Put Staff and Members First, Advises 'Old School' Lender

E.C. Williams considered himself more of a ‘purveyor of hope’ than a lender.

November 13, 2013


E.C. Williams accepts the Phil Greer Lifetime Achievement Award from CUNA Lending Council Chairman Bill Vogeney (left) and Joe Brancucci, CEO of GTE Financial CU (right).

Following a distinguished military career, E.C. Williams found his true calling in the credit union movement.

He worked his way up from an entry-level position to become executive vice president/chief operating officer for MacDill Federal Credit Union (now Grow Financial) and GTE Financial Credit Union, both in Tampa, Fla.

Williams received the CUNA Lending Council’s 2013 Phil Greer Lifetime Achievement Award during the organization’s recent conference in Phoenix. Now retired, Williams examines his storied credit union career.

CU Mag: What was your original career goal?

Williams: I’m “old school” when it comes to career goals/aspirations. By that, I mean I’ve always believed that if I vigorously attacked every task/job/position assigned me with passion and performed to the best of my abilities, the opportunities would continue to present themselves.

It was up to me to ensure I was fully prepared to seize those opportunities when they were presented.

CU Mag: How and when did you arrive in the CU movement?

Williams: I sort of stumbled into the movement. When I was in the military, I worked in the financial sector for a couple of the board members of MacDill Federal Credit Union, now Grow Financial Credit Union.

They asked if I’d provide the supervisory committee with some training in financial matters, as well as organizational and leadership assistance. I agreed and found it was quite interesting and rewarding.

Shortly thereafter, in 1990, I decided to retire from the military and was undecided on my future, so I applied for an entry-level position with MacDill Federal. One of the board members I’d worked with actually invited me to his home and tried for several hours to discourage me from taking the job for a number of reasons.

Mostly, he thought the position was “beneath me” and would be a waste of my leadership and talents. He was convinced I would quickly become disenchanted and leave.

It’s a long story, but I discovered I loved the philosophy of credit unions, I loved helping members, and I was passionate about helping other employees strive to achieve their full potential.

At the risk of sounding cheesy, after a long and distinguished career in the military, I guess you could say I found my calling.

CU Mag: What are some highlights from your time as a CU lender?

Williams: The first thing that comes to mind is the tremendously talented team we were able to quickly assemble at GTE Federal Credit Union (now GTE Financial), and the turnaround we accomplished in a short period of time. Proving the industry “naysayers” wrong was one of the happiest moments of my business career.

One couldn’t ask for a more strategically focused board and executive management team. To a person, I found them intelligent, professional, creative, fun-loving, and passionate about the employees, members, and community. I will forever be indebted to them for allowing me to finish my career on such a high note.

Second on my highlight list would be my time serving the CUNA Lending Council. I’ll never forget November 2011 and how difficult it was for me presiding over the CUNA Lending Council’s annual conference in New Orleans after being a guest speaker in that very same hotel on 9/11, where I watched that day’s events unfold.

It was such an honor to serve with the smartest and most talented lenders/leaders in our industry, many of whom are now CEOs—and it didn’t hurt that we knew how to party after the day’s work was finished!

Finally, I also consider my time with Grow Financial a highlight. I’m extremely proud of the talented operational team and the many accolades and successes we shared over my 20 years there.

I’m most proud of the personal and professional growth and success of the talented people with whom I’ve worked and served. Nothing makes me more proud than to know people have achieved their dreams and/or reached milestones on their career journey, and I’ve possibly played some small part in helping them.

NEXT: Williams' approach to lending

CU Mag: What were some of the biggest challenges you faced?

Williams: It’s a cliché, but I’ve always refused to acknowledge obstacles. While some people are negative and see obstacles, I only see opportunities.

When opportunities present themselves, you can: 1. be smarter than your competitors, 2. find a creative solution to capitalize on the opportunity, or 3. cheat. I never saw myself as being smarter than anyone, and I refuse to cheat.

Therefore, I always tried to surround myself with people smarter and more creative than me. Together we were fairly successful at finding creative solutions and seizing opportunities.

One on my favorite sayings is, “Don’t give me excuses, bring me creative solutions.” That approach has served me well through the years.

CU Mag: What’s your approach to lending?

Williams: I always found it a privilege to be a lender, as it gave me the opportunity to look for creative ways to help people solve a financial crisis or achieve their dreams.

I never looked at myself as a “lender,” per se, but rather as a “purveyor of hope” or a dream merchant.

Rather than being an “obstacle” in the borrowing process, I tried to be compassionate and understanding to those members going through a financial crisis and, on the flip side, share in the member’s excitement and become a transparent part of their experience when they were buying a car, home, etc.

CU Mag: What are the biggest lending opportunities and challenges for CUs in the months ahead?

Williams: Lending opportunities have and will always be the same: ask and listen to your members and find out their wants and needs. Then, develop and offer creative products to meet those needs, whether it’s for home loans, automobile loans, small business loans, etc.

As far as challenges to the industry, it appears to me that far too many credit unions are trying hard to be banks. It is imperative that credit unions remember their origins and reasons for existence.

We’re simply in the service business, and our business model is simple: hire talented, passionate, caring employees with a servant’s heart, and take care of them.

My philosophy has always been simple: hire talented employees, train them, and give them the necessary resources, products, and services to succeed, and they will take care of the members. Together, they will take care of the bottom line.

CU Mag: What are your plans going forward?

Williams: As I told those who attended my retirement celebration, I retired for two reasons: one is eight years old and the other is six. I want to spend more time with our two grandsons, Dan and Nick.

Additionally, [my wife] Lynn and I plan to travel the world with even more frequency, and I’ll continue to be active in my community activities.

CU Mag: What advice do you have for your successor?

Williams: I’ve always passed along the same two pieces of advice: Do everything within your power to make your boss and team look good, give all the praise to your team when things go well, and personally take the blame when things go sideways.

Choose your team members wisely and the praise will far outweigh the blame.

CU Mag: What parting advice would you offer the CU movement?

Williams: Never lose sight of our two most important things: employees and members. Take care of them and they’ll make you successful beyond your wildest dreams.

Look at everything you do as though you’re looking through a pair of binoculars. One lens represents the employees while the other represents the members. Focus the two correctly and you have the vision for success.

CU Mag: What’s one thing your colleagues might not know about you?

Williams: I dropped out of high school after my father died. I was out one semester and my principal, Mr. McReynolds, came to my home one day and spent the morning convincing me of my potential.

His parting words to me that morning were, “You’ve suffered a great loss and I can’t begin to understand how you feel. Take as much time as you need to sort things out. When you’re ready to come back and finish your education, as long as I’m there, you’re welcome. No questions asked.”

I returned the next semester and he lived up to his word. I’ll never forget that man and the lesson he taught me about the positive impact a caring person can have on someone’s life and destiny.