Bob Falk joined Purdue Federal Credit Union ($1.8B, West Lafayette, IN) in August 2002 as the vice president of lending at what was then Purdue Employees FCU. He took the helm in 2008 and since then, the cooperative has rebranded, tripled in assets, doubled in staff size, and grown membership from 57,000 to more than 83,000.
PFCU also notched some significant firsts along the way, including its first-in-the-movement university affinity program card program and opening the state’s first student-run high school branches. Offering branded debit cards to high schools followed, as have a robust membership rewards program and numerous state and regional business awards.
Here, Falk talks about what he’s learned during his 20 years with PFCU.
On evolving leadership philosophy and style …
I’ve worked for several good leaders and some weak leaders in my 30-plus-year career. I learned just as much or possibly more from the weak leaders because I didn’t want to be that type of leader. I created lists in my head of traits and behaviors from the solid leaders I liked and traits and behaviors from the weak leaders I absolutely didn’t want to be like.
I started out wanting to be liked but evolved into wanting to be a valued and respected strategic leader. I realized my team members aren’t looking for a new friend, they’re looking for someone to lead their team that has a well-thought-out plan on where we are headed.
On courageous decisions …
One of the most courageous things [Purdue Federal Credit Union] did was becoming the first credit union to buy the rights to an affinity credit card program. We paid a significant sum for the Purdue Alumni Association credit card program, and we took the business away from the No. 1 provider in the country. I knew how to run a credit card program but had no experience with an affinity program. That was a huge risk, but our board trusted us to make the investment pay off long-term. We hit all our milestones, and we continue to have a successful affinity card program.
On learning from mistakes …
I’ve definitely made mistakes along the way. Fortunately, most were minor in impact or you probably wouldn’t be interviewing me here today! When I was first learning this leadership thing, I thought I wasn’t supposed to show weakness or show that I make mistakes. That was obviously wrong. I got better at owning the error, vocalizing the error to my board and my team, and talking about what we can all learn from my error.
Before long, the culture became more accepting of errors, and we had more dialogue around errors. Now when something blows up, I see the team calmly working through solutions without any real discussion on where to point the blame. We just get to work on fixing the mess and learning about how to avoid that mess in the future.
If I continued to hide my errors, that might have become the culture of the organization. We would most likely have made more errors, taken less ownership of these errors, and not learned from them.
On mentors and mentoring …
I’ve been fortunate to have several people in my life provide incredible mentorship and honest feedback during my career. Someone took a chance on me at several critical points and gave me an opportunity. Fortunately, I’ve been able to turn these opportunities into even greater growth, but everything still comes back to key individuals that took a risk on me.
Now I interact with a lot of students on campus, many of them first-generation college students who don’t have a strong professional network. These are my favorite people to work with as they typically are talented, hard workers that just need someone to connect them with the right opportunities. It’s been satisfying to see these individuals succeed greatly in careers and life with the little help I’ve been able to provide.
On success and laying the groundwork for more …
It seems like every one of my past 14 years as CEO has had some level of satisfying or exciting outcomes. When I summarize the year for my board, I’m amazed at the story we have to tell every year. We lay out wonderful plans in January that inevitably change due to an economic or other uncontrollable environmental challenge, but this team somehow manages through these challenges and produces impressive results.
Some of the successes are the personal growth of team members, some are typical financial metrics, and some are the impacts we made on our membership. I guess the most satisfying and exciting thing is how this team manages to deliver impressive results for our members regardless of the situation we’re facing. This gives me a ton of confidence that we can handle just about anything that comes our way.
On changes in the credit union movement …
There were about 19,000 credit unions when I joined CUNA Mutual Group in 1991. They mostly were relatively small and mostly tied to a single sponsor. That made sense at the time. Their offerings were generally simple loan and deposit products, and they tended to be conveniently located to where the employees worked.
Now we have about 5,000 credit unions, many of them community-focused, and our product offerings are significantly greater with an emphasis on a digital rather than physical presence.
The competition also now includes thousands of technology providers. Consumers today aren’t walking down the hall of their building to visit the company credit union for a loan, they’re using their phones and choosing the best solution queued up for them in a search engine from their kitchen table or home office. Consumers today care more about ratings and reviews from complete strangers versus testimonials from co-workers.
Good leaders keep their eyes and ears open for changes in their market landscape, and they work with their teams to understand these changes and build plans to keep pace.
On responding to trends and changes …
Like any other industry, credit unions will need to continue to recognize shifts in consumer behaviors and respond accordingly. To compete and stay relevant in this environment, credit unions need to keep pace with the competition and keep pace with member needs.
Today, we have nearly as much commercial volume as consumer volume. Our spending on digital marketing and IT is significantly higher and very different from what we did five years ago, and all of these changes are the responsibility of leadership.
Life would have been easier if we kept doing things the way we always had, but we made significant changes to respond to what we’re seeing. Good leaders keep their eyes and ears open for changes in their market landscape, and they work with their teams to understand these changes and build plans to keep pace.
On time away from the job …
I have a ton of hobbies and interests. I love to be outside and participate in activities that include golf, tennis, kitesurfing, kayaking, biking, and swimming. In the winter months, I switch over to snowmobiling and snowboarding. If I can’t get outside, I have several restored cars in the garage that always need attention.
After I’ve burned off the excess energy, a glass of wine with my wife and catching up with my college-age kids is a great way to cap off a day. I also have responsibility for about 50 college kids in a cooperative house on campus, and I lecture regularly at Purdue’s Krannert Business School. Sitting around isn’t something I’m very good at.
This interview has been edited and condensed.