Spotlight: Rachel Risberg

CU executive guides a successful bank-to-CU transition.

February 11, 2011

Royal Credit Union in Eau Claire, Wis., wanted to expand its geographic footprint to provide more convenient service to its current members and attract new members.

AnchorBank, Wisconsin’s largest savings and loan, was bleeding millions of dollars and wanted sell some branches.

Thus consummated a marriage of convenience between the for-profit and not-for-profit worlds, says Rachel Risberg, executive vice president of operations for the $1.3 billion asset credit union.

“We decided that acquiring 11 of its branches was a way for us to profitably accelerate our plan,” she explains.

This move brought not only operational, but cultural, challenges as Royal took on new bank employees, many of whom had no idea how banks and credit unions differ.

“For the most part, the bank employees were excited because they knew they would have jobs and could take care of their customers,” Risberg says.

She tells Credit Union Magazine about the experience and how she helped guide a successful bank-to-credit union transition.

CU Mag: How did you reduce anxiety about the changes?

Risberg: We first needed to build trust. Our focus on members and employees created harmony.

We made any guarantees that we could—including reassuring staff that everyone would keep their jobs and salaries through the end of the year. We kept all staff informed and participating.

Training of new staff started with Royal Credit Union history, what credit unions are all about, and an overview of the change process. Beyond that, the key was communication—explaining progress on the acquisition, sharing decisions made on products and fees, and introducing staff who would be interacting with each other. We were open and available, and listened to employees’ questions and concerns.

Rachel Risberg

Who: Rachel Risberg
What: EVP-Operations, Royal CU
Where: Eau Claire, Wis.

Our formal acquisition kickoff was a welcome reception at our corporate center during the same week as the initial announcement. The initial training day followed a couple of months later.

After that, we answered follow-up questions while visiting the new offices. To explain how credit unions are different from banks, we explained about member-owners versus stockholders, member-centered decision making, and our tax-exempt status. This prepared new employees to answer customer/member questions.

We were thankful for the new employees’ strong concern for their customers. They helped us anticipate questions and give the new “members” information and tools to support them through the transition.

CU Mag: What steps did you take to help all staff feel connected to this project?

Risberg: We paired existing credit union staff with the new staff to bring our newest branches up to speed, with support and mentors at all levels.

We also:

  • Communicated specifics about the acquisition as much as possible.
  • Educated both sets of employees on the differences between the bank’s products and the credit union’s products to make it easier for them to explain [changes] to members.
  • Prepared for the acquisition based, in part, on what we’d learned from our previous merger.
  • Trained employees before the acquisition. This helped the new employees to be knowledgeable about our products and systems. Then they could assist members with questions both prior to and after the acquisition.
  • Created employee newsletters and marketing materials to inform staff about what to expect and what was happening during the transition.
  • Worked closely with other departments to inform everyone throughout the process, so there were no surprises.

We had mentoring staff and support staff in place to help us work through issues. Even though many of the new employees had several years of financial experience, they were still “new hires.” Because we had so much information to communicate, it was important to lay out a plan to prioritize the information from preacquisition through postacquisition.

This provided a sense of balance. New employees needed to know enough to feel good about working for us and communicating information to the members, but not so much information that they felt overloaded.

New employees have embraced our credit union’s culture and mission. They’re excited to be Royal employees and they show it every day in words and actions. They’re excited to focus on the credit union philosophy of “people helping people.”

Next: Personal accomplishments & challenges

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CU Mag: How long have you worked in the CU movement?

Risberg: I was hired by the credit union about 27 years ago to supervise a new branch through Royal’s first merger.

It was in my hometown and had 100 members and $100,000 in assets.

CU Mag: What advice do you offer staff?

Risberg: Have fun. Enjoy what you do.

One of my managers shared consistent messages she’s heard from me over the years:

  • Run your branch like it’s your own business—taking ownership in what you do, how you serve your members, and how you grow.
  • Stay active in the community. Community involvement is a key part of the success of the branches and the employees.
  • Think outside the box. What new things can we do, what can we do better, and how can we better serve our members? Challenge everyone to think more creatively and to look at all angles and options.
  • Grow and develop. Learn from your experiences and seek out new ones.

CU Mag: What's your biggest professional challenge?

Risberg: As organizations get bigger, it’s tough to stay focused on your core values.

I always sort and assess our choices by how we help members and employees.

CU Mag: What keeps you excited about your job?

Risberg: My advocacy for the members, the employees, and my awesome team of leaders.

I like to get the right people on my bus, and help them grow. There’s nothing more satisfying than helping others develop beyond their own expectations.

CU Mag: What would you change about the past if you could?

Risberg:  I wouldn’t change anything. I don’t look back; changing the past isn’t an option.

I look for what I can learn from it for the future.

 CU Mag: What's your favorite way to pass time during a free weekend?

Risberg: Being outside! My favorite outdoor activities are hunting, canoeing, campfires, golf, spectator football, skiing, and small-group gatherings.