Exit Interview: Dan Berger

NAFCU’s long-time front man reflects on leadership, legacy, and what lies ahead.

The merger of the National Association of Federally-Insured Credit Unions (NAFCU) and Credit Union National Association (CUNA) becomes official on Jan. 1, 2024, ending nearly 50 years of two major trade groups serving an industry whose census is shrinking but membership continues to grow.

NAFCU was founded in 1967, CUNA in 1934. Dan Berger joined NAFCU in January 2006 as executive vice president of government affairs — its chief lobbyist — and assumed the role of president and CEO in August 2013.

After leading his association’s advocacy over issues as charged as compliance, the CFPB, and interchange, his final role will be to guide the team responsible for melding these longtime rivals and allies into a new entity: America’s Credit Unions.

Dan Berger, President & CEO, NAFCU

Here, Berger shares some parting thoughts.

How do you feel about the NAFCU-CUNA merger?

Dan Berger: I have mixed feelings, but I was one of the people who were catalysts in getting this going. Mass consolidation in the credit union landscape is continuing, and we’re at the point where having two trade associations serving a relatively small marketplace no longer makes business sense.

But I believe my old colleagues will continue doing what they’ve always done: an outstanding job being warriors for the credit union movement. I’m confident the entire transition board will hold management to account, and I think the new organization will be successful. But I’ll be watching it from afar.

So, what’s next for you?

DB: The NAFCU board asked me to stay until the end of the year to help with our transformation into America’s Credit Unions. Then I’ll be going back to my home state of Florida.

There have been a few opportunities presented to me by executive recruiters and a couple firms have asked me to speak to their teams about business development and how we built such a strong culture and leadership team with an extreme focus on member service.

Also, I have a 19-year-old daughter studying engineering at Vanderbilt University. If you know anything about Vanderbilt, you know I still have to work. It’s good, though. We have some friends in the music business asking for some business leadership help, and we love visiting Nashville, so there might be something there, too.

I’m in no hurry. I’ll make some decisions after the first of the year.

The Exit Interview series features parting thoughts and wisdom from influential leaders in the credit union movement upon their retirement. Read the whole series on CreditUnions.com.

How have the demands on leadership changed during your time at NAFCU?

DB: Everything is moving faster, whether it’s competition, technology, or the economy. You need a resilient culture in place to create opportunities from these challenges. Those black swan events and headwinds will always be there; how you deal with them determines whether you’re successful going forward. That’s always been the case, but now it’s much faster. That new pace is the biggest change I’ve seen across the movement.

How has senior leadership at credit unions responded to all these new imperatives?

DB: It generally depends on the credit union. Some have warriors on staff who thrive in these fast-changing environments and tough times, and others just don’t. The most successful credit unions are the ones with teams of warriors who find a way to leverage the opportunities they see in challenges.

A big part of their culture, too, is seeing everything through the filter of what’s in the best interest of the credit union and its members. That still matters. You still see that focus shining through at the most successful credit unions.

Have you seen more of these warrior types than you did in the past?

DB: Yes, out of necessity. Credit unions used to have safe niches — auto lending is a big one — but we’ve had to expand to compete. Now it’s not just credit unions versus banks or fintechs; it’s credit unions versus credit unions.

So, in this setting, successful credit unions have to attract people who are problem solvers and have the resilience to get through whatever gets thrown at them. Warriors are people who have the skills, positive attitudes, and passion for people helping people. If your leaders don’t have all this, it’s probably not going to work out in the long run for you.

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What about succession in this new reality?

DB: That problem-solving attitude and commitment to the cooperative principles has been driving successful credit union leaders for a long time. Now, a lot of senior leaders, including CEOs, of that mindset are retiring, which makes succession planning at the mid and senior level really crucial.

We’re seeing turnover at the upper echelons of our industry on an almost daily basis. You need to make sure you’re recruiting and retaining folks with the skill set you have to have.

What about culture? You talk about it a lot in your blogging and in other settings. What makes it so important now?

DB: Everything revolves around the culture of your credit union. You have to have true believers in creating a culture that produces and supports those kinds of warriors. A big part of that is always talking about the “why.” Why do credit unions exist? Why does your organization exist? That element might be lacking in some parts of our industry.

You can have the greatest strategy, but if you don’t have the culture to back it up, you’re not going to be successful. Your staff won’t be able to execute that great business plan, and if you don’t execute, eventually, you’ll be dead in the water.

Who have been your most important mentors? What did you learn from them about leadership?

DB: There have been so many. I’ll start with my grandfather. He was a Pennsylvania Dutch carpenter, painter, and self-described philosopher. He told me two things that have really stuck with me. First, whatever is worth doing is worth doing well. If you’re going to do something, give 100%. The second was that it takes the same amount of energy to be nice as it does to be a jerk. So be kind. He beat that into me.

In our industry, I’ve had a lot of CEO mentors. Cutler Dawson, the former CEO at Navy Federal ($165.0B, Vienna, VA), and Mike Lussier at Webster First FCU ($1.4B, Worcester, MA) have been mentors. Debra Schwartz at Mission Federal ($6.1B, San Diego, CA) has been one, too. I learned a tremendous amount from her and her team’s turnaround through incredible difficulty at their institution. Then there’s Pete Hilger at Allied Solutions and Bob Trunzo at TruStage. Renee Sattiewhite at the African-American Credit Union Coalition also has been a tremendous mentor to me.

I could throw out names all day long of people who taught me how they made serious changes to their organization based on their vision of the future, whether it’s diversification, investments in their culture, or so much more. I believe in lifelong learning, and they’ve all been a big part of that.

My old colleagues will continue doing what they’ve always done: an outstanding job being warriors for the credit union movement. I’m confident the entire transition board will hold management to account, and I think the new organization will be successful. But I’ll be watching it from afar.

Dan Berger, President & CEO, NAFCU

What is your biggest point of pride from your work at NAFCU?

DB: It’s the team we put together at NAFCU. They’ve been absolutely extraordinary, a great group of people truly passionate about serving our members and about their focus on industry advocacy, compliance, and education and training.

They know what we’re doing is serious work. We don’t want four or five big banks left in the financial services marketplace. That’d be terrible for the 138 million American consumers who are credit union members. Main Street America relies on credit unions.

The team we built here … they’re the main reason I’m going through these emotions about leaving an organization that I’ve belonged to for 18 years and headed up for 10. I’m so proud of them.

What has been the biggest setback? What lessons about leadership did you take away from that?

DB: I’ve had a few, as you can imagine, but what still bothers me is that we lost the interchange fight over the first Durbin Amendment. That’s had such an incredible, negative impact on our members, and I lose sleep over it to this day.

All this was supposed to be good for the consumers. We were told a lot of things and there was some fear mongering and group mentality going on that should have been challenged more. It was political fraud and now it may be happening again with Durbin 2.0. We need to raise a little more hell this time.

What closing words do you have for the credit union movement about leadership in the future?

DB: I’d write an open letter to the industry on a couple of things. First and foremost, you have to focus on growing. We’re in a competitive environment where everything is commoditized, so your focus needs to be on how you better serve your members. You have to invest in the technology your current members want and your future members will demand. And you’ve got to be smart about it, with a good strategy and plan behind everything you do.

Next, we need to do a better job of recruiting younger and more diverse members to credit union boards. You might want to consider term limits. These younger folks often think differently than a 57-year-old white guy like me. We should be working to bring on 25-, 30-, 35-year-olds. Their experiences with financial institutions and fintechs and technology in general is different from how we came up, and we need their perspective. That’s going to be crucial for the survival of our industry.

This interview has been edited and condensed.


November 20, 2023

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