Politically Active CEO Counts Blessings

‘Building relationships with lawmakers is critical.’

March 1, 2012

A quick review of Rudy Hanley’s formative years sounds similar to those of many young Americans—paper route, three years in the U.S. Army, a bachelor’s degree from the University of California-Irvine (UCI).

But that’s just part of the story. Hanley, president/CEO of $8.8 billion asset SchoolsFirst Federal Credit Union, Santa Ana, Calif., was born in Hungary. When his family fled the Soviet-occupied country in 1956 and immigrated to the U.S., the children didn’t speak any English. Hanley and his brother spent six months in a “foreign adjustment” program before being mainstreamed in public schools.

Hanley describes moving to this country as “traveling from the Third World to the First World. I always saw the U.S. as paradise—the land of opportunity.”

For Hanley, through hard work—and what others call charm and integrity and he calls luck—opportunities abounded. Hanley worked his way through college, attaining a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and later a law degree. At points before his credit union career, he worked as a supermarket stocker to put himself through college, and as a high-school teacher.

“I taught high-school math for eight years,” he says. “I loved teaching. It was the most rewarding and fulfilling job.”
Unfortunately for the students and fortunately for the credit union movement, Hanley switched careers. He’d planned to be a corporate tax attorney. But shortly after he graduated from law school and set up a tax preparation business, CUNA hired him to develop a white paper on retaining credit unions’ tax-exempt status. That was a defining career moment.

“I decided the ‘people helping people’ philosophy on which credit unions are built was the perfect match for me,” reported Hanley in an interview for the UCI alumni paper. After the CUNA project, he joined the California Credit Union League, as head of its research and information department.

Then he took the helm of SchoolsFirst Federal in 1982. The credit union’s charter has expanded over the years to serve public and private school employees in 10 Southern California counties.

“Being able to come to a credit union that was such a perfect fit because of my teaching career and serving school employees here” was a great opportunity, says Hanley. “That’s why I really don’t feel I’m deserving of awards. Because you fall into it, you’re kind of the beneficiary of the team and the culture they’ve built.”

Those around Hanley, though, say his accomplishments are due to more than simply “opportunity” and “luck.” Commenting on his 2011 Herb Wegner “Lifetime Achievement” award from the National Credit Union Foundation, several cohorts weighed in.

John Annaloro, CEO of the Northwest Credit Union Association mentions that Hanley spends time with all new credit union hires to make sure they understand the meaning of the credit union difference. “In doing so, he spreads the system’s philosophical objective and economic improvement for all.”

“The most impressive thing about Rudy is his integrity,” notes Tom Dorety, president/CEO of $5 billion asset Suncoast Schools Federal Credit Union, Tampa, Fla. “Integrity means everything to Rudy, and he lives his life and runs SchoolsFirst Federal accordingly. He is incredibly generous and humble to a fault.”
Both Annaloro and Dorety attest to the great benefit of Hanley’s political involvement efforts. And Hanley agrees it’s important.

Next: Build relationships

“Political involvement is key to any industry or movement, but especially one like the credit union movement,” he explains. “You have to build relationships.” Doing so is “not only an ongoing but a lifetime commitment and effort. You can’t be going to your representatives only when you want something, and then the rest of the time sitting back.”

Hanley maintains a personal relationship with long-time credit union supporter U.S. Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif. “I had a wonderful relationship with Ed when he was a state senator,” he says, “and that has survived now for 25 years. He understands not only our credit union and the personal relationship, but he also understands what credit unions stand for. And he’s a staunch supporter in Washington because of that level of understanding built up over the years.

“I really think it’s an obligation we have,” he adds. “Political action and building relationships is critical. As credit union CEOs, we’re in the relationship business. So we have the skills and abilities to really be effective.”

There’s nothing to be afraid of, he says, and “it’s interesting and exciting, as well as productive and beneficial.” Hanley recommends mentoring with seasoned CEOs who’ve already established political relationships.

Back to the Beginning

Revisiting one’s roots can be a difficult experience. For Rudy Hanley, president/CEO of SchoolsFirst Federal Credit Union, Santa Ana, Calif., the first time back to his birthplace in Hungary was “very emotional.” His family fled the Soviet-occupied country in 1956.

When he returned more than three decades later, “in many ways it was very much the same,” he describes. His childhood school was “exactly the same,” the sidewalk was still dirt, and the little church hadn’t changed. The family’s house had been repainted, but otherwise unchanged.

On the return trip, family members retraced their escape route through Austria and on to the U.S. Later, Hanley returned to Hungary several times. He and his wife, Catherine, have traveled extensively, including trips to Greece, Turkey, Italy, and France.

But his feet are now firmly planted in Southern California where he’s lived most of his life. The U.S. has been good to him, he says. “I don’t feel like there’s anything special about me. I’m just a lucky recipient of a lot of good things.”

Mentoring is a big part of Hanley’s career as a CEO. SchoolsFirst Federal historically has supported smaller credit unions. It also played a significant role in developing Santa Ana’s $3 million asset Comunidad Latina Federal Credit Union, a community development credit union (CDCU) for Spanish-speaking residents.

SchoolsFirst Federal covered the CDCU’s operating expenses for the first five years. And with the participation of 14 other credit unions,
they provided $1.5 million in 0% deposits to help Comunidad Latina Federal fund loans.

The CDCU serves real needs, he says, because Spanish is the primary language in about 74% of Santa Ana’s homes. Many residents are customers of payday lenders and check cashers.

“Our philosophy is that we need to live the purpose and structure of credit unions,” he says. “These are the people credit unions were really created for. We had limited resources, but we wanted to do something to help a segment of the community not being served by other financial institutions.”

Hanley also has been active on numerous committees and organizations throughout his 32-year credit union career. He’s a founding member of the Filene Research Institute. And he has served on the boards of the National Credit Union Foundation, CUNA, CUNA Strategic Services, CUNA Mutual Group, and the Consumer Federation of America.

But he sees it all as paying it forward. “The credit union movement is such an exceptional opportunity for anybody. I believe in hard work and doing your best. That’s the least you can do to show your appreciation for everything that has been given to you and all the blessings that you receive.