A self-proclaimed “substandard” high school student, Bill Birnie knew college wasn’t within his reach and opted instead to explore military service.
“One of the things I learned in the Marine Corps was you don’t have to be the smartest person in the room,” says Birnie, president/CEO at $1.2 billion asset Frontwave Credit Union in Oceanside, Calif. “You just have to outwork everybody.”
He’s done just that.
After completing bootcamp in September 1972, Birnie deployed to Marine Corps Base Hawaii at Kaneohe Bay where he joined a reconnaissance unit and attended scuba school at Pearl Harbor. He later served as a Marine guard at U.S. Embassies in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, and Casablanca, Morocco, and as a Marine detachment commander at U.S. Embassies in Georgetown, Guyana; Tunis, Tunisia; and Rome.
Upon his return to the U.S., Birnie was stationed at Camp Pendleton in California. Inspired by his experiences abroad, he attended night school, earning his bachelor’s degree in finance and banking and an MBA in international business.
To leverage his education, over the final eight years of service as a Marine—in between participating in combat operations during Operation Desert Storm in Kuwait and Operation United Shield in Somalia—Birnie served as a volunteer on the supervisory committee at Marine Corps West Credit Union, which eventually became Frontwave.
After retiring from the Marines in 1997 as a sergeant major, Birnie became an internal auditor and eventually the vice president of finance and risk management at the credit union. In 2007, he became CEO at Eagle Community Credit Union in Foothill Ranch, Calif.
After eight years, Birnie returned to Frontwave as CEO in August 2015.
His time with the Marines allowed Birnie to both serve his country and develop the leadership skills he uses daily at Frontwave.
“I got to see the world. I got to meet great leaders. I got to have all of that conditional leadership and feedback going on in an environment where we were allowed to make mistakes as we learned,” Birnie says.
“When you think about the Marines, you think about war and their commitment to service, to their country, and their brotherhood,” he continues. “I’ve been blessed to have two careers that I absolutely loved and, frankly, they’re not entirely dissimilar. This people helping people philosophy that we have in the credit union industry and this commitment to our membership is not terribly dissimilar to what our military people have to their nation and their service.”