CEO Spotlight: Travis Heiser, Inner Lakes FCU

Travis Heiser, Inner Lakes FCUThe “people helping people” theme is often second nature to those involved with the credit union movement. But that’s only because, day in and day out, credit unions around the world really are helping. The subject of this month's CEO Spotlight, Inner Lakes FCU CEO Travis Heiser, understands the greater role credit unions play in the lives of members’ communities.

Heiser recently answered a series of questions on his leadership style, his cooperative philosophies and more.

Q: How did you get started in the credit union movement?

A: My father was friends with a board member of a small, $4 million credit union in Mayville, N.Y. The credit union was looking for a little help, and I had recently graduated from the University of Rochester with a bachelor’s degree in economics. I didn’t know anything about credit unions, but I was happy with the opportunity they offered me, and I was hired as their assistant manager in 1997.

I joined Inner Lakes FCU in the fall of 2003 to fill the role of CEO. Back then, we had seven employees and $24 million in assets—and I was scared to death.

Q: How would you (or your staff) describe your leadership style? What does it take to be a good leader?

A: I hope my staff would describe me as a good delegator, organizer and leader. One specific quality that has helped me along the way is my ability to recognize strengths and play to those strengths. I love to hear my member service representatives carry on a friendly chat with members during the transaction process. They talk about kids, pets, vacations and more. Members love it. This is a gift that I don’t have.

I also believe strongly in procedures. Once procedures are established, people know what is expected of them. One of my “rules” is that a staff member cannot come to me with an issue or a problem without also having a recommendation for a solution. We do this because it is empowering and makes the staff member look at the bigger picture as opposed to just their area or department.

With that said, I also like to have fun. I once had a job I hated, and I don’t wish that on anyone—especially my staff.

Q: Inner Lakes FCU’s field of membership largely consists of educators, but also students. How else is your credit union involved with local schools?

A: We actually have branches directly in two schools that are supported by student-workers. We hope to expand this successful service to others as well. We’re able to provide a convenient service for members in the school districts while establishing mutually beneficial relationships with the business classes. For example, one business class in Brocton Central is responsible for developing and designing our youth newsletter. I pay them with doughnuts! Maybe my next business class can deal with compliance. When NCUA comes in and starts complaining, I could just tell them to take it up with the 10th-graders!

At a basic level, we do simple things like purchasing ads in yearbooks and sponsoring after-prom activities. We also participate in elementary reading programs and present financial lessons to high school business classes.

Q: What do you see as the biggest opportunities for credit unions?

A: Credit unions need to maintain that friendly, personal feel in this highly insensitive financial marketplace. To me, growth is simply a byproduct of making decisions that are good for members. The question should never be, “How do we grow?” Rather, the questions should be, “What can we do better? Are we using our capital to its fullest potential? How have we succeeded in serving our members today? How have we failed?” Yes, we need the many bells and whistles to compete, but we can never lose the love of our membership. Members love us because we are real people. That is what makes us more than just relevant; it makes us desired. We can use that status to encourage members to do even more of their business with us.

Q: What are your biggest goals for Inner Lakes FCU in 2014 and beyond?

A: On the grand scale, I want us to be a partner for our members, a leader in our community and a productive and active piece of the credit union movement. For 2014 specifically, we would like to continue to focus on attracting younger members, increase our in-school branch footprint and find ways to become more efficient.

Q: You also serve as Jamestown Chapter president. Why is chapter-level cooperation important?

A: In the chapter setting, I’ve met others I can go to for help and advice. It’s refreshing to meet with peers who are dealing with similar challenges and opportunities to see how their plans of attack differ from mine. But most importantly, participating at the chapter level allows credit unions to put the unified movement of credit unions into real action. Serving meals to the homeless, providing toys for the underprivileged, working to raise donations for those in need—this type of service done at the chapter level is a reminder that there is so much more to us than what is on our Call Reports.

Q: What do you enjoy doing when you’re not at work?

A: I enjoy my family very much. My wife is the CEO of Corry FCU in Corry, Pa., and we have four children, ages 10-19. We love to watch them grow and guide them in their formative years. And we pray that they don’t move back home after college! I also enjoy snowmobiling, motorcycling, church activities, reading and learning about history.

Q: What’s the best piece of professional advice you’ve ever received?

A: “Always look like you have nothing to do. The person that is flustered, stressed and all sorts of bothered is telling the world that they can’t take anymore. The person that keeps calm is the one that quietly shows others that they can lead.”

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.