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How to prepare for the worst to get the best outcome

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Brett Martinez, president and CEO of Redwood Credit Union in Santa Rosa, Calif., knows how to step up during an emergency.

In October 2017, a series of wildfires struck Sonoma, Napa, Lake and Mendocino counties in Northern California. At the time, those were the most destructive fires in state history, claiming 44 lives and destroying more than 6,500 homes and 150 businesses.

In all, these fires impacted four of the eight counties the $4.4 billion-asset Redwood serves.

Even as the fires still burned, Martinez helped create a relief fund that eventually raised more than $32 million from more than 41,000 donors for survivors. Of that, $20 million was sent directly to individuals while another $9 million was given to nonprofits. Other money went to support small business and well-being programs, such as health and dental care services. Redwood paid all administrative costs, meaning 100 percent of donations went to relief efforts.

The institution worked with local nonprofits to distribute the funds to help survivors pay for basic needs, including clothing, housing and food. First responders who lost their houses while combating the blaze were also assisted.

For these efforts, Martinez is being honored by the National Credit Union Foundation with the 2019 Anchor Award for his “exemplary leadership.” The foundation has not given an Anchor Award since 2012 and only bestows it in special circumstances.

“Individuals who have lived out the mission of the foundation while providing extraordinary support and advancement of the credit union movement are honored with this coveted award,” the foundation said in a statement.

Martinez will receive the award on Monday at the foundation’s annual fundraising gala during the Credit Union National Association’s Governmental Affairs Conference in Washington, D.C.

The following is an edited Q&A with Martinez.

CUJ: One of the actions Redwood took in the wake of the fires was to create the North Bay Fire Relief fund. How did that come about? Did you or someone on your team have disaster relief fundraising experience?
Martinez: Redwood had previously partnered with our local paper, The Press Democrat, and California State Senator Mike McGuire in 2015 and 2016 to create a relief fund for the fires that devastated Lake County – one of the neighboring counties in our field of membership. Our community wanted to help, so through the Redwood Credit Union Community Fund, which is our 501(c)(3) nonprofit, we were able to collect and distribute relief funds to the Lake County fire survivors.

Although we had that previous experience in our favor, when the 2017 fires broke out, the scale and impact was far broader than the Lake County fires. Our home office was just a couple of blocks away from one of the most devastated areas, and more than 5,600 homes were destroyed within a two-mile radius.

We were in full disaster mode, so our first priorities were to make sure our staff was safe, and that we were able to provide uninterrupted service to our members, thousands of whom were affected. Because we had a strong disaster plan in place, we were able to meet these priorities quickly, and turn our attention to establishing the fund.

Because of our prior experience with the Lake County fires, we were able to open the fund to start accepting donations within 48 hours of the fires starting, and were able to get the word out through our partners at the Press Democrat newspaper.

CUJ: In November you participated in a breakout session at a conference discussing disaster preparedness. You mentioned having to face the possibility of Redwood’s corporate office burning down in the Tubbs fire. If that had happened, what sorts of contingencies were in place?
Martinez: We initially sent some of our operations and IT team to a branch about 10 miles away that wasn’t in the immediate impact zone so we could establish a “command center” and manage operations from there. We also have a backup call center that we can roll calls over to if needed. We also have a disaster recovery site about an hour away where we dispatched a few staff in case we needed it. Fortunately, we didn’t need to use it, but it is an option we have available to us.

CUJ: When you were talking about disaster preparedness you mentioned two aspects of Redwood CU’s disaster plan that clicked into place immediately: Having backup generators on site to keep operations going and prepaying for diesel fuel, guaranteeing RCU received its shipment each morning. Please detail some of the other aspects of your disaster plan.
Martinez: Communication is vital. In the case of the 2017 fires, we were scheduled to have an all-staff motivational conference that day, but the facility where it was to be held was in a fire zone, and actually sustained damage. By initiating a phone tree, we were able to notify all 600 employees not to come to the event, and this also allowed managers to get status updates on their staff.

We plan and we practice. We follow a regimented incident management plan that includes roles for each person on the team. We periodically hold emergency drills where we test various scenarios with our incident response team that allow us to test and strengthen our response plan.

What is most important is taking care of staff. Our staff and their families’ needs had to be taken care of first for us to be able to address the needs of our members and the community. More than 150 RCU employees and their families, from several counties, had to evacuate their homes – most in the middle of the night with little more than the clothes on their backs. RCU focused heavily on providing immediate housing, financial support, childcare and other assistance to the employees most affected, so they could regain stability as quickly as possible. The majority of our staff returned to work the day after the fires broke out, and rolled up their sleeves to help our members and communities.

CUJ: Was there an issue that cropped up after the fire that was not in your disaster plan at that time, but is now?
Martinez: Although our communication plan and phone tree worked extremely well, we have since implemented an employee alert system that allows us to efficiently text all employees if there is an incident or disaster, and provide timely updates and information.

In addition, we have purchased a building and property in Napa County, and will be building a second back-office space there. Not only will this give us more capacity to maintain services during a disaster, it will allow us to attract talent from a wider geographic area, and it will allow us to accommodate growth well into the future.

CUJ: What is your advice to others who run credit unions when it comes to being prepared for anything nature throws at you?
Martinez: Have a great business resumption and incident response plan, and practice, practice, practice. Run regular scenario tests with your key response team. Then follow your plan when the crisis or incident arises.

Take care of your staff first. They are the ones supporting your members, so if they have the peace of mind and know they and their families are taken care of, they will be better able to help members through the many challenges that surface during a disaster.

Stay calm. Take a few moments each day to just be quiet, collect your thoughts, and center yourself, because it’s a lot coming at you when things around you are popping in such an urgent way.

CUJ: You are a credit union legacy, as your mother also served as a CU CEO. Did you want to run a credit union from a young age?
Martinez: I helped out a lot at my mom’s credit union when I was a kid, trimming hedges, stuffing envelopes and the like. Spending time there growing up, I truly could sense there was something different about it. Everyone was so helpful and caring – it really felt like “home.” That’s what I think a CU is supposed to be. So I think in some capacity I knew from an early age that I wanted to be a part of that. And that experience is what drives my passion and vision every day.

CUJ: What lessons did you learn from watching your mom run a credit union?
Martinez: Both my parents had a strong work ethic, so that is second nature to me. I really got to see it in action when I would visit my mom’s credit union. Because it was a very small credit union, she had to work the teller line, manage the books, be a master of everything. That was a little intimidating seeing everything she had to do and how good she was at it – but it also made me proud and inspired me to work even harder and not limit myself.

CUJ: What is next for Brett Martinez and Redwood Credit Union?
Martinez: As CUNA board chair this year, I’ll be focusing a lot on helping to elevate our industry and ensure credit unions are allowed to continue to do what we do, which is help our members and communities.

For Redwood, we are continuing to experience strong growth. We have got a few new locations in the works, and we will continue to listen to our members’ needs and add the services, products, and enhancements that will help them succeed.

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