Ideas to Ideals, Ideals to Reality

May 20, 2009
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Passion for credit unions and people—employees and members alike—reverberates in her voice, illuminating why the employees of Credit Union 1, Anchorage, Alaska, with $625 million in assets, nominated their CEO, Leslie Ellis, for Credit Union Magazine’s CU Hero.

Ellis assumed leadership of the credit union 25 years ago at possibly its lowest point as an organization rife with operational problems and a poor capital position.

“That was a struggle, but I learned a lot from it. We got through that, started to rebuild our capital,” Ellis says. She also turned her attention to staff. “We didn’t have a lot of people that actually cared. Early on, I realized it wouldn’t matter what I did if employees didn’t care about the credit union—what they’re doing and why.”

Ellis is proud how far the credit union has come both financially and in what it does for staff, members, and social outreach. A merger in 1995 nearly doubled the credit union’s size overnight, paving the way for implementing long-cherished plans.

Credit Union 1’s community service committee does about 75 projects a year. “Sometimes it’s hard to slow them down, which is great,” she says. For example, two years ago staff “adopted” a platoon of 33 servicemembers in Iraq. “Now we have an entire battery, which is more than 100. Recently we sent 97 boxes there. The employees raised the funds for this. They give a lot of themselves.”

This summer Credit Union 1 breaks ground on a branch in an underserved neighborhood, Mountain View, “that hasn’t had a financial institution in 20 years.” About 19% of its residents have incomes below the poverty level versus 7% among the overall Anchorage population.

Revitalization efforts are just beginning. “Everyone involved in the project believes you need an infrastructure for a community to revitalize, and one thing you need is a financial institution. Residents are reliant upon pawnshops and payday lenders. It’s my goal to significantly reduce the amount of Mountain View residents using those facilities. Our branch will be across the street from one of them.”

The new building and interior, a $2 million investment, will include a police substation and a community room with videoconferencing technology. The branch also incorporates design features of successful payday lenders, such as clearly posting pricing so people can determine what services cost without asking.

How the branch has evolved is a study in Ellis’s blend of credit union spirit, business savvy, and networking moxie. From the early 1980s when she arrived in Anchorage, she was aware of Mountain View and observed its gradual decline. Some time later, Mayor Mark Begich (now Sen. Begich, D-Alaska) took an interest in revitalizing the historic neighborhood. Soon the Cook Inlet Housing Authority bought property there and built housing for tribal members.

“I looked at all that and started thinking, ‘There has to be a place for Credit Union 1 there,’ ” she says. “A lot of things I’ve done through the years are thoughts in my head. I wait and watch. The credit union obviously has to remain viable, so we have to save to do these things. We can’t do them all at once.”

She worked with Begich and spent time in Mountain View through other community work. “I became aware there was a land trust in Anchorage that had a piece of property I thought would be ideal because it’s on the main corner, across from the library.”

Ellis adds, “I’ll be honest. We’re going to help a lot of people there, but it will also be good business for the credit union. And good business for the credit union means we continue to improve our financial position, and then we get to do more.”

She has a track record of “doing more” for staff, too. In 2005, the credit union opened an on-site child-care center for staff, “something I had wanted to do for years.”

She says, “It occurred in part because we were so financially stable, had grown, and had enough retained earnings and financial wherewithal.” When Credit Union 1 built its new administrative building, the center was part of the plan.

Even in the midst of a buyer’s market for employers, Ellis ranks employee satisfaction integral to member satisfaction and perpetuating the credit union’s “culture of caring.” You must have “good, stable, happy employees to provide good member service,” she says.

Ellis has surrounded herself with staff who not only deliver top-level service but who also are community-focused—another aspect of Credit Union 1 culture. Citizenship is a credit union core value, which she instills in employees. Other core values include integrity, responsibility, vision, and quality.

“When you do that, you get a group of employees who really get it—who understand what our credit union is about, who help us fulfill our mission, which is to help our members achieve their financial goals by focusing on excellent service and value,” she says.

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