Wrong. Read it here.

Gene O’Rourke passed away on April 22 at the age of 70. He was a groundbreaking accountant and then executive recruiter whose impact on the credit union industry is deep and indelible.

Gene O’Rourke

O’Rourke spent more than 40 years in the credit union industry. He was a co-founder of the O’Rourke, Sacher Moulton accounting firm and later the O’Rourke Associates executive recruiting firm. He was also the chairman of Trust For Credit Unions, for which Callahan’s CUFSLP Partnership is the administrator.

Dozens of credit union executives began or advanced their careers under Gene’s guidance and tutelage, and his own successes were the result of helping to form the solid business base of today’s credit union movement, both in people and processes.

Here, colleagues and friends the two are often indistinguishable share their memories and the legacy of Gene O’Rourke.

Jay Johnson, President, Trust for Credit Unions

Gene became a trustee in 2007. From 2012-2014 he was chairman of the Audit Committee, and in 2015 he became the chairman of the Trust.

I want to reflect on his insightfulness to the issues that we have been addressing across the Trust for Credit Unions, as well as his understanding but effective leadership in the positions that he’s in. He was able to reflect on all the perspectives in the room because of his background. Working as an auditor for all those years and then working in executive recruiting. I think he was astute at understanding the different perspectives in the room.

In my role as president and treasurer of the Trust I worked with closely with him in the audit committee and as chair. We were in regular communication. We were on the same team. He was always prepared. I think that reflects his diligence, but more importantly reflects his humanness. He was never authoritative in either of those leadership positions. He was always supportive, guiding, and made sure that we were rooting for the good of everything. And I think most importantly, his willingness to step into these leadership roles at the Trust reflects his belief in the credit union system.

Gary Oakland, Trustee, Trust for Credit Unions

Gene was a true gentleman and what I remember most about him is how thoughtful he was. Not only in the issues he dealt with, but with people. So considerate, a great listener, and really an excellent example for anybody to follow in how he dealt with the issues of the day and also with people.

I had known of Gene for a number of years from his presence in the credit union movement. Most of his initial work was in the California area and being up in Washington I had heard of him but we hadn’t met. It wasn’t until he joined the Trust that I got to work with him closely. And it was a delight getting to know him. We would rib each other during the heyday of the 49ers and Seahawks rivalry and make little wagers.

After one game, a Seahawks win, he and his wife hosted my wife and me at a French bakery down in Napa. It was a delightful time. That’s just the way he was. So engaging, outgoing, and thoughtful of other people and really getting involved.

I’ll remember Gene for his calm demeanor, his attentiveness to the issue at hand, his thoughtfulness in putting his thoughts together and sharing them with others.

If somebody hadn’t had the opportunity of getting to know Gene it wasn’t because Gene was difficult to get to know. Because he wasn’t. He was honest and forthright and outgoing and he was out there. He really loved what he was doing. He loved meeting people. He was as friendly and as easy to talk to as anybody you could ever imagine.

Bucky Sebastian, Co-Founder, Callahan Associates

I worked with him on a couple of projects over the years and the more exposure I had with him the more I liked him. That was because of the quality of both his professional demeanor and his personal ethics and morals, and the way he did business.

He was a fabulous outdoorsman. He and his wife, Linda, traveled the world and sought out really exotic places to visit. They were in Bhutan before people knew there was a Bhutan and he was a real adventurer in the best sense of that term. He was curious. I think one of the best compliments I can pay anybody is to say they are curious. And he was. He was a very curious person and he would sate that curiosity by going out and doing things that the rest of us put on our bucket list and never get around to.

Chip Filson, Co-Founder and Chairman, Callahan Associates

Everybody first met Gene when he was the named partner in the O’Rourke Clark accounting firm. They were the dominant firm doing year-end audits for credit unions. It was there, doing audits, where he got to know the nitty-gritty details of credit union operations.

The firm itself was entirely dedicated to credit unions. Because of that, the firm helped credit unions transition to this professional environment where you wanted to make sure you had an audit, where you wanted to make sure you were doing things well. In 2001 the firm was sold to McGladrey (now RSM). That transition is important because a lot of people might have stepped back at that time.

There is a certain personality that successfully works within the credit union system, and Gene’s willingness to serve the movement is an example of how leadership works at its highest level in a cooperative system.

But going back to his work leading an accounting firm, one of the things that he did that would become a pattern in this industry is that if you wanted a good job in credit unions you went to work at O’Rourke. And O’Rourke was a hunting ground for a whole generation of managers. Not just one or two but a whole generation. So Gene wasn’t just performing a professional audit, he was seeding the industry with knowledgeable, experience financial people as it made this transition during deregulation.

I first ran into Gene in depth when he was the lead plaintiff in a suit of the department of financial institutions in California that wanted to classify shares as liabilities. It was a three- or four-year effort where he challenged the classification of shares as liabilities versus shares as capital.

It was really a labor of love because those cases just take so long. Often these cases don’t go to trial. You settle outside. But this went to trial, in California, which is by itself a process. His involvement in this case shows a lengthy commitment to a cause that some would see primarily as academic. But it was I think it shows his belief and support of the credit union cooperative difference.

Gene had what I would call a classic credit union personality. He was very relationship-oriented. Rarely, if ever, confrontational. He would listen first, and in that sense he was an effective leader.

There is a certain personality that successfully works within the credit union system, and Gene’s willingness to serve the movement rather than earn a living from the movement is an example of how leadership actually works at its highest level in a cooperative system.

Mike Sacher, former partner, O’Rourke, Sacher Moulton (OSM)

OSM was established in the early 1970s. Gene joined in 1975, and he hired me in 1976. I was one of his first hires. Eventually I became a partner, and we were partners through the 1980s and 1990s. In 2001 we sold our firm to McGladrey (now RSM).

OSM grew to be the largest credit union CPA firm in the country. We were bigger than everybody else who played in that niche. Gene and I were long-time friends, long-time partners. He was the success behind our firm and he was a remarkable individual.

I stayed there through 2008 and Gene was there through 2010, at which point he launched his new firm, which became known as O’Rourke Associates, his executive search firm. So Gene had two lives: He had the life of the managing partner of what grew to be a large CPA firm. And in that firm his love was executive search and he started an executive search division. And ultimately he moved to doing executive search on a full-time basis.

Gene had incredible substance, stuck to high ethics, and had very strong principles. He was a man of his word, deep integrity, and everyone who knew him trusted him. He was just by nature a very optimistic and positive person. And he was a true people person.

Everyone who got to know him loved him. He was a guy you wanted to go out and get a beer with. He defied the stereotype of an accountant. He was everything you don’t expect an accountant to be. He was personable, he was articulate, he was entrepreneurial, he was strategic, and he was fun. He was everything but the green eyeshade, pencil protector, nerd.

Gene had a sixth sense about people, which is why his executive search business was so successful. But it was also why our CPA firm was successful. He was able to make hiring decisions and bring people through the ranks that had untapped potential. He drew the best out of people. And every one of our partners and senior managers would say they owe their career to his mentoring, leadership, and his faith in our ability to succeed.

I think of Gene as a mentor who prepared me to take a leadership role, and I can tell you that every one of our people would say the same. If you look in the credit union industry at CEOs of large, successful credit unions, a whole bunch of them grew up in our firm.

And then if you look at the work that Gene did on the executive search side and all the placements that he helped make, certainly dozens and dozens of credit union CEOs, CFOs, and executives got their position from O’Rourke Associates heading up the engagement and helping their clients make the right choice. The imprint he made on the industry was remarkable.

Even the most clerical level people in our organization, word processors, clerks, secretarial people, all loved Gene because he knew them all. He took time to get to know them. He treated them all with dignity and respect. He was just a remarkable leader.

Gene was a fierce competitor. But he was respected and well-liked by the firms and the people we competed against because of his dignity and ethics. In fact, I did business with Gene on a handshake. I never needed a contract. In all the years we ran our firm, and at one point there were 10 partners, we never had a discussion about divvying up profits. It was always fair, it was always equitable, there were never contractual disputes, and never partnership fights. It that was all because of the honesty, integrity, and leadership that Gene brought to the table and set as the standard.

Wade Painter, CEO, San Mateo Credit Union

In 1982 Gene hired me out of college. That’s back when he was leading his CPA firm. I started off in the San Francisco office. I spent six years there before moving down to work for Mike Sacher, who was leading the Los Angeles office of Gene’s firm. I worked there for another six years. Then I moved to Boston to take a leadership role of a new office Gene had opened there. Then I worked in Boston for eight years. I was a partner by the time we were sold to RSM in 2001.

Gene kept things all very real. He was interested in everybody that worked for him, it didn’t matter if you were a partner or a brand new word processer. Gene was open and genuinely interested in people’s lives.

I appreciate a lot of things about him, but one thing about my career: he gave me room to fail, in a way. I was a brand new partner leading an office in Boston and my main charge was to grow that practice and it took a couple of years to hit my stride. Gene supported me through that time. For the first few of years that business was hard. Gene had a lot of faith in me and believed in me and it’s made a lasting impact on me today.

Gene was real outdoorsman, too. A big fisherman. A big hiker. One of the things that we did almost every year in the firm was go on these big hiking and camping trips to Yosemite and the Sierra Nevadas. Those trips turned into a legendary thing in the firm. It was open to anyone who wanted to participate and we’d usually get anywhere from a dozen to 20 people that would do it and it was always a great time, a great bonding time, a great adventure. And Gene was always at the center of that.

I’ll remember Gene for the way he treated people. It’s something that has stuck with me. Treat everyone with respect. Be authentic. Be yourself. Take the time to get to know people, because you’re just never going to be disappointed.

April 28, 2016

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