On a Sunday in March 2008, Joe Robertson was worried about his credit union’s members as he watched the television news about the failures of several major Wall Street firms and big banks.
Robertson’s first thought: Members will be concerned about the safety of their funds. He realized he needed to communicate quickly and directly with members of $228 million asset Our Community Credit Union in Shelton, Wash.
“I was thinking, ‘We need to get a letter out to our members and tell them exactly why that’s happening and why it’s not going to happen to us. We need to tell them their money is safe.’”
Robertson wanted the letter to be effective for his specific membership, and to explain that the credit union was a healthy financial institution and in no danger of failing. So he personally wrote the letter.
The goal was to be proactive—to reach members before they became seriously concerned about the financial meltdown. Robertson didn’t expect much of a response; he simply wanted to calm fears.
Turns out, the credit union did get a sizeable response—nearly 1,000 calls, letters, and e-mails. Members also visited the credit union and personally thanked Robertson when they saw him around town to express how grateful they were that the credit union had stayed out of the subprime lending mess and had the courtesy to send them a personalized letter.
“I couldn’t believe the response,” he says. “I never in my fondest dreams thought that more than 10% of the people would read the letter, and maybe half of those would say, ‘That’s good to know.’ But that was not the case; instead the reaction was fantastic.”
Robertson followed up with two additional letters when more news of bank failures and economic crisis hit the airwaves. He also wrote a letter to the community-at-large—including about 9,600 potential members—and educated them on the credit union difference to help reassure them and offer a “banking alternative.”
Robertson’s letter-writing campaign resulted in a local newspaper interview and presentation requests by local community groups. The credit union garnered a record $18 million increase in total deposits for 2009 (doubling the previous year’s increase), as members and new members sought a safe haven for their money.
It was a stressful time for all financial institutions, Robertson admits, because fear fed upon itself, the bad news kept building, and accountholders—including members—didn’t know where it would end.
Those times stand in stark contrast to Robertson’s life today. In December 2010 he retired, and Bert Fischer, formerly chief operations officer, became president/CEO.
Robertson says his stress vanished immediately. “I thought retirement would be like being on vacation,” he says. But it’s better, he admits. “When you’re on vacation when you’re a CEO, you still think about work all the time.”
Robertson’s retirement comes on the heels of a 35-year career in the credit union movement—all of it at Our Community. Before that, he was a marketer for a restaurant chain. For 10 years after being hired by Our Community, Robertson worked in various positions, including collections officer and operations manager. In 1985, he was named president/CEO.