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Meet the Board: Brian Prunty says credit unions must stay active in the regulatory process

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Brian Prunty, CEO of CoVantage Credit Union, who serves credit unions with more than $500 million in assets (Class D).

 

Brian Prunty, CEO of CoVantage Credit Union - who represents credit unions with more than $500 million in assets on the League Board of Directors - says he’s always known where he wanted to go in his career.

 

So it seemed a fast transition from UW Madison where he earned his accounting degree to his next five years at a public accounting firm and a large regional bank. Then, in 1985, someone from Community First Credit Union asked if he’d be interested in becoming their CFO – a leap into credit unions he decided to take. It would be just five years thereafter that he accepted the job as president for his current shop, then known as Antigo Co-op Credit Union. In just four position changes, at the age of 32, he had landed the top slot.

 

Under his leadership, CoVantage has grown from $67 million in assets with just 36 employees to having almost $1 billion in assets and 254 employees across its 11 offices.

"If you’re young and you know what you want, just stick with it," Brian said, saying he’s always had the confidence to propel him professionally. But he says that advice goes for everyone. Despite the financial pressure that corporate stabilization exerted on credit unions in recent years, he says – fundamentally – the credit union system is strong.

"We’ve gone through the worst economic times since the Great Depression and still our industry’s capital is close to 11% - proving our model works. The key to success is hanging in there. Sometimes when you come out of the worst challenges you look back from the other side and see what a good learning experience it was," he said.

The past three years, he admits, have been the toughest in memory. His staff – like many in credit unions – has wrestled to manage loan quality and interest rate risk.

"We’ve been annualizing the heck out of our balance sheet," he said, saying every credit union should be anticipating the ‘what-ifs.’ "Our margins have compressed so much, you have to be smart about productivity."

For CoVantage, that has meant reducing costs by tapping technology. But knowing just what tech offerings to pursue when there’s little room for error remains daunting.

"You have to distinguish what’s a fad and what is going to be sustainable," he said "But you’ve missed the bus if you’re not pursuing mobile (service technology). "

Gone are the days, he says, when members must visit a lobby to sign loan papers. And Brian firmly believes that the credit unions that fare best are those with bold CEOs and the savviest directors.

"We’ve never had a board election with an uncontested seat," he said, because of a search process that ensures there’s always a strong roster of candidates.

 

"I’ve always benefited from a great board that has let me grow. This shouldn’t be an easy job," he said.

He also cites The League as a strong source of support for Wisconsin credit unions as regulatory changes have accelerated. He urges credit unions to participate in the comment process as new rules and regs take shape. It’s our best opportunity, he says, to affect credit unions’ day to day operating environment.

Regulatory changes affecting appraisals have made mortgage lending more complicated, he said, especially in rural areas. But CoVantage has fought through those challenges to help members hang on to their homes through creative mortgage financing. Brian testified at a 2009 hearing by the state Assembly Financial Institutions Committee that examined the foreclosure crisis.

But beyond mortgage issues, he and at least one of CoVantage’s 12 senior leaders review any particular opportunity to provide comments on a regulatory issue and thoroughly examine the policy, procedure and cost implication of the proposed change. CoVantage’s Executive VP, Paul Grinde serves on The League’s Regulatory Advocacy Council, which guides The League on regulatory issues.

 

"We need to keep challenging regulators. Once the rules are final, you have to live by them," Brian adds.

 

He says that, monthly, CoVantage’s senior leaders discuss The League’s latest ii releases, which explain credit unions’ compliance responsibilities.

"The League provides essential guidance," he says, with a nod to the wealth of state-specific compliance resources that’s been developed The League’s Legal Affairs staff. "This team is second to none."

A priority, he adds, is obtaining a source of supplemental capital to help bridge credit unions’ income gap. "Long-term, I don’t think earnings will be enough," he says, adding that bankers will fight efforts to this end. Again, he sees The League as essential support to overcome bankers’ continued opposition.

Brian says he’s also optimistic about the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, particularly their willingness to take up open end lending, which CoVantage wants to keep providing through high-tech channels.

 

But before he steps into his League Director role at Convention in Milwaukee, he’ll be departing briefly for Africa, where he and his wife, Karen, support students’ missionary work through the foundation Living Waters International. He says concern for others has always kept him grounded, as well as life at home.

You can find him and Karen chopping firewood or growing much of their family’s own food on the land where they just expanded the Prunty cabin. His five children – the youngest in high school and the oldest who just had his third child – keep him busy.


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