2021 NAFCU Annual Awards Competition Winners

Each year, credit unions from around the country enter top performing employees, volunteers and institutions to be considered for NAFCU’s prestigious Annual Awards competition. The annual awards are NAFCU’s way of providing well-deserved recognition for industry professionals, volunteers, CEOs and credit unions. A panel of credit union peers narrows the entries down from dozens of outstanding candidates to just eight winners that have made an outstanding mark on the industry.

“This year’s award winners have truly exemplified the credit union mission. Over the past year, they provided pivotal services to their communities as the nation faced financial hardships associated with the coronavirus pandemic,” says NAFCU Awards Committee Chair Melanie Kennedy, president and CEO of Southwest Financial Federal Credit Union. “NAFCU is honored to recognize these winners for representing the credit union industry and providing immeasurable support to both their communities and credit union members.”

There are two asset-size categories with four awards each: credit unions with assets of more than $250 million and credit unions with assets of $250 million or less. For information on entering next year’s competition, visit www.nafcu.org/annualawards. Interested credit unions are encouraged to begin applying in January of 2022.

CEO of the Year
More Than $250M

Chris Rutledge
Gulf Winds Credit Union
Pensacola, Florida

Chris Rutledge was named president and CEO of Gulf Winds Credit Union in 2002. Over his almost twenty years in the role, he has guided the credit union from the time of paper ledgers into the digital age. Through his open-door approach, Rutledge ensures all levels of the organization can feel comfortable introducing new ideas, suggesting improvements and offering feedback. This philosophy has translated into a successful credit union driven by satisfied employees.

Rutledge has been a dedicated leader who is focused on creating a healthy workplace that is supportive of the Gulf Winds team and their families. A great example of his dedication in this area can be found in his handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Before the official pronouncement of a global pandemic from the World Health Organization, Rutledge had gathered the leadership team through tabletop exercises to prepare for the possibility of a pandemic.

Rutledge has always ensured the credit union would be prepared for disasters by being ready to respond quickly in the case of a disaster. In 2020, he asked the Board of Directors to approve a $100,000 donation to local hospitals and other first responders to address the personal protective equipment shortage they were experiencing at the onset of the pandemic.

Rutledge believes that good credit union leaders are good community leaders. He leads by example and prioritizes serving the communities where Gulf Winds operates. He spends his time as a volunteer “Big Brother” mentor through Big Brothers Big Sisters and he volunteers regularly with Manna Food Pantries and the Ronald McDonald House. In addition, Gulf Winds offers staff up to 16 paid volunteer hours so that they may volunteer with the nonprofit of their choice.

Rutledge also excels at working with the Gulf Winds Credit Union board of directors and supervisory committee volunteers. He learned the ability to communicate effectively, address difficult issues, and forge positive outcomes through his experience as an NCUA examiner.

CEO of the Year
$250M or Less

Paula Lehn
FAST Federal Credit Union
Lemoore, California

Though there was no escaping the difficulties 2020 brought for all, Paula Lehn worked to keep her team, staff, volunteers and FAST Federal Credit Union as a whole focused on one goal: serving FAST’s members and communities while keeping long-term strength and stability. By the end of 2020, FAST had grown 30% and was able to keep all branches open. During this time, Lehn also supported staff in many ways all while moving FAST forward.

Lehn ensured staff and volunteers were safe and protected in the early onset of the coronavirus pandemic. FAST was the first business to have designed, built and installed plexiglass protective shields in Kings County. Lehn also prioritized staff appreciation by giving several staff appreciation bonuses and even changing the business hours of the credit union so staff could have more time with their families during the unprecedented, difficult time.

One of Lehn’s biggest priorities as CEO is the betterment of FAST staff and membership. In line with this goal, Lehn is committed to the professional development of FAST staff and she leads the annual All Staff meeting where staff members are invited to express what works and what doesn’t. Lehn also developed the enactment of ‘focus words’ — phrases for staff and volunteers to be inspired by during the year. Words like “steady” and “renew” center the staff and volunteers of FAST on one goal and, along with the focus word/phrase, books are assigned to further inspire staff.

Lehn is a risk-taker and a problem-solver; she ensures that under her guidance the credit union is adaptable. Under Lehn’s leadership, FAST has been able to introduce members and staff to a new online banking service and the credit union has launched several trending services, such as Apple and Google Pay.

In the community, Lehn fosters a culture of giving back. She strongly supports the kids program “Dollar Dog,” which works with Kings County Schools to educate children about saving their money and financial institutions. Lehn has even donned the Dollar Dog costume to make the children smile!

Professional of the Year
More Than $250M

Julie Gamblin
True Sky Credit Union
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma

In her over 20 years of service at True Sky, Julie Gamblin has held various roles in the human resources, operations, marketing and collections departments. Her knowledge of the credit union industry and her laser focus on credit union-wide goals have allowed her to become regarded as the backbone of the organization.

Gamblin’s management practices strategically balance the needs of the credit union, members and staff. As an advocate for a culture of accountability and growth, Gamblin drives the credit union forward daily and strives for excellence and equity with an eye on the future.

Through her position at True Sky, Gamblin garnered national attention for partnering with a local NBC affiliate to build “A Place to Call Home” for foster children’s adoptions. Over the past year she has developed partnerships with Big Brothers Big Sisters and the Oklahoma Dodger Foundation and has engaged with schools in the community to foster financial literacy.

Gamblin was immediately responsive to the coronavirus pandemic. She rolled out the Stand True Program across the OKC metro area to assist members impacted by the pandemic, which resulted in over 15,000 wellness check calls made to at-risk members. True Sky was featured on several national news outlets for the COVID-related safety measures that were developed at branches to protect staff and members.

Internally, Gamblin has standardized procedures across the credit union, and launched a several training and employee development programs, including a year-long management training program for internal employees. Gamblin is known for going above and beyond her job title and doing so with a smile.

Professional of the Year
$250M or Less

Armand Parvazi
New Orleans Fireman’s Federal Credit Union
Metairie, Louisiana

In his role as chief administrative and development officer for New Orleans Fireman’s Federal Credit Union (NOFFCU), Armand Parvazi has led the credit union in building a better experience for its members and communities. One specific way he has achieved this has been through the modernization of NOFFCU’s digital options and building deeper, more meaningful engagement with members. While he often works with internal teams and vendors to push initiatives forward, he also works directly with members to troubleshoot and resolve problems.

After reviewing NOFFCU’s data, Parvazi could see the credit union had a tech-savvy membership that would welcome upgrades and new features. After redesigning email campaigns to be mobile-optimized and seeing an increase in engagement, Parvazi spearheaded NOFFCU’s process of converting online banking vendors. The result? A new online banking experience delivering more services to members — all in one app.

Parvazi also prioritizes community. He organized the business development team’s work with local hospitals throughout the coronavirus pandemic to deliver meals and support healthcare workers.

Though Parvazi is often the one to spearhead and push innovative initiatives forward, if you asked him, he would tell you believes the success of NOFFCU comes from the amazing team at the credit union.

Volunteer of the Year
More Than $250M

Anthony Taylor
Ascend Federal Credit Union
Tullahoma, Tennessee

Anthony Taylor has served as chairman, vice chairman, treasurer and as a member of the supervisory committee throughout his 18+ years of service as a member of Ascend Federal Credit Union’s board. Taylor was the first African American appointed to Ascend Federal Credit Union’s Board of Development Committee in 2003 and has been driving the force to build the company into the largest credit union in middle Tennessee — and one of the largest in The Volunteer State — ever since.

While Taylor was vice chairman, Ascend was awarded the 2015 NAFCU Annual Award for Credit Union of the Year and during his stewardship as chairman, the credit union experienced remarkable growth, with assets increasing 21% to $2.6 billion, and membership rising 21% to more than 208,000.

Throughout his time at Ascend, Taylor has devoted thousands of hours toward ensuring members from all different walks of life feel that Ascend is providing them with the products and services they need to become better financial stewards of their money. In addition, he has been a key champion of ensuring Ascend has a high-performing board that serves the best interest of its members. This includes helping to ensure Ascend’s board reflects the diversity of its membership.

Taylor’s leadership and influence extends far beyond increasing assets, loans and income, though. He embodies Ascend’s philosophy of “people helping people,” and has been recognized for his service to many middle Tennessee charitable, philanthropic and social service organizations.

Volunteer of the Year
$250M or Less

Myles Dunn
Local 804 FCU
Long Island City, New York

Myles Dunn became a member of Local 804 Federal Credit Union’s board of directors during a time of great change when all members except the chairman had resigned from their positions. Now serving as chairman of the board since 2012, Dunn has been re-elected three terms in a row.

Dunn is dedicated to the success of the board, attending trainings and webinars to ensure he is the best he can be while in his role. He is involved in all aspects of governance of the credit union — all while simultaneously working 12 hour shifts at his full-time job.

Dunn has been a member of Local 804 since 1998 so he knows and understands the credit union’s membership — and the members know him, too. Members are comfortable going to Dunn with both their questions regarding services or products and their concerns, and he always makes himself accessible to members. Dunn is committed to meeting the needs and understanding the values of Local 804’s membership.

Dunn is always one to offer ideas for new services and products. He is constantly looking for ways to keep the credit union moving forward and this goal transfers to the development of staff as well. Dunn is committed to the development of professionalism, expertise and service. He encourages his fellow board members to continue their training and he ensures the credit union provides ongoing training for staff so that they may better understand their roles and can in turn better serve members.

Michigan First Credit Union is a community development financial institution (CDFI) that has been committed to providing its membership with the service it expects since 1926. With 38 branch locations throughout the state of Michigan, Michigan First is dedicated to ensuring banking access to the communities it serves.

In fact, 20 of the 38 branches are located within Walmart and Kroger stores across the state. The in-store branch model allows Michigan First to have the opportunity to serve members where they shop.

Credit Union of the Year
More Than $250M

Michigan First Credit Union
Lathrup Village, Michigan

Michigan First invests in technology and services that are usable and practical. The credit union’s debit and ATM cards have been issued instantly at all of the locations since 2005, which includes a 365 Live experience center that is open 24/7/365 at Michigan First’s headquarters location. In 2020, 365 Live took 700,000 calls — almost 110,000 more than the year prior.

Michigan First’s board of directors and management team works together each year to ensure the credit union is profitable and maintains a sufficient level of reserves to account for risk and potential economic downturns — all while providing world-class service at a fair and reasonable price.

In 2020, Michigan First planned for its assets to surpass the $1 billion threshold. With all the effects of the pandemic and stimulus payments, the credit union’s assets grew to $1.3 billion and continues to increase in 2021. Membership growth remained strong as well in 2020, with 28,00 new members joining. Total membership at Michigan First now exceeds 180,000.

Increased membership and strong financial performance even during challenges are a result of practicing sound financial judgement — something Michigan First believes in wholeheartedly. As an organization, Michigan First has continued to prosper due to strict adherence to this practice.

Michigan First also strongly adheres to its motto of “Quality First” in all it does. As a CDFI, Michigan first offers a number of inclusive loans to the low- to moderate-income members of their community. In addition, Michigan First is active in the community by assisting in the development of personal finance education for students through the Student Branch program where one branch of the credit union is fully student-run.

Credit Union of the Year
$250M or Less

New Orleans Firemen’s Federal Credit Union
Metairie, Louisiana

New Orleans Firemen’s Federal Credit Union (NOFFCU) began preparing for what they thought would be a worst-case scenario in January 2020. Because NOFFCU is located in New Orleans, LA, the credit union is no stranger to emergency products.

NOFFCU management met regularly throughout the coronavirus pandemic and immediately offered services like 90-day loan deferrals, coronavirus relief loans, penalty-free certificate withdrawals and waived foreign ATM fees for out-of-network ATMs to help their membership through the unprecedented time.

In addition, NOFFCU worked swiftly to become a registered Small Business Administration (SBA) lender to provide access to paycheck protection program (PPP) loans to members who are small business owners. NOFFCU also created a unique product to ‘cover the difference’ for non-essential employees who were furloughed or received reduced schedules and who could not go without a paycheck. This Faith Fund Emergency Loan was created specifically to help the Our Lady of the Lake hospital network employees. NOFFCU made 189 of these loans totaling over $440,000.

In response to the pandemic and seven hurricane events that NOFFCU experienced, the credit union launched a new initiative called Financial First Responders aimed at New Orleans Fire and Police departments. Through the initiative, NOFFCU performs financial reviews for members and non-members alike to help guide the community’s first responders into the best financial position.

NOFFCU is a CDFI serving some of the lowest income areas in Louisiana. Throughout the pandemic, NOFFCU continued to invest in these areas by opening a new, more accessible branch, which brought with it financial coaching, responsible products, education and community outreach.

NOCCFU’s commitment to its members proves that organizations can do what is right for people while still operating a successful business strategy. NOFFCU is diligent in managing risk and continued this practice throughout the pandemic. Financial education and responsibility are driving forces for NOFFCU’s commitment to service.