CEO Spotlight: Kris VanBeek, USAlliance FCU

Kris VanbeekUSAlliance FCU was founded just over 40 years ago in a cafeteria at IBM headquarters in Armonk, N.Y., about 30 miles outside of Manhattan. It's safe to say membership has grown a bit in the past half-century. Today, USAlliance and its 60,000 members hold more than $850 million in assets, with branch locations spread throughout New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts.

Leading USAlliance is Kris VanBeek, a tech-savvy CEO with a background in risk management. VanBeek joined USAlliance in 2011 after serving as the SVP of information systems/risk management at the $4 billion Digital FCU. VanBeek has overseen four mergers in his short tenure, and continues to push USAlliance and its members forward.

As the first subject of this new CEO Spotlight column, VanBeek recently answered a series of questions on his history in the movement, his leadership strategies and more.

Q: You previously held the role of SVP of information systems/risk management at Digital FCU. How has your background in information systems and risk management helped in your current position?

A: Risk management is a cornerstone set of skills for the CEO position, so I think that is a natural fit. My first job right out of college was a banking examiner position for the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) and later the Federal Reserve, so audit, risk and controls are the foundation of my values.

But technology is a different animal. I think of technology simply as a tool. It can empower our members and make a real difference for them. Asking the right questions is the key for CEOs when it comes to information technology, but not everyone knows how to do that. I am not a big fan of "techno babble," but I speak the language-which can create some humorous moments when vendors come to the table and I'm able to keep up with them.

Q: How did you get involved with credit unions?

A: My first mortgage was through a credit union. Because of my job at the FDIC, I could not get loans at banks due to the potential conflict of interests, so I used credit unions.

Later in my career, I worked for Fiserv operating a data center with about 50 client financial institutions. We merged with a data center that had several credit unions. Once I learned more about them, I was hooked! I knew the concepts from banking, but this was banking with heart and soul-banking where you could actually make a difference.

Q: What are some common misconceptions people have about credit unions? How are you working to break down those barriers?

A: There are a lot, but I think the biggest one-at least in Westchester-is that credit unions have limited services. As a result, people sometimes dismiss credit unions as an option for their primary banking needs. A lot of large regional credit unions have dispelled that myth in their markets, and we are trying to do the same in Westchester.

Q: What new challenges is the industry facing, and how are you dealing with them?

A: Let me start by saying that, as an industry, we have huge opportunities. However, we are under pressure from all sides: banks, non-traditional financial institutions, regulations, fraudsters and technology. However, we can thrive in the face of adversity by staying relevant and keeping our focus on our members. All those obstacles are real, but they cannot stop us from advocating for our members.

Q: What are the biggest opportunities for credit unions?

A: There are amazing opportunities out there for credit unions, but they are very different than they were years ago. SEG drives-where you sit at a table and sign up members in a cafeteria-will not get you where you need to be. Problem solving for members, SEGs and business partners is where you are going to find the opportunities.

Q: How is USAlliance involved with the members and the members' communities?

A: We do a lot in the community. We have hosted and supported a variety of community events and we are looking to continue expansion on that going forward. With that said, our focus is our members. We recently hosted a membership day at our offices. No transactions or selling took place. It was just a chance for members to drop in and say, "hi." We really are a member-centric credit union.

Q: Tell us about your members. Who are they?

A: A very diverse mix. At the core is the IBM staff, but we have had a large number of mergers over the years and plenty of organic growth. A lot of the IBMers have also relocated and taken USAlliance with them. We have members all over the country.

Q: You have locations in New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts. What is the strategy behind expanding to other states?

A: USAlliance has an amazing charter. It can be challenging, but it has some real advantages as well. We are embracing our geographic diversity and taking advantage of it.

The bottom line is the charters are the results of mergers. Many were NCUA-assisted mergers. Others were smaller credit unions coming directly to us asking to merge. We look at each situation to make sure it doesn't hurt us or deplete our capital. Most importantly, we ask, "Does this make sense for our members?" We need to make sure we're not depleting our member value.

Q: What are the plans for USAlliance in 2014 and beyond?

A: We are just now finalizing our plans for 2014, but they will definitely focus on growth, member value, and taking us beyond the next level. If I had to pick two products that we're really going to focus on, they would be credit cards and home equity loans. Overall, we want to make things easier for our members. We don't want new members right out of the gate to have to fill out 20 different forms or sign their name in 10 different places.

For the past couple of years, we've been focused on "the shiny penny" approach. A penny itself doesn't hold much value, but when a person finds a shiny penny they tend to notice it, pick it up and put it in their pocket. So we've been focused on the little things that make our members and potential members take notice-whether it is changing colors around, updating our website, better lighting, taking down "No Parking" signs in our parking lot, or even just holding eye contact with a member when they talk to you. Any one of those things might make you say, "Yeah, so what?" But added together, all those "shiny pennies" have real value.

Q: Is there a leadership quote (or movie or song) that inspires you?

A: As a very driven person, I make a deliberate effort to try to keep some fun in the mix. I have always loved the line from "Say Anything": "I don't want to sell anything, buy anything, or process anything as a career. I don't want to sell anything bought or processed, or buy anything sold or processed, or process anything sold, bought, or processed, or repair anything sold, bought, or processed. You know, as a career, I don't want to do that."

As a credit union CEO, I may have finally achieved this career goal.

Q: What do you do when you're not at work? What are your hobbies?

A: I'm always up for trying new things. I love biking, hiking, boating, sailing, cooking, traveling and toys of all types. I love sports, but I am more of an X Games guy than a traditional sports guy, though I do enjoy those as well. My wife is the same, so we are a pretty good match together.

Q: You grew up in Ashland, Mass., near Boston. What's it like working in the heart of New York sports country?

A: Wow, that is a tough question. The rivalry is amazing, and I love the idea of harnessing that passion and energy. USAlliance is somewhat unique in that our employees cover both sets of teams (New York and Boston). So I like to support both sides and ensure the rivalry makes us stronger!

About CEO Spotlight:
Each month, the CEO Spotlight column features credit union leaders from around the state, offering an inside look at their experiences and insights. Previous CEO Spotlight columns are available on the Credit Union Association of New York website.