STCU CEO leads operations from home base in LL
By Craig Howard
Walk through the corridors of Spokane Teachers Credit Union headquarters with Tom Johnson and you'll soon discover that he is a leader with a following.
While a smile and cheerful greeting may comprise the requisite salute of a CEO, you get the sense that employees at the region's leading credit union really mean it. Johnson, who took over for Steve Dahlstrom as STCU president and CEO in January 2011, is affable, modest and quick with a genuine laugh.
He rose through the ranks here, serving for a dozen years on the volunteer board of directors before joining the full-time staff as vice president of administration in 2006. From 1989 until his arrival at STCU, Johnson was part of the administrative team at Whitworth College (now University) with his final role that of chief financial officer. He is also a CPA.
Yet instead of rattling off credentials, the native of Illinois will tell you he has simply been in the right place at the right time.
"I was a lucky guy to land where I landed," he said.
Liberty Lake has been the STCU hub for the past 15 years, housing around half of an employee base that now hovers over 500. The credit union serves residents of Washington state and five North Idaho counties at a total of 16 locations. In his short tenure as CEO, Johnson has continued STCU's emphasis on financial education, community involvement, business development and innovation (STCU introduced online banking in 1997 when it was still considered a novelty).
Born and raised in the northern Illinois town of Rockford, Johnson attended the University of Illinois after high school, earning a business degree. While working for Young Life, a Christian-based nonprofit organization for youth, he went back to school to get a master's degree in business from Clarkson University in Potsdam, N.Y.
Johnson currently serves on the Greater Spokane Inc. board and co-chairs a K-12 educational roundtable that meets monthly and includes superintendents from every school district in the region as well as representatives from the business community. The role aligns with STCU's perpetual support of local education that dates back to its beginnings in 1934, when Ernie McElvain, a teacher at Lewis and Clark High School, launched the credit union on the second floor of LC with a shoe box for cash deposits.
Tom and his wife, Ruth Ann, have been married 37 years. They have three grown sons and three grandchildren.
Q: STCU had moved its central office to Liberty Lake about eight years before you came on board as vice president of administration. How do you like working in this city?
A: When I think Liberty Lake, I think of a delightful community in which to live, work and play. I think that term is used quite a bit by the mayor. It's well-designed, well-maintained and easy to get to. So it's a good place for us. At the point we moved here 15 years ago, the credit union had grown substantially from its prior days and needed additional administrative space. They were actually looking at purchasing land and building from the ground up over in the Spokane Valley Industrial Park area. Then, this building in Liberty Lake popped up. I think it was originally built by HP (Hewlett Packard) and had other owners or tenants. Egghead had been in here and had downsized substantially. It offered the credit union certainly more than enough space. It's a good site for our headquarters. Our employees enjoy the amenities in the community.
Q: You were quite successful at Whitworth, and I'm guessing it wasn't easy to leave there. What was that transition like from the world of academics to a thriving credit union?
A: I was on the board at the credit union for 12 years while I was at Whitworth. That's how I kind of came to know the credit union, the people and the culture. The transition was challenging in the sense that I was jumping into an industry where I didn't know all the acronyms. It seems all of our industries have all these wonderful acronyms these days. The credit union has its complicated features and nuances, and so I did have to ramp up pretty quickly on that. What I was comfortable with was the employment base of both institutions was quite similar. At the time there were around 350 to 400 employees both at the credit union and at Whitworth. Both are in the nonprofit realm. The way both organizations think about things and work on things was similar. Both organizations were mission driven.
Q: Speaking of grasping definitions, how would you describe the differences between a credit union and a bank?
A: The first difference is the structure, and by that I mean we are a cooperative, so every person who joins a credit union is a member and has a vote in the outcome of what happens here at the credit union. All 13 of our board members are elected by the membership, and we have elections every year. The board of directors is all volunteers. So we're a cooperative versus a bank that has outside investors who need to be paid for a return on their investment. We also save people money. The average household that is part of a credit union saves an average of $100 to $150 a year compared to if they were doing their financial activity through a bank. That's just from the savings in fees, better loan rates and higher deposit rates that credit unions typically offer. We also invest in our communities. We're always out the community. Last year, we supported financially about 250 different nonprofits in the Spokane area in one way or another. We try to lift our share.
Q: I think most of us have seen the STCU commercials that chronicle the credit union's support of various local businesses. You visited Washington, D.C., last summer as part of the Northwest Credit Union Association's "Hike the Hill" campaign to raise the ceiling on the ability of credit unions to grant business loans. What role can a credit union like STCU take in boosting the economy?
A: We continue to make member business loans. I think today our portfolio of loans in our marketplace is around 160 or so, representing about 10 percent of our total loans. We want to support local businesses. That could be anything from an individual or a couple who buys a duplex or a four-plex as an investment property all the way to something a little more visible and more business-oriented like the Towers in Coeur d'Alene. In terms of our activity in business lending, it continues to grow. We continue to try and be a source of credit for the local business community. I think we can be very helpful to the entrepreneur who wants to start a sole proprietorship and can put in the sweat equity it takes to be successful.
Q: In 2009, STCU started a program called "Financial Relief Solutions" that provided credit union members with additional support and resources based on the tenuous state of the economy. Why was it important for you to do that?
A: It was a direct result of what we were seeing with the recession. We had members who lost jobs and weren't able to keep up with payments, particularly home mortgage payments. So, as a commitment to our members, we created this operating department we'd never had before and staffed with anywhere from two to five people over time. It's available to members to address their problems and, if necessary, restructure their loans. Since this has started, we've dealt with over 2,500 members. It's been really very rewarding to help so many people weather the storm and get their feet back underneath them. If our members are having trouble, we need to step up and help them.
Q: What's your take on the local economy? Are things getting better?
A: The word is that it's getting better, but it's still slow going. Our track record here in Spokane is that we never saw the peaks or the valleys. It's just a more gradual set of trends. Employment's getting better but it's taking time. There's some housing that's coming back, we're seeing that in the real estate numbers.
Q: STCU is listed as the top credit union in the area with some 114,000 members and more than $1.7 billion in assets. Is there any sort of danger that you could get so big that you lose that small-town, community-oriented approach to doing business?
A: There's always a danger that you're going to get off track, but I think we are very disciplined about putting our members first. We always talk about the heart we have for them. When you go into a branch, you know the people there are interested and care about you. That makes all the difference. In our vision statement, we talk about wanting to be the most loved and valued financial relationship on earth. That sounds like a lofty goal, but that's what we're striving for.
Q: What was it like to follow Steve Dahlstrom? He was really an institution at STCU for 30 years, 20 of those as president and CEO. It must have been a little like being the head coach in Green Bay after Vince Lombardi.
A: It's always difficult to follow a very successful, long-term executive. Steve was very gracious in the transition process. He really invested a lot of time in teaching me. So, I was introduced to a lot of people and just put in a position to be able to learn and see how he was able to be successful. I give him a lot of credit for my own success in the transition. The fact that I knew the organization and had been on the board for a number of years, that was significant, too. I didn't come in as an outsider. We also have a great management team that does their job very well. My job has been to keep that success going.