Thirty-one years ago, Chartway Federal Credit Union CEO Ron Burniske stepped into the Virginia Beach, Va.-based credit union for the first time as chief financial officer (CFO).
Now preparing to retire after decades of distinguished leadership, Burniske shares his leadership philosophy, recalls some favorite moments, and offers some valuable advice to his successor.
CU Magazine: Where did you grow up, and what did you like most about it?
Burniske: I was born and raised in Greenfield, Mass., with my parents, my two sisters, a brother, and a beagle named Bunny.
Greenfield is a small but charming New England town steeped in history and tradition—a community known for its brick streets, its iconic church steeples, and its hardworking citizens. This special place shaped my core values and taught me about the importance of working hard and making a difference.
CU Magazine: When did you join the CU movement?
Burniske: It was 31 years ago that I first stepped through the doors of this credit union. I’ll never forget that morning. The date was November 12, 1984, and the winds were whipping.
As I hustled inside, holding tight to my hat so the gusts wouldn’t send it spinning down the street, I remember feeling like I should have been nervous. After all, I had just moved from Massachusetts and was about to become the credit union’s first CFO.
Maybe it was those sharp winds that numbed my nerves. Or, maybe it was the fact that as I entered the building, I felt right at home. The people were friendly, the work was rewarding, and the credit union philosophy of “people helping people” inspired me.
Never forgetting the vision of our founders or the excitement I felt, it has been an honor to serve the Chartway family of credit unions since that chilly autumn day in 1984.
CU Mag: What do you consider your biggest accomplishment?
Burniske: There are two accomplishments that hold special meaning to me, the first being our philanthropic contributions.
Sixteen years ago, I met a young girl in the lobby of our Newtown branch. She and her mother were standing in front of me in the teller line. When the little girl peeked back at me, I knelt down to say hello.
Sporting a shy grin and a pink baseball hat, she politely shook my hand and told me her name was Julie.
Through the course of the conversation, I learned that Julie was fiercely fighting for her life, and that she one day dreamt of traveling to Disney World to meet the princesses. That conversation deeply impacted me.
As I waved goodbye to Julie and her mom and attempted to swallow the giant lump that had formed in my throat, I remember saying to myself, “We have to do something.”
So we did. We organized our first golf tournament to send our very own member to Disney World. Thanks to the hard work of many and the proceeds raised that afternoon, Julie was able to enjoy a worry-free, week-long escape—giving her the strength and the resolve to keep fighting.
Since then, our “We Promise Foundation” has raised more than $7 million to bring smiles to the faces of more than 3,000 children. Being able to make that kind of difference for children like Julie brings a lump to my throat every day.
I am humbled by and honored to have met Julie, and to work with scores of compassionate leaders, employees, and supporters to turn hardship into hope for young heroes.
Secondly, it has been the honor of a lifetime to watch people walk through our doors and prosper when given opportunities they may not have been granted elsewhere.
I’ve always believed that in life, success has little to do with what we gain or accomplish for ourselves. Rather, it’s about what we do for others that really matters. It’s humbling to know that we’ve been able to do just that.
CU Mag: What has been your most memorable moment?
Burniske: Outside of marrying my kind, compassionate, and perceptive wife, the ones that come most closely into focus are those that happened during my tenure at Chartway.
Given that I’ve been with the credit union for more than three decades, I have been able to watch Chartway grow and change alongside growth and change in my own life.
For example, my daughters Caitlin and Catherine both joyously appeared on the scene during my earlier years. In fact, when Caitlin was born, the Board pooled their personal dollars together buy my daughter her first set of wheels: a stroller.
This is indicative of the kind of organization we are. What makes this place special is that because we are in the business of helping people, we tend to attract people who want to make a difference. They find the mission engaging, the work rewarding, and the challenge exciting.
It’s this distinctive sense of community and the infectious spirit of caring that I will miss the most.
CU Mag: What’s the biggest challenge facing the CU movement?
Burniske: Without question, the biggest challenge facing the credit union movement is the environment in which we operate.
When our organization was founded, it faced little competition. There were only a handful of credit unions in Hampton Roads and we all worked together to help one another prosper.
Today, credit unions are now competing against each other for the same business. We are also being pressured by market invasion from banks, payday lenders, and online competitors.
Simply, we have more challengers than ever before competing in the same space.
Additionally, the regulatory pressures facing our industry make it increasingly difficult to take care of our members like we were able to in the past.
CU Mag: What’s your leadership philosophy?
Burniske: I strongly believe that it’s important to be yourself—to be authentic.
I also believe it’s vital to trust your instinct and to lead with heart. To fight for the right thing—even when it is the hard thing—no matter what.
CU Mag: What advice would you offer your successor?
Burniske: Be yourself. My successor should not try to lead how I have led. They should identify what is important to them and hold tightly to their principles.
I would also encourage my successor to focus on hiring great people. The better the people they hire, the better leader they will be.
CU Mag: What’s next for you?
Burniske: I don’t have any particular plans. While I know that I want to continue making a difference, I’m welcoming the next chapter of my life with an open mind and a sense of adventure.
The book analogy is a fitting one, actually. When we begin a book, we don’t know what the end of the story may bring. Each new chapter progresses the storyline, and I look forward to seeing what experiences my story will hold.