Meriwest's Owen: Hire People Smarter Than You, Be A Consensus Builder And Walk The Talk

SAN JOSE, Calif.-Christopher M. Owen, president and CEO of Meriwest Credit Union here, is retiring after 22 years with the CU. During his career, Owen oversaw expansion from a single-sponsor CU primarily serving IBM employees to a community charter and a quadrupling of assets to more than $1 billion. Much of that growth, the credit union said, was driven by the implementation of a "strong, proactive, member services-oriented corporate culture. Below, Owen shares his thoughts in this Credit Union Journal Exit Interview.


Credit Union Journal: How did you come to be involved in credit unions?

Owen: I had been an international banker with J.P. Morgan and then Westpac, Australia's largest bank. I answered a Wall Street Journal ad for a CFO position at Pacific IBM Employees Credit Union. The job description was parallel to my experience, but I had no idea what a credit union was. I lacked retail banking experience and didn't have mortgage experience. Honestly, the chance to learn those new areas was what first drove me to a credit union. When I got there I remember thinking in the first month, "these folks are really close to their customers. If we can add some best practices in management and do more marketing, we could have a really powerful platform." The CU culture finally got me soon after and made it more rewarding. That was 22 years ago!


CUJ: What were the challenges in moving from a single sponsor to a wider FOM, and what lessons were learned?

Owen: With the huge IBM workforce cutbacks of the mid 1990s we knew we had to do it for long-term success. We had to have a market in which to grow. We switched from a federal to a state charter to begin the process of changing to a community based FOM.

The biggest and most important challenge was changing the mindset of our organization, particularly the longer tenured staff. We had lived and breathed IBM for 35 years, and it is an iconic company with strong brand recognition and equity. We had to convince staff we were not abandoning IBM nor diluting the relationship-we were bringing our product and service excellence to a wider audience. It would keep us strong.

We had to rebrand our IBM credit union with Meriwest in order to help bring us to that larger audience. Then we had to execute the brand awareness, market with focus, and make sure our value proposition was well articulated and carried out with consistency at every level and customer/member touchpoint.

Our biggest lesson by far was the more time we spent thinking and planning, the smoother our path became during execution.


CUJ: What are the challenges in managing growth, and how have you met them?

Owen: The biggest are defining your market and then providing an organization-wide value proposition to entice new membership within those markets. I think we do that pretty well. The second is attaining measured growth so we don't grow so fast we risk diluting some of our own value proposition. That's very true in the case of a merger, for instance. Especially these days where net worth is king! I would say we have gotten more complex in those years when we grew more rapidly. An over abundance of accumulated processes or procedures never seems to enhance member experience in my mind. So we spend a lot of time TRYING to keep it simple


CUJ: The credit union said you have executed a progressive, innovative vision with a focus on proactive member service. Can you describe what that means?

Owen: Great service used to mean doing whatever our members asked and doing it well. That was reactive. Now it means anticipating the needs of our members and delivering solutions well. That's proactive. We approach it as a human reaction. How does a person feel when they interact with Meriwest?

Sure, they get great rates on loans and savings. But how do they feel entering our new branches? Coffee service, kid's area, warm colors and architecture, a free Internet bar, staff walking the floor. If calling our contact center, do they get the answers they need and action taken without being sent from person to person? Even on our website, do they get the information needed in as few keystrokes as possible?

All this takes a lot of thinking, research, planning, and finally training and more training to execute flawlessly. But it works.


CUJ: What advice would you have for a new CEO just starting?

Owen: Hire people smarter than you, be a consensus builder, walk the talk, build a corporate culture of excellence, and recognize staff for their achievements. Always remember it's the person, not the title that will earn people's respect.


CUJ: What is your view on the future of credit unions, if there is to be one?

Owen: Sunny with chance of clouds I should think. As I said at the beginning, credit unions are incredibly close to their member-customers. They get it! Other retail banking institutions are at least trying to catch up but we have a huge lead, so sunny days for now. The CU taxation issue is to be taken seriously. If taxed, a lot of strategic soul searching is likely. I have always felt banking regulations essentially tell you what you can't do. NCUA regulations tell you what you can do. There is a huge difference between the two approaches of course. So a loss of tax exemption would ignite a lot of long-range planning debates about charters among all boards. But sunny today.