A Renaissance Man

 ‘You have to wear a lot of different hats every day. It keeps me motivated.’

June 1, 2012

Name two disciplines that require nearly opposite skill sets. If you named marketing and information technology (IT), you’ve identified two areas in which Scott Prior excelled at the start of his career.

Throw in stints in operations, accounting, lending, back-office supervising, and management, and you start to realize he’s a Renaissance man. Prior’s varied talents, flexibility, and enthusiasm to try new things prepared him for his current role, he says.

In his current position as president/CEO at $24 million asset Connection Credit Union, Silverdale, Wash., Prior enjoys the variability of daily challenges. “The thing that really surprised me is how diverse it is on a daily basis,” he says, adding that he thrives in this type of hectic environment, and it keeps him motivated.

Prior’s varied skills also have come in handy in spearheading and helping launch several Silverdale and Kitsap county community efforts. He moved to the area just two years ago. James Wilder, manager of $9.9 billion asset BECU’s Silverdale branch, nominated Prior to be a CU Hero.

“Scott is an outstanding member of the community,” says Wilder. “He has finally brought shared branching to the county. He’s also an integral part of an initiative to start a Bank On Kitsap program for the underbanked. He’s a genuine person and an asset to the community.”

CU Hero Hat Tricks

In less than 20 years, Scott Prior has held a broad cross-section of financial institution positions:

♦ 1993 to 2001: Started as a back-office supervisor and then moved to the marketing department of a Seattle bank for four years.

♦ 2001 to 2008: Held four positions at an Everett, Wash., credit union: marketing director, marketing/IT director, interim CEO, and vice president.

♦ 2008 to 2009: Moved back to the marketing director role at a Camas, Wash., credit union.

♦ 2009 to 2010: Started as the lending manager at an Everett, Wash., credit union, but also dabbled in marketing, accounting, call center staffing, and other functions.

♦ Since August 2010: Has been president/CEO of $24 million asset Connection Credit Union in Silverdale, Wash., with three branches and 11 employees.

“I tend to be pretty flexible,” he says. “Working in a smaller credit union, you really have to be. You have to wear a lot of different hats every day.”

Bank On programs throughout the U.S. negotiate with financial institutions in local communities to reduce barriers and increase access to financial services for the unbanked and underbanked. The Bank On Kitsap program is part of the Kitsap County Asset Building Coalition, which helps the county’s residents achieve financial stability and access financial education.

Still in its infancy, Bank On Kitsap is garnering support and participation from several area financial institutions, says Prior, and he expects it to be up and running within the year.

Prior’s interest in shared branching started early in his credit union career. “I’ve always been a big shared branching advocate,” he says. “It allows us to compete with big banks.” Connection currently has three branches, and shared branching gives members access to 6,500 locations nationwide.

Through shared branching, smaller credit unions can provide services such as mobile banking, text banking, and 24-hour call center services. And members who belong to these credit unions have the benefit of both personal service and convenient access.

Shared branching sometimes pays for itself quickly. Less than one year after investing in the shared branching network, Connection is already breaking even with the program.

The collaborative nature of credit unions is definitely a competitive advantage, he adds, and one they don’t capitalize on enough. “During the financial crisis, credit unions had a real opportunity to take advantage of the cooperative mindset and promote it,” he says.

While Bank Transfer Day and related events have made a difference, Prior says credit unions could have made a big impact even earlier.

BECU, headquartered in Seattle, and $1 billion asset Sound Credit Union in Tacoma, have been great supporters of Prior’s credit union. Banks don’t cooperate, he says, adding that big banks, in particular, are driven purely by the profit motive. But big credit unions support smaller ones.

“The cool thing is, they’re people who really understand the credit union model and help smaller credit unions,” he says. “They really seem to get it.”

Connection has been a small credit union for more than six decades. Started as City of Bremerton Employees Credit Union in 1958, it received a community charter in 2006 to serve residents of Kitsap County. Prior realizes that growth is necessary for his credit union’s survival, but he’s trying to lead with a balanced approach.

“We need to expand eventually,” he admits. “We have to find ways to grow. But branches are expensive, and for credit unions our size, how much can we really spend on our branch network?

“A lot of people think we won’t be around in a few years,” he adds. “I tend to disagree. We’re fortunate to have a very healthy capital ratio—we’re at 17%. So that buys us a little time to figure out what we’re going to be in the future. We recognize that we need to grow to survive, but we also need to be very efficient in what we do.”

It’s a delicate balancing act, he admits. Some of the credit union’s growth efforts focus on:

► Thoroughly examining vendor relationships to decrease costs and increase efficiency. Each time a contract comes up, the credit union examines it for potential cost savings and the need to solicit competing bids.

► Cross-training staff so each person can wear three to four professional hats. This allows the credit union to be nimble and to adjust as new needs arise or people take medical or other leave. Connection staff have supported this for the most part, says Prior, because it allows them to expand their horizons.

► Seeking more business among existing and potential members, in an effort to grow and become their primary financial institution.

 Launching a redesigned website to generate awareness about Connection. The new design and functionality will allow the credit union to reach members virtually, and reduce the need for new branches.

 Re-examining loan requirements, within reasonable parameters. “We’re changing how we look at loans,” says Prior. “We’re asking, ‘Can they afford this?’ and ‘Will they pay us back?’ If you can answer ‘yes’ to those two questions, you can probably make the loan.”

Loan growth was slow during the recession; Connection’s total loan portfolio declined 17% from December 2008 to December 2011. But during the past six months, total loans increased 4%. And the goal is steady loan growth during the next few years.          

And that same goal applies to the credit union’s growth, overall.

“I like to keep it as simple as possible,” he says. “If you try to grow too fast, it’s not going to end well for you. I still think there’s hope for smaller credit unions like us. At least I hope so.”