NAFCU’s New Board Chair: Focus on Members and Employees for Long-Term Success
When asked if there really is a difference when comparing credit unions to other financial institutions, Gary A. Grinnell, president, and CEO of Corning Credit Union (CCU) and newly elected chair of the NAFCU Board of Directors, often points to his own early-career experience.
“While I was in college, I had three summer internships at a local community bank, then was offered a full-time position when I graduated,” said Grinnell. He worked there for three to four years, starting on the teller line, and moving into other operational and lending departments as he learned the business.
“I always felt that something was missing from a cultural and personal perspective, so when I heard about an opening at a local credit union, Corning Credit Union, I applied and secured a position,” said Grinnell. “That was 25 years ago, and I quickly knew that I had found a home.”
A collaborative, cooperative business model that focuses on members and the credit union team is the difference, explained Grinnell. “There is no competition between stockholder and customer interests, which places employees in a challenging position,” he said. “Because we focus on members, we don’t conduct business transactionally, we build relationships.” This ability to look at long-term success from an operational and strategic level allows credit unions to innovate, grow and meet competitive challenges in a way that benefits members, employees, and the organization, he said.
Sharing ideas is not limited to team members of the same organization either, pointed out Grinnell. “I’ve learned a lot from my peers throughout the credit union industry, and although we might compete in some areas, everyone is willing to share,” he said. This collaborative spirit that involves working together to identify and advocate for issues that benefit credit union members is one way to get involved with NAFCU, he advised.
When Grinnell became CEO of CCU, his involvement with NAFCU increased, especially in advocacy efforts. In fact, one of his goals as Chair of the NAFCU Board is to increase NAFCU-member credit union engagement in advocacy efforts. “I would like to see more credit unions of all sizes get involved because we will always need a stronger voice in Washington D.C.,” he said.
“I became more involved in NAFCU and accepted a seat on the board because I was impressed with the service provided by NAFCU staff to members,” said Grinnell. “Phone calls are always answered or returned quickly, staff does a good job listening to credit unions and identifying needs, and there is always a personal connection.”
As he begins his year as Chair, Grinnell reflects on how his leadership strategy will share similarities to his strategy as CEO of CCU, but it will also differ in some ways. “As CEO at the credit union, my role is to protect our culture and values, execute our strategy and mission, and ensure long-term success for our members and team,” said Grinnell. “Similarly, the role of the NAFCU board is to help support the staff and to keep the organization focused on the mission. As Chair, my main role will be staying out of the way and allowing the great leadership and great team already in place at NAFCU do their job.”
At CCU, the culture and organizational philosophy is to work together to serve members and position the credit union for sustainable, long-term success, said Grinnell. “It is important to grow and to diversify because we must be financially strong to thrive and continue to serve our communities,” he said. “CCU is fortunate to be in several localities—New York, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and South Carolina—which gives us an advantage as we grow.” One example of this advantage at work is the ability to shift resources from a market that is stable to another market that is experiencing faster growth. “Our North and South Carolina locations are in areas experiencing strong growth in population, so our community banking approach requires more people on the ground to develop community relationships, identify and promote products community members need and create access to our services.”
In addition to creating “community-
focused” services that result in organic growth, Grinnell pointed out that it is also important for credit unions as they continue to innovate and partner with fintech organizations to generate income and actively seek new members who may not normally interact with credit unions in more traditional ways. “The two approaches of community-based, organic growth and a more innovative, inorganic growth with partners work together to position us for continued financial strength.”
Grinnell’s focus on taking care of people—both members and employees—reflects advice he received at the beginning of his career. “I’ve been fortunate to work with talented, selfless people who want to see me and the credit union succeed, and every day I remember something I’ve learned from a number of great mentors,” he said. “In my early days, I was told to take exceptionally good care of people. Running the business is the easy part, but it’s the people that take an organization from moderately successful to greatly successful,” he said. “This sounds simple, but many organizations get it backwards and focus primarily on financials and operations, when it’s the people who make the real difference.” For this reason, when he is asked what he wants to be remembered for in the credit union industry, Grinnell said, “I want to be remembered for how our members feel about the credit union and how employees feel about working at CCU. I want them to love their credit union.”