Michael Bittle knew it wouldn’t be an ordinary day at the office as he drove to work on Monday, May 3. All weekend, the CEO of $23 million asset Vanderbilt University Employees’ Credit Union, Nashville, Tenn., had witnessed a deluge of continuous rain, but he’d had no idea the extent of the flooding damage he’d see on his Monday morning commute.
“The area where I live wasn’t badly affected,” he says. “But one of my staff members called on Monday morning and said she couldn’t get out of her subdivision.
“As I drove to work, I started to see complete devastation,” he explains. It reminded him of television reports from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina or South Florida after Hurricane Andrew. “As I continued driving, I thought ‘I know some of our members will need help with this.’”
The mayor of Nashville declared a state of emergency and urged people not to go to work because many roads were impassable and the city’s infrastructure was compromised. Later, residents learned it was the worst middle Tennessee flood in more than 100 years, and that Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry (now restored) had suffered extensive flood damage.
Bittle and several other credit union employees safely made it to work that Monday morning. They evaluated the water damage at the credit union, and decided to open for business.
Bittle immediately called Board President William Rochford and recommended that the credit union board approve emergency loan products to help members in three stages: immediate, intermediate, and long-term needs. Within the week, the credit union had developed a suite of disaster relief loans, including:
- “People Helping People” Flood Relief Loans of up to $1,000, with no interest, to be repaid by payroll deductions of $100 over 10 months;
- Loan payment extensions—a one-month deferral of payments on all existing credit union loans; and
- Appliance loans of up to $5,000 for 24 months at 9.9% interest, to help members pay for appliances lost in the flooding.
The credit union’s flood-relief programs, which ran through the end of August, drew about 100 participants, says Bittle. Borrowers had to be credit union members to qualify. About 25 of the applicants were nonmembers who joined the credit union for the loan programs, and remained members afterward.
The delinquency rate on the loans: 0%.
“I think that speaks for credit unions, and the mutual respect members and credit unions have for each other,” he says.
Vanderbilt University Employees’ is a single-sponsor credit union—serving university and medical center faculty, staff, and their families. Publicity surrounding the credit union’s flood-relief loans strengthened its image in the eyes of the university leadership and the community.
“That’s a great thing to happen on the back end. Going forward, it ties us closer to our sponsor, which sees real value in the credit union,” acknowledges Bittle. “But that’s not why we did it. We did it to help our members.”
Vanderbilt University Employees’ membership is about as diverse as it gets—from food-service and maintenance staff, to some of the top brain surgeons in the world, he says. “Each of those people is an individual. Each has unique needs, and the needs of each person are as important as any other. We try to tailor individual services to them, not cookie-cutter service.”
The credit union is in a growth phase. In the past two years, it has transformed from “plain vanilla,” offering only savings and lending products, to a full-service financial institution, offering checking, debit and ATM cards, online banking, and financial counseling.
Bittle, who has been with the credit union for 15 years, has been CEO since 2003. He and the credit union’s board have ambitious goals for the next five years—aiming to more than double the credit union’s assets to $50 million and to attract as many new members as possible. The credit union currently serves only 35% of its potential membership, so Bittle says the growth goals are realistic and attainable.
Vanderbilt University is the largest private employer in middle Tennessee and the second largest in the state, behind Federal Express. The credit union ranked No. 1 in the state in 12-month loan growth as of June 30, 2009.
Rochford, who nominated Bittle for Credit Union Magazine’s CU Hero award, describes him as a “dedicated leader. I call him the ‘fire starter’ of the credit union. Michael always has compassion and is always willing to listen to our members, no matter how much is on his plate at any time of day (or night).” One of Michael’s strengths is that he believes service quality is of utmost importance to members and the university, he adds.
The kudos and the success are great, says Bittle, but his main goal is to serve each member with compassion and respect.
“You try to walk in each member’s shoes and imagine what they’re going through,” he explains. “You don’t want to patronize them, but you want to help them as much as you can.”
Bittle came directly to the credit union after obtaining an undergraduate degree from Duquesne University in Pittsburgh and an M.B.A. from Vanderbilt University’s Owen Graduate School of Management. He says he chose a career in credit unions to “use the skills, gifts, and abilities I was given to do something I enjoy and at the same time help people make wise financial decisions.”
Born and raised in Pittsburgh, he’s a “huge sports fan,” and still cheers on the Steelers, Pirates, and Penguins. It wasn’t tough to transfer some allegiance to Vanderbilt University—its colors are black and gold just like Pittsburgh’s three professional teams. While most of Bittle’s family still lives in Pittsburgh, his roots are growing deeper in Nashville, especially after going through the May flood.
He got to know a lot of members on a deeper level. “I thought, what if I’d come back from a trip and found my house uninhabitable? Before you even get to the money part, you have to consider the compassion part. If you don’t have passion and compassion, you’ll never stick with this business.”
Need a good recipe for stress relief? Try cooking, suggests Michael Bittle, CEO of Vanderbilt University Employees’ Credit Union, Nashville, Tenn.
The work of cooking is the exact opposite of running a financial institution, he says. For most of his day, he follows a pretty rigorous script of keeping the financials in order to best serve the members. But cooking is “total experimentation,” he explains. “I get to play around and try different combinations.”
Two of his specialties are French onion soup and boeuf bourguignon. He has even taken classes to improve his cooking skills. “You get to the point, in any endeavor, where you realize this is as far as I’m going to get on my own,” he explains. “Then you need some lessons.”