A lifelong resident of El Paso, Crystal Long is wired for service and prides herself on being a good listener and collaborator. As president and chief executive officer of GECU ($2.8B, El Paso, TX), Long was instrumental in leading the credit union to become El Paso’s largest independently owned financial institution. To date, it has nearly $3 billion in assets and more than 800 employees and 385,000 member-owners.
In her 39 years with credit unions, Long has been involved in many local and international organizations. From serving as a trustee for two local hospitals and as a board member for multiple organizations to being appointed the fundraising committee chair for the Worldwide Foundation for Credit Unions, the philanthropic arm of the World Council of Credit Unions (WOCCU), Long is dedicated to serving a larger purpose.
Here, Long shares her thoughts on what makes a great leader, teachable moments, and why more credit unions should strive to be active participants in a global movement.
On joining the credit union movement …
I found credit unions purely by accident. My future mother-in-law worked at GECU in the 1960s and told me GECU would be a good place to work. So, I applied.
Before I joined the credit union movement, I worked in retail and the restaurant business. Understanding consumers’ expectations proved helpful in my various roles at GECU.
On what distinguishes a great leader …
A great leader is someone who has a sense of humility and a heart for service. They must be malleable, honest, and transparent. They also must be objective and able to consider others’ opinions and ideas. Lastly, they must be passionate about their cause.
I’m a good listener, and I seek to collaborate with others who have a more intimate knowledge of operational issues and challenges. Now that I’m in a more generalist role as a CEO, it’s important to align real-world challenges and opportunities with the environment and economic drivers that impact the organization.
For example, we recently undertook a wide-scale redistribution of our physical presence in the El Paso area. In a city divided by a mountain, we needed to retool and introduce virtual delivery of all services. We identified where members were concentrated, looked at our existing locations, and strategically placed new neighborhood branches to enhance convenience. We sold most of the larger, legacy branches during this process. Our migration and adoption of digital banking channels, which are constantly evolving, was instrumental in reducing total square footage while serving more members efficiently and effectively.
My team needs to be flexible and, at times, pivot to new ways of thinking.
On choosing the right team …
We don’t live in a black and white world. We need to examine many of the decisions we make on a case-by-case basis. My team needs to be flexible and, at times, pivot to new ways of thinking. What makes GECU great is the team of people at the credit union who are ready to be change agents.
On finding inspiration …
We are a global movement, and I’ve had the privilege of meeting with people all over the world during my time as CEO. I’ve had the opportunity to travel to Kenya and work there with like-minded people who share the same value system.
I’ve met leaders along the way who have been very inspirational. My predecessor, Harriet May, is an amazing example of one of my mentors in the credit union industry. There are many other mentors I collaborate with outside of the industry.
My faith also means a great deal to me, and my closest friends and mentors are always there to provide perspective, which I greatly appreciate.
CU QUICK FACTS
Data as of 03.31.19
HQ: El Paso, TX
12-MO SHARE GROWTH: 2.5%
12-MO LOAN GROWTH: 5.3%
On great accomplishments …
GECU has received a number of awards in recognition of our accomplishments, but the most prestigious award was the Herb Wegner award received in 2019.
Although the award is framed as an individual award [Outstanding Individual Achievement], it is an award that represents the collective efforts of all employees working together to help members achieve their dreams.
On teachable moments …
Teachable moments often come in the form of challenges. I’ve learned from experience that much of what we do is like a marathon rather than a sprint. Some initiatives take months or even years to realize, which is OK as long as you celebrate incremental progress along the way.
For example, as a CEO, I work with a very diverse board, which has been a great learning experience. As leaders, we need to keep in mind that most directors’ time in the credit union space is limited. Instead of rushing through concepts, be patient and understand it might take multiple conversations to convey an idea.
CreditUnions.com’s On Leadership series spotlights notable leaders across the credit union landscape by discovering how they joined the movement, learning what makes them tick, uncovering career lessons and successes, and seeking advice for the future of the movement. Read the whole series today.
On what the industry needs more, or less, of …
I think everyone would like to see less in terms of the regulatory environment, but that is part of the business we’re in. We do our best to navigate it.
I would like more credit unions to see themselves as part of a global movement. I’ve had the opportunity to become a development educator [for the National Credit Union Foundation], which essentially takes educators back to the roots of how and why credit unions were founded. The developmental issues defined by NCUF as a result of that rich history represent a compass for us all to follow.
I believe a heightened awareness of where we come from, along with a desire to participate in all aspects of the credit union system, would serve to strengthen the movement.
This interview has been edited and condensed.