Believer In Chief

The CEO of Element FCU talks about the success of the cooperative she was instrumental in creating.

Linda Bodie has been a driving force in the success and cultural development of Element Federal Credit Union ($26.6M, Charleston, WV) for the past 15 years. In the early days, itwas largely Bodie’s vision and intuition that helped put Element previously known as WV United Federal Credit Union on the map, and her hours of countless dedication to the brand that kept it there.

But serving as the CEO of a rapidly growing institution is a balancing act. For one thing, you can’t be as involved in the details as you once were. The board and fellowemployees become ever more critical in shaping the best institution possible, and the demands of the membership become increasingly complex. At the same time, youhave to make sure that the institution stays true to its roots, and that its culture and trajectory continue when another generation of leaders takes the helm.

The board has a tremendous amount of faith in Linda, and it all really comes back to trust and communication, says Craig Richards, board chairperson. Becauseof her track record of success and because she has continued to openly communicate and build that trust with the board, we are comfortable creating some degree of autonomy so as not to cut the CEO off at the knees or stifle any creativity or future ambitions that she may bring to the board for consideration.

Today, Bodie serves not just as Element’s CEO but also as its chief marketing officer, chief financial officer, and head of IT. Most of all, she is the brand’s ultimate cheerleader.

Below, Bodie shares her thoughts on why she built the credit union the way she did, highlights some anticipated changes as the institution becomes more complex, and demonstrates why Element will always march to its own tune, no matter how large the institutiongrows.

Tell me a little bit about the history of the institution, before you got involved, and then also your background.

Linda Bodie: The credit union was established in 1978, serving employees of the state’s Department of Welfare. I came in 1998 when it was known as the Department of Health and Human Resources.

We were located in the State Capitol Complex, and we had about $2 million in assets, three employees, and a very small membership at that time. So I came into a tiny credit union.

We started as a single SEG (select employee group) and expanded to a multi-SEG. We then obtained a low-income designation and were able to expand to two large underserved areas inour county (basically the whole county). This gave us a community-like field of membership and allowed us to continue to serve the state employees outside our area. If we had converted to a community charter,we would have lost access to those areas, and we didn’t want to do that. Underserved designation gives us the best of both worlds.

When I first started, I was very new to the industry. I’d been a credit union member since birth, but I’d never actually run one, so I had a big learning curve. But personally I was attentive to detail and passionate about whatever cause I wasinvolved in.

I had worked at Kmart and UPS while I attended college, but I did more than count money, serve customers, and load boxes. I was observing these businesses and daydreaming about what I would do differently and how I could improve the processes.

I graduated college with an accounting degree and entered public accounting. I hated it! I found myself working for a private construction company and operating the accounting department, even playing with some heavy equipment. I learned quite a bit aboutmanaging an organization because I worked closely with the owner of the construction company. I saw all the stuff that can happen to a business owner and learned how to deal with it.

When that business was not doing so well, I started looking for another job. The opportunity popped up to manage this tiny credit union, I felt challenged and accepted the job. This happened in August 1998.

When did you first become interested in technology?

LB: My first recollection of my interest in technology was when I enrolled in the first ever computer science class at my high school. I knew at that moment thiswas something that really, really interested me, and I even entertained the thought of majoring in computer science when I went to college. Oddly enough, my three major considerations were psychology, accounting, and computer science. I chose accounting.I think one of the reasons I didn’t choose computer science was because of how new it was. And I was 18 and didn’t know any better.

So, fast forward a bit, I’m working at the credit union and learning all this new stuff and seeing how inefficient and dated the office is. I don’t’ work well with inefficiencies, and now I was in charge. I started reading a lot. I read everythingI could find in print and on the Internet related to technology. And I played with everything I could get my hands on. I had always wanted to get my MBA, so I checked out the program at our local schools. I found this cool program that was a Masterof Science in Technology Management. I knew instantly this was my passion. I learned so much and was exposed to so much new technology, my head almost exploded. I knew whatI wanted to do. Now, if I could only make it fit into my current job. So that is just what I did.

How did you know that Element would be the right place for you?

LB: Initially, I didn’t have all the passion that I have now. But over time I was able to see that even though we’re a part of a large cooperative of all these credit unions, we all do exactly the same thing. So how is our creditunion differentiating itself if we’re just like everyone else?

I knew I was in the right place when I was able to fulfill my personal beliefs and goals, which are centered on helping others. I have a financial background with an undergraduate degree in accounting, so I had that financial expertise coupled with a desire to use those talents to actually help people. I’ve found the profession that I want to do for the rest of my life. It’s a perfect fit for me.

I’ve always been different, and I grew into who I am now from the decisions that I made personally. That’s carried over into the institution, because we’ve always gone down a different path to find solutions that work.

What changes have you seen since taking the helm?

LB: The credit union has gone through a couple of name changes in its existence. Now we’re known as Element. We have grown from three to 13 employees and have two branches,including our original one located in a state building.

We’re still serving our state employees. But we did find a need to expand and serve more people, to diversify our membership, and to continue to grow and maintain our healthy status as a credit union. So I’ve seen Element change from a very smallgroup to one with the potential to serve more than100,000 people.

How have you changed and evolved as a leader in that time?

LB: Well, when I took the job, I was in the CEO position, but the CEO of a three-person credit union is totally different from a 13-personcredit union. I learned a lot over the past several years, most of which comes back to being true to yourself. The minute you deviate from your core beliefs, your core values, and what your credit union is about, that’s when things start to notgo the right way.

If I can sleep at night, then I know I’m doing things right. If I ever have a sleepless night, hopefully it’s because I just got this great idea and not because I’m worried about what just happened or whether we made the right decision. WheneverI think of some venture or something that the credit union wants to do and I can’t sleep, then I know there’s a problem.

I pay attention to my feelings and my gut on a lot of things, and it’s always right. If I’m feeling any hesitation at all, I tend to look much harder at the decision that we’re about to make.

There have been some cases where I had that feeling of there’s something wrong with this, but went with it anyway, and then it didn’t turn out so well.

Credit union leaders need to stay grounded and not follow what other people are doing because they’re not always right. And it may not be what fits your institution either. In today’s world credit unions are watching other financial institutionsand think they should follow that lead. But why? Because we think it fits our vision and our strategy, or because we just think we need to be cool like them?

Your core values and the values of your people are what make the credit union. It’s not the building. It’s not the website. So you have to get backto those roots that make the organization what it is… and sleep at night.

You wear a lot of hats at the institution. As it grows and becomes more complex, where have you had to step back and get some extra assistance, and where have you become more hands-on?

LB: Well, last year we embarked on a let’s find ourselves mission, because until then I had been doing all of the marketing. I’m the CEO, and it’s really not the best idea for me to be doing marketing,too.

We’d gotten to a size where we needed some professional outside guidance to assist us with our marketing plan. So we found a local company, Mythology Marketing, to help us define our brand.

It’s a lot of work to transform not only your name but also your brand and your branch, so staff members leaned heavily on each other and everyone played a critical part.The rebrand wasn’t exactly what we had envisioned doing, but as we began defining specific goals, we knew it was what we had to do. So there was a lot of manpower and delegation of tasks needed to coordinate the change and have it run smoothly,without interrupting member service.

I have 999,000 different opportunities every day of things that I could do. But I have to turn down most of them because I need to focus on specific needs in the credit union. However, I’m still very involved in our in-house technology development.It’s a hobby.

I would definitely bring someone with additional developer talent in-house. That person wouldn’t have to be here physically. I’d be happy to work with anyone anywhere in the world as an employee of this organization to further develop our innovativeideas, products, and services.

I love researching. I love playing with technology. And I love trying to figure out how to make it work for our members. If there’s an option out there that’s going to benefit the way we deliver our products and services, then I definitely wantto make it available to the members.

One example would be Skype. It’s free and we’ve used it for years, not only for chatting but also for video calls. Skype had nothing to do with credit unions, but it was an option to let us actually talk to our members who couldn’t physicallybe here. There are countless examples of technologies outside the credit union industry that can be utilized not just to be more profitable but to better reach your membersand impact their lives.

How are those job expectations for your employees also changing over time?

LB: Everyone here is very diverse right now because we’re so small. But as we grow, I do see specialization in certain areas.

I don’t see that every position is going to become so specialized that the person only focuses on one area or task, because you have to be diverse in today’s world to succeed. So I think that’s a positive and something that I will continueto look for in our employees as we grow.

The institution is very innovative. How have you adapted to all the changes and the increasing complexity in the regulatory space, while still being able to effectively execute on your vision?

LB: We’ve been through a lot of regulatory changes, a lot of compliance and different governmental issues since I started. I go to conferences where the discussionsare always about they’re going to change this and they’re going to do that. What are you going to do?

It always sounds pretty dire, like each issue is potentially the end of credit unions. But, it’s never really the end of credit unions. We obviously respond to the legislation and give our opinions about whatever the issue is. Once that decision isset in stone, our focus immediately shifts to building a strategy. Yes, we’re going to meet the regulatory requirements. Yes, we’re going do all of these things that we have to do. But how are we going to make this change easy and less impactfulfor the member? So we get to be creative as well.

If you have the desire, you can adapt. You can look at it as they’re killing us again with regulations or you can say, We can invent something new to help with whatever that issue is. Our attitude is we’re here for our members, andno matter what happens, we’re going to build something that fits their needs. I don’t think money has anything to do with it. It doesn’t take a monopoly of money. If you’ve got the people and the desire, you can make it happen, andwe make it happen frequently.

The institution may be considered small on a national scale but its growing rapidly. In your opinion, do small credit unions really have a big enough voice in the industry? How do you take the top-down process from NCUA and larger credit unionsand flip that on its head to start things from the ground up?

LB: That comes with your passion for your credit union and the industry. If you want to make a difference, if you want to have a voice, you can make it happen, especially with social media and the communication technologies you have today.You can make your voice heard in a viral and potent way.

I think state leagues are important. In my opinion, they’re looking out for the little guy. The big credit unions have resources. They have money. They have whatever it is they need,but the leagues are here for the smaller institutions. If their league isn’t active, small credit unions need to find their own ways to be heard.

Tell me about your board relationships. How do you and your executive team work effectively with this group to steer the institution?

LB: We have a good relationship with the board.I’ve been here long enough for them to know my personality and how I like to be creativeand innovate with the things that we offer and do internally. We’ve built a trust, but obviously it takes time to establish that bond.

We do have new board members come in and they get acclimated fairly quickly. We like to tell them, Look, we’re not like other institutions. We’re progressive. We’re going to go after things a little bit differently. But they’regood with that approach. They like it because it actually makes being on the board exciting. We’re able to retain people better, and they actually want to be here and be part of what we’re doing.

In all my years with different boards, we’ve always had that consistency with people who really believe in what this credit union is doing and are glad to be a part of it. It’s not just about sitting at a meeting. They get to participate, do funthings, and come up with great ideas. I’m always surprised at what we come up with, but I love it.

It seems your vision and insight has shaped much of Element’s success. How can you best ensure that that mentality and trajectory continues when another generation of leaders takes the helm?

LB: We haven’t looked at a succession plan for the CEO, other than the what if I get hit by a bus scenario. We have built the cultureand continue building it with our board, our staff, and management teams. They understand who and what we are and how we want our credit union to continue to evolve,even when I’m gone. We have a succession plan that describes our needs and desires and would use this to find the right person to take my place in case the proverbial bus scenario actually happens.

June 5, 2014

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