Tom Kuslikis
Tom Kuslikis says credit unions must develop more “bench strength” and leadership training among employees going forward.

Adaptability key to pandemic success

COVID-19 requires leaders to rethink every aspect of their business.

May 21, 2021

Adaptability is the secret sauce that has flavored credit union success during the coronavirus (COVID 19) pandemic, according to panelists during a 2021 CUNA Finance Council Virtual Conference general session on Thursday. 

Panelists say they had no idea how long they would be scrambling for remote work and alternative member service delivery options when pandemic restrictions hit in March 2020. Fifteen months later, things are still changing.

“When we went home on March 13, I figured we’d be home for a few weeks or be back by summer at the latest,” says Brittni Downs, manager of accounting at $435 million asset Ohio University Credit Union in Athens. “I didn’t think it would be the summer of 2021.

“A lot of the initial transitions for my team were Band-Aids,” she adds. “Eventually, I had to backtrack and develop long-term solutions.”

Yet as credit unions implemented those long-term solutions, they had to “rethink every aspect of their business,” says Amy Phillips, chief financial officer (CFO) of $348 million asset On Tap Credit Union, Golden, Colo. 

“What do you think about now in terms of your branch footprint?” she asks. “Do you really want to spend that kind of money on commercial real estate [CRE]? That also affects your CRE lending plans. How does that affect your marketing strategy?”

At the same time, the past year has created a “paradigm shift” in employee expectations and culture, a theme repeated throughout the conference. Employees have come to expect permanent remote work options or they may move on to positions with other employers.

At the same time, remote work technology and policies can provide the flexibility to hire employees from geographically distant locations. Phillips shares a story of a promising job candidate whom her credit union passed on before the pandemic because of geographic issues. 

“That would be a completely different decision now,” she says. 

Credit union cultures have evolved with these shifts. Tom Kuslikis, vice president of accounting and finance and CFO at $1.2 billion asset University of Michigan Credit Union in Ann Arbor, says his credit union engages employees through social media, virtual gatherings and entertainment, and rewards, even including employees’ families in activities. 

“It’s different, but it’s not worse,” Kuslikis says of the still-developing remote culture. “As we progress, we’ll still use what we’ve learned this year to maintain our current culture.”

One key lesson learned: the importance of bench strength, Kuslikis says. “With COVID-19, we learned if someone goes down, you always need someone trained to fill in on a moment’s notice—and that includes leadership and leadership training.”

Credit unions also implemented long-term solutions for members, including contactless payments and digital appointment scheduling. University of Michigan Credit Union moved to a more robust online banking platform that offered members more self-service options, Kuslikis says.

He says removing “pain points” for employees within digital processes was also critical in the past year, including “anything that makes the process more efficient when they are interacting with a member face to face.” 

Visit CUNA News for more conference coverage and view event highlights on Twitter via the #FinanceCouncil hashtag. Learn more about the CUNA Finance Council, a member-led professional society for credit union executives, at