Ben Maxim, vice president of digital strategy and innovation, Michigan State University Federal Credit Union.

A champion for innovation

Ben Maxim pushes innovation to move members and employees forward.

July 12, 2022

Early in Ben Maxim’s career at Michigan State University Federal Credit Union (MSUFCU) in East Lansing, he pitched the idea of creating an iPhone app for the $6.2 billion asset credit union.

Now the vice president of digital strategy and innovation, Maxim and his team are continually looking for opportunities that will make life easier for the credit union, employees, and members.

Maxim, who is also the chief technology officer at Reseda Group, a MSUFCU credit union service organization (CUSO), talks about his career, digital strategies, innovation, The Lab at MSUFCU, fintechs, and how to keep up with industry trends.

Credit Union Magazine: Was there a focus on digital strategy and innovation focus at MSUFCU when you started?

Ben Maxim: Innovation has been a focus since our founding in 1937. Credit unions were founded to be an innovative way to deliver financial services, starting in the Great Depression.

We were early adopters of ATMs and credit cards. And when I started in 2007, we had just formed an e-commerce team with a focus on building out a website designed to deliver member service.

I went to a conference about a month after Steve Jobs announced that third-party developers could put their apps in the app store. I attended a track about iPhone development, soaked that up, and pitched the idea to create our own app. 

April Clobes, now our CEO, was my boss at the time and she jumped at the idea.

The focal point of our current innovation journey really started with that moment.

Q: What are you currently focused on as far as digital strategy?

A: Our digital strategy and innovation strategy focuses on five key areas: 

  1. Building out digital as a self-service channel. How can we make it easier for our members to get what they need by using our website, online banking, mobile banking, or chatbots?
  2. Financial wellness. Rather than just a displaying a bunch of information, we’re taking it to the next step with tactical advice to move forward.
  3. Process optimization—anything that brings efficiencies. 
  4. Being responsive to emerging technology. Right now, we're exploring what we should do with cryptocurrency and Buy Now Pay Later. 
  5. Artificial intelligence and automation. How do we push things to our members so it's not something they have to figure out? Maybe we can tell them, "Next Friday is going to be a low point in your cash flow, so wait until next week to pay your bills.”

Q: Can you explain The Lab at MSUFCU and your goals for the program?

A: The lab came out of the need to have a more formalized innovation strategy. We officially kicked off The Lab at MSUFCU branding in September 2020.

We pull together teams of about eight people per pilot from across the business to get a good mix of thought. We go through a 20-week process, give them training, and mix them with our current teams that build products and services. When they go back to their areas, they have more tactical skills to help turn ideas into a reality.

The lab builds a culture of innovation. The main purpose of the lab is to try out new ideas—try before you buy—and understand how the membership will receive it and the employees will support it.

Q: What’s Reseda Group?

A: Reseda Group is our wholly owned CUSO. We formed it as a holding company to be able to diversify income streams. We've also found it's an opportunity to give back to the credit union industry.

As some of the pilot companies we’ve worked through the lab are looking to scale, we can move them over to Reseda Group, give them an investment, and help them get into the market.

A lot of fintechs have missions that align well with credit unions. By forming the Reseda Group we're able to help them move forward and focus on credit unions as a growth strategy.

Q: How do you keep up with technology trends?

A: When I started in this role two years ago, I had a lot of time to do my own research, dig into different publications, participate in events, and be immersed in it. Now, people reach out to us and present ideas, so it's about weeding through them and seeing what makes sense.

We have a list of 10 ideas, our “next unicorn list,” we're always reprioritizing. Based on that list, we'll send out surveys to see what we should focus on. Once we pick an idea and start a pilot, we send our approach to the member panel.

CUNA Technology Council

Q: What advice would you offer other credit unions about being more innovative?

A: Involve someone early in the process who will take it forward. And have a champion for innovation; someone who can make it their job versus it being everyone's job. That’s when it ends up being no one's job.

Focus on learning. A of people may say, "Oops, we spent $20,000 and we wasted our time." But you’ve got to think about how you're spending $20,000 on a pilot to avoid spending $200,000 down the line.

There's a lot of frustration when members aren't excited about what you're delivering. So, make sure to involve them.

Q: What do you like to do outside of work?

A: I have two daughters who just turned 5 and 8. We just had their dance recitals, so sometimes I get to be the dance dad. 

We also like going to the beach or anywhere we can swim. I also like golfing. There's less time for it with the kids, but they're about the age I may be able to get to bring them with me. 

We like to play basketball and soccer as well.

Q: What’s the last good movie or TV show you watched?

A: We just saw “The Lost City.” We thought it would be a bit more silly or foolish, but it was a really good mixture of comedy and a little action. So, it was a good one for all of us to watch. 

I really like “Ozark.” We're a couple episodes away from the finale. And I’m also a big “Dexter” fan, so it was exciting to have “Dexter” come back for a short-lived finale.