Article

Chief Executive, Chief Advocate

Contributing Writer

5 minutes

Boards place renewed value on CEOs who not only lead their CUs, but also influence policy-makers for the good of their institutions and the industry.

A half-dozen years ago, Washington Gas Light Federal Credit Union was looking for a new president/CEO. When it signed up Lynette W. Smith, it got one with an impressive background: Smith had nearly two decades under her belt as a chief operating officer and chief financial officer.

The Springfield, Va.-based credit union also got a bonus: a head honcho with a strong commitment to credit union advocacy. It’s the kind of multitasking that’s becoming more attractive to credit union boards and more useful to individual institutions and the industry at large: the ability to protect and defend the industry, as well as to run an individual credit union.

And Smith sees both as vital. “I’m passionate about the industry,” says Smith, a CUES member. “I want the credit union industry to be here for a long time.”

If that means testifying before Congress about the effect that its actions can have on CUs—especially ones such as $90 million, 7,500-member Washington Gas Light FCU—then that’s what Smith will be doing.

And that’s all right with the CU’s chairman, William Garner Jr., whose board is a member of CUES’ Center for Credit Union Board Excellence. Advocacy isn’t an official part of Smith’s job, or something on which she is specifically evaluated, he says. “It’s taken into account, but there’s no defined goal,” he explains. That doesn’t mean it’s viewed as unimportant.

“A little bit selfishly, we welcomed the opportunity to have Lynette be our voice,” says Garner. When Smith said she wanted to be a CU advocate as part of her job as CEO, the board responded, “Absolutely.”

“The credit union movement needs that to continue moving forward and to continue surviving,” Garner says.

Busy, But Good

Besides helping credit unions at large, Smith’s advocacy benefits Washington Gas Light FCU, he adds. “It gives the credit union a face to the public,” Garner says.

The time involved isn’t an issue, both Garner and Smith agree.

“As a board, we trust her enough to let her make that decision,” Garner says. Smith always touches base with him or another board member when she has an advocacy event planned, he adds, although it’s more a courtesy than a necessity.

“They support me because they know I’m also going to take care of my credit union,” Smith says. “They know I’ll get my job done. I work long hours–nine- to 10-hour days.”

In fact, the saying, “If you want a job done, give it to a busy person” could have been written for Smith. Besides testifying before Congressional committees and being Washington Gas Light FCU’s CEO, she chairs the African American Credit Union Coalition, which she has been a part of for more than 10 years. AACUC’s efforts include sending members to CUES’ CEO Institute.

Smith’s AACUC involvement also helps with her political efforts, as it has allowed her to get to know National Credit Union Administration Chairman Debbie Matz and other decision-makers.

Smith first became involved in CU advocacy about a decade ago, when she was with Treasury Department Federal Credit Union. That’s when she first hiked the Hill, and learned a simple but important lesson: “You can never go wrong with telling a Congressman your story,” she says.

Eventually, that involvement led to Smith testifying before Congress. “I guess people sense my passion and sincerity,” she says.

There’s no question that her appearances have demanded a lot of prep time, but because the topics she addresses, such as the regulatory burden on CUs, affect her CU, she is already quite familiar with them.

Much of the rehearsal time is devoted to finding the best way to share that information within the hearing format. Smith says that about an hour of preparation is devoted to the five minutes an individual is allotted for an opening statement. An additional four to five hours is spent anticipating questions and fine-tuning answers.

Fully Equipped

At SUN Credit Union in Hollywood, Fla., the situation is similar to that at Washington Gas Light FCU: The president/CEO brought his political involvement with him to the position.

Patrick J. Mason has been CEO of the $67 million, 6,500-member CU for 18 years. Before that, he worked in human resources, holding positions in both the private and public sectors in Miami, Dade County and Hollywood. “One-half of my prior career was in government,” Mason says, which led to many contacts with politicians.

SUN CU’s board is made up of individuals who either work in or have retired from management or supervisory positions with the city of Hollywood. That means they understand the importance of advocacy and share Mason’s political acumen.

“You learn from the inside how things are done,” Mason says. “You learn the value of relationships, not just one-time visits.”

Since many politicians started out with a city or county and have moved up, “it naturally made me feel comfortable with politics on the state level,” Mason says.

That comfort level can be replicated simply by becoming involved on the town, city or county level. “If you start at the local level, you will see people rise,” Mason says; some will be in your state capitol or even Washington later. “Look locally first—it may not benefit you now, but it will.”

Mason also is involved with the local business community. For example, he is immediate past president of the 900-member Greater Hollywood Chamber of Commerce.

Is there a payoff for all this time and hard work? Washington Gas Light FCU’s Smith says yes. “I’m so happy that I can serve Washington Gas Light’s members,” she says. “We’re the lender of last resort here. I feel very fortunate.”

Smith also knows her efforts are appreciated in the industry at large. “The most rewarding thing is when I hear from small credit unions,” she says. “I get these handwritten letters that just say, ‘Thanks.’”

Charlene Komar Storey is a veteran credit union writer based in New Jersey.

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