At age 27, Eric Bruen arrived at a crossroads in his career: take a promising executive position at a large, stable credit union or follow a more perilous path by becoming CEO at a small institution on the brink of failure.
He chose the latter, and on his first day in 2004 signed a contract to buy the building that still houses Desert Valleys Federal Credit Union in Ridgecrest, Calif.
“It was the best opportunity I could have asked for,” says Bruen, president/CEO of the $60 million asset credit union. “There was no downside. I couldn’t screw it up any more than it already was. But it turned into home.”
Bruen explains “bad players and poor decisions” had drained the institution’s capital, requiring years of rebuilding. The key to recovery was harnessing the power of the credit union model.
“Our job is to serve members and to make their lives better,” he says. “We encourage our staff to get involved in the community, and their passion is ignited.
“When I give [credit union] people advice on net worth, I say, ‘don’t be so focused on the number that you forget your mission.’”
Desert Valleys Federal came out from under Prompt Corrective Action on June 30, 2019. Four days later, Ridgecrest was the epicenter of back-to-back 6.4 and 7.1 magnitude earthquakes.
Bruen’s response: “This is just another challenge we have to face.”
But the experience did create an epiphany: the need for active advocacy.
“Advocacy can change lives,” he says. “We’re a military town, and 83% of our residents are employed through the China Lake Naval Station, which was significantly damaged by the earthquakes. Our elected officials worked with our representatives, senators—everyone in our advocacy channels—to secure base reconstruction financing. You could see an entire town swallowed by a single event if you don’t have advocacy resources.”
Ultimately, this realization drove Bruen to run for public office. He’s now mayor of Ridgecrest.
This move did take some negotiating on the homefront, however. Bruen’s reluctant wife agreed to his mayoral candidacy if she could home-school their children during the pandemic—and fill the freezer with a butchered bovine.
“The mayorship cost me half a cow,” he says. “I love my community, and I love stirring the pot, asking questions, and making changes.”
Bruen also is passionate about his credit union role. “I’m building a team who’s engaging members and changing our community. I have a great crew and a great father [longtime credit union CEO Chuck Bruen] who taught me a lot. I am blessed with interesting opportunities and enjoy serving my community. I get to do that twice as much now.”