Tell Members Their Money Is Safe

In the heat of the banking crisis, this CEO was a voice of reassurance.

September 27, 2011

On a Sunday in March 2008, Joe Robertson was worried about his credit union’s members as he watched the television news about the failures of several major Wall Street firms and big banks.

Robertson’s first thought: Members will be concerned about the safety of their funds. He realized he needed to communicate quickly and directly with members of $228 million asset Our Community Credit Union in Shelton, Wash.

“I was thinking, ‘We need to get a letter out to our members and tell them exactly why that’s happening and why it’s not going to happen to us. We need to tell them their money is safe.’”

Robertson wanted the letter to be effective for his specific membership, and to explain that the credit union was a healthy financial institution and in no danger of failing. So he personally wrote the letter.

The goal was to be proactive—to reach members before they became seriously concerned about the financial meltdown. Robertson didn’t expect much of a response; he simply wanted to calm fears.

Turns out, the credit union did get a sizeable response—nearly 1,000 calls, letters, and e-mails. Members also visited the credit union and personally thanked Robertson when they saw him around town to express how grateful they were that the credit union had stayed out of the subprime lending mess and had the courtesy to send them a personalized letter.

“I couldn’t believe the response,” he says. “I never in my fondest dreams thought that more than 10% of the people would read the letter, and maybe half of those would say, ‘That’s good to know.’ But that was not the case; instead the reaction was fantastic.”

Robertson followed up with two additional letters when more news of bank failures and economic crisis hit the airwaves. He also wrote a letter to the community-at-large—including about 9,600 potential members—and educated them on the credit union difference to help reassure them and offer a “banking alternative.”

Robertson’s letter-writing campaign resulted in a local newspaper interview and presentation requests by local community groups. The credit union garnered a record $18 million increase in total deposits for 2009 (doubling the previous year’s increase), as members and new members sought a safe haven for their money.

It was a stressful time for all financial institutions, Robertson admits, because fear fed upon itself, the bad news kept building, and accountholders—including members—didn’t know where it would end.

Those times stand in stark contrast to Robertson’s life today. In December 2010 he retired, and Bert Fischer, formerly chief operations officer, became president/CEO.

Robertson says his stress vanished immediately. “I thought retirement would be like being on vacation,” he says. But it’s better, he admits. “When you’re on vacation when you’re a CEO, you still think about work all the time.”

Robertson’s retirement comes on the heels of a 35-year career in the credit union movement—all of it at Our Community. Before that, he was a marketer for a restaurant chain. For 10 years after being hired by Our Community, Robertson worked in various positions, including collections officer and operations manager. In 1985, he was named president/CEO.

Through the years, Robertson also has been an active volunteer within the credit union movement and in the community. He served on and participated in:

  • CUNA’s board of directors and various committees, including the examination and supervision subcommittee;
  • CUNA’s regulatory and insurance structure commission;
  • The Washington Credit Union League’s board, including a term as chair and on various committees; and
  • The league’s “Hike the Hill” events.

John Annaloro, president/CEO of the Northwest Credit Union Association, says Robertson is a true CU Hero, and a “good, respected leader.” And the league’s announcement of Robertson’s retirement describes him as an advocate for credit unions on Capitol Hill.

“I never liked politics,” admits Robertson. “I still don’t. But it was necessary.” Robertson was the youngest member of the league board when he was elected in 1981 and the only one who wasn’t a CEO at the time. He was re-elected four times.

His enthusiasm for credit unions and their mission spills over into his involvement in state and local community activities. Robertson still lives in Shelton with Peggy, his wife of 36 years.

Shelton is a logging community of about 8,000 residents, mostly blue-collar. Robertson says it’s “the perfect setting for a credit union.” Our Community originally was chartered to serve employees of Simpson Logging Co., but expanded several times to its current state charter.

Robertson’s community involvement was one of the main reasons Cheryl Stewart, Our Community’s vice president of policy and regulatory compliance, nominated him to be a CU Hero. A few of the community activities he’s spearheaded include:

  • A junior golf tournament, organized 20 years ago, for kids ages 8 to 17;
  • Two $1,000 annual college scholarships for local high-school graduates; and
  • A recent effort to save a local community skate park. Robertson attended city park commission meetings and helped save the park.

His letters to community members during the economic crisis were especially impressive to Stewart. “When the economy was falling apart and everyone was fearful that all they had worked so hard to save would be lost, Joe reassured them that their money was safe and their credit union was solid, and gave them a brief explanation of the crisis.

“The letter was honest and upfront,” Stewart adds, “and even today members comment about how needed those letters were. When the only news delivered on TV was doom and gloom, the only reassurance they received was from the CEO of their credit union. It was a brave and right thing to do.”

An Approachable Leader

Joe Robertson, who recently retired from Our Community Credit Union in Shelton, Wash., had an open-door policy with all employees. “If you do this consistently, word gets around that you’re approachable.”

The credit union’s basic core values echo this theme:

  • Provide personal, professional, caring treatment to every member, every time;
  • Give members choices;
  • Be accurate; and
  • Find solutions to members’ financial needs.

“Life is difficult; people struggle,” he says. “We want members to walk out the door feeling like the credit union cares.”