Article

A Champion for the Underrepresented

Kevin Martin of Schoolsfirst Federal Credit Union
Contributing Writer

7 minutes

2022 CUES Exceptional Leader Kevin Martin is dedicated to helping families like his own.

CUES member Kevin Martin, MBA, CUDE, CCE, holds a top-level position at the fifth largest credit union in the country, but he has never forgotten his roots as a kid growing up in Inglewood, California. 

“We grew up with modest means, meaning no extra money, so I’m very familiar with not having enough money to do all the things you want or need to do,” says Martin, EVP/strategic integration and member experience at $28 billion SchoolsFirst Federal Credit Union, the nation’s largest educational credit union, which serves 1.2 million members throughout California. “My mother was one of nine, and my grandmother knew how to stretch a dollar. When she made breakfast for us, it was a plateful of grits and a strip of bacon cut the long way so you felt like you had two.”

Several family experiences motivated Martin to pursue a career in financial services. First, the family lost his grandmother’s home after she passed away. Next, his mother lost her home as well. “Even my first mortgage experience was a poor one, a casualty of the predatory lending practices that led to the Great Recession,” he reports. “I know firsthand how a poor financial decision can set a family back and put them in a position to lose their biggest asset.”

Martin’s dedication to helping credit union members avoid the financial pitfalls that befell his family has earned him recognition as the 2022 CUES Exceptional Leader. “Kevin is passionate about the credit union mission and service to members, especially the underserved,” says SchoolsFirst FCU President Jose Lara, CCE, a CUES member. “His role to move the organization’s initiatives forward have helped our organization complete important priorities in serving our members.”

As Martin approaches his 10-year anniversary with SchoolsFirst FCU, he will continue to champion opportunities for underrepresented groups by focusing on the credit union difference. “I’ve worked at Goldman Sachs, I’ve worked at Bank of America, and I am 100% convinced that credit unions are the best game in town for consumers,” he asserts. “Had my mother or grandmother been working with credit unions, they would have had a partner looking out for their financial well-being and likely would have gotten better help and advice.”

Martin’s pathway to credit union success started with a first-class education. He earned a bachelor’s degree in applied science from the University of Pennsylvania, where he also played football and helped win two Ivy League championships. He began his career by launching a small consultancy practice and then worked for other firms in risk management and automotive consulting.

“I call that part of my career the coaching phase,” he says. “I was helping businesses make better decisions through data analysis, but I wasn’t responsible for actually running the plays on the field.”

To move beyond the coaching phase, Martin enrolled in the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia, where he earned an MBA in strategy and finance. After working three years at Bank of America, he got a call from a recruiter with a job opportunity at SchoolsFirst FCU.

“I didn’t know anything about credit unions, but the way he described it, it felt like a place where consumer banking met education,” Martin recounts. “Education had been another potential career choice for me, so this was a way to combine the two.”

During the interview process, Martin had the opportunity to meet with Rudy Hanley, former longtime CEO at SchoolsFirst FCU. “Even though he was a guy from Hungary and I was a kid from Inglewood, we hit it off really well. He explained the credit union difference to me, taught me the meaning of member service and described why credit unions are the best choice for consumers compared to our for-profit sisters and brothers.”

Kevin Martin, MBA, CUDE, CCE
EVP/Strategic Integration and Member Experience
SchoolsFirst Federal Credit Union
My mother was one of nine, and my grandmother knew how to stretch a dollar. When she made breakfast for us, it was a plateful of grits and a strip of bacon cut the long way so you felt like you had two.

A Strategic Focus

Martin joined the SchoolsFirst FCU team as SVP/organizational performance and strategic planning. During his early days at the CU, Hanley was a valuable mentor. “Rudy retired about eight years ago, and since then, Bill Cheney has been CEO,” Martin says. “So, I’ve had the pleasure of working with two titans in the credit union space and having a front-row seat for what great CEOs look like.”

In March, Martin was promoted to EVP, giving him more resources to fulfill his objective of using his strategic planning expertise to improve the member experience. He now leads 70 people on the planning and member experience teams.

“Our job is to provide the analysis and insight that will improve our members’ experiences throughout the organization,” Martin says. “We make sure our planning and investment decisions start with the member and end with the member.”

Martin has implemented journey mapping to support his objective. “The reason we do member journey maps is to have a visualization of what members go through to complete a transaction,” he says. This provides valuable information on how to remove friction points, which has resulted in key improvements in lending programs and other processes.

In improving member service experiences, SchoolsFirst FCU has leaned heavily into digital. “We were able to launch virtual service appointments for members during the middle of the pandemic,” Martin reports. “Now members can set their own appointments and meet with an expert from the comfort of their own homes.”

Martin has created what he calls a “discovery portfolio” as a means of exploring the viability of such innovations as blockchain and augmented reality. The purpose of the discovery process is not implementation, he explains, but rather testing and learning. “I’m proud of this adjustment to our planning process because it will allow us to bring products and services to market more quickly. ... And by using member feedback, we’ll be able to ensure that we’re delivering on an actual member service need.”

Three-Pronged Approach

Martin’s leadership philosophy centers around three components—vision, inclusion and empowerment. He communicates a common vision so that team members can unite behind a unique value proposition. “This gives everyone a clear picture of what we want to be when we grow up and what service will look like tomorrow,” he says.

By focusing on inclusion, Martin makes clear to his team members that he wants to hear their ideas and that their opinions matter. “Giving everyone a chance to be heard means a great deal to their level of engagement in the organization,” he says. 

Hand in hand with inclusion comes diversity, Martin adds. “The nation is becoming more diverse by the moment. I believe that if we want to effectively serve the consumers of tomorrow, our workforce should reflect that diversity.”

The third component is empowerment, which entails hiring great people, equipping them with the right tools and then letting them do their jobs. “You have to provide coaching, you have to measure results, but I lean towards empowerment and trust over micromanagement,” Martin says.

Martin also advocates being a lifelong learner—a trait he embodies with certifications from the CUES CEO Institute and from the Institute for the Future as a Certified Foresight Practitioner. He also is a Credit Union Development Educator.

“It’s OK not to know everything,” Martin contends, “but it’s not OK not to continue learning.”

Family and Service

Family continues to be an important motivator in Martin’s life. “I cherish moments with my family,” he says. “I see my mother daily, and I visit my father weekly.” He also enjoys getting together with friends for brunch or to cheer on his beloved L.A. Lakers.

Martin devotes time to supporting his community and the industry, serving on the boards of Stone Soup Childcare Services, a nonprofit that provides after-school programs for children, as well as Curql Collective, the first CU-led fund for fintech partnerships.

“We started the fund with the understanding that fintechs can be a threat or they can be great partners,” Martin says. “We’re looking to make them great partners so we can bring the latest and greatest products and services to our members.”

Martin is active in the African American Credit Union Coalition, whose mission is to increase diversity within the CU community through advocacy and professional development. He was recognized by the coalition with the Chairman’s Award for his part in establishing the West Coast chapter and serving as its founding president. He also supports AACUC’s initiative, Commitment to Change: Credit Unions Unite Against Racism, which launched amid demands for social and economic justice in 2020.

As he reflects on receiving the CUES Exceptional Leader award, Martin is grateful for his SchoolsFirst FCU colleagues who have supported his endeavors. “They showed me that delivering world-class personal service is great for each member and their family, great for our communities, and it is also great for business … which allows us to serve more members. It’s a virtuous cycle.”  cues icon 

Based in Missouri, Diane Franklin is a longtime contributor to Credit Union Management magazine.

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