Meet the Board: Kevin J. Ralofsky says collaborate to grow
Kevin J. Ralofsky, who represents credit
unions in Region 4 on The League's Board of Directors, followed a winding path to
credit unions. He began his career by working his way up through branch
operations for what is now a big national bank, where he gained
experience in retail banking, business lending and corporate finance
He also played a role in syndicated finance, where a group of banks participates in very large credit deals. It was exciting but left him devoid of meaning. So shortly after the birth of his first child, he says he left, leaving his stock options behind.
His education – which includes an MBA and post-graduate studies at two east coast business schools – honed his abilities for strategic planning, leadership and change management. Therefore, he launched a business – a series of urgent care/MRI centers that he sold within a few years to an Ohio hospital system.
That led to a stint in management consulting where he guided others in the health care field who wanted to merge or open new facilities. But by then he had three children and wanted to be home with his family instead of traveling to see clients. A friend said an Ohio Credit Union was looking for a CEO, so he applied and was selected to run the organization.
"I knew from the interview that credit unions were really different, but I was skeptical," he says. That is, until six months into the job, when he confronted financials that were close to break-even.
"My chairman said, 'look, we're doing this because we're doing something important for members and our community," he said. "Someone can tell you credit unions operate differently because of their mission of putting people ahead of profits, but that concept in practice speaks volumes."
Kevin was recruited in May 2012 to become CEO for CitizensFirst Credit Union in Oshkosh. And in less than a year's time in that role, he copied every employee on the organization's strategic plan.
"We take great pride in serving members, but we all need to see past just a day's work, for example, what's looming in the regulatory environment or the challenges that we face in our local and regional economies that will ultimately impact members," Kevin says.
Though some employees expressed concerns about the future of their jobs in light of long-range details, Kevin says the move has opened up dialog that's building trust and buy-in. "They know where we're going so they know what they need to do. They really want to be part of achieving our credit union's purpose."
Kevin doesn't fear other financials one-upping
his credit union by being too transparent. "I don't care if competitors
see our plans. None of it is simply duplicated," he says." We're in it
for the long haul."
In fact, Kevin wants all 30,000 of the credit unions' members to appreciate what it is that sets their credit union apart from other choices; he believes strongly that it will yield loyalty and growth. Kevin believes that creating greater awareness about the value credit unions offer is rightly part our movement's internal plan for growth, "Unite for Good."
Credit unions can help one another grow, but
he says they need to stop trading "war stories" and instead look to one
another for resources with specifics they've identified as next steps.
He believes that collaboration is key.
"I get discouraged when I hear someone say 'we're only a small credit union,'" Kevin says. "We're working with a couple smaller credit unions right now where we're benefiting tremendously from their expertise and insights. There is always something we can learn from each other, regardless of size or complexity. I came from a credit union that was $100 million in assets but grew quickly in just five years. The challenges are incredibly similar whether you're at $25 million or $150 million. And at $400 million, we face the same challenges as many do under $1 billion. I like to think that we are on the same side of the fence as we all struggle with margins, loan volume, expense management and regulatory constraints."
Kevin suggests managers sit down as a team to envision what the credit union of the future can and should look like. "That process will identify what you already have but expose what you don't, and from there, you can seek help, resources and alliances from other credit unions. For example, you may have really strong training capabilities but lack expertise in back office resources," he said.
"We've worked with others to offer a concept to carve-out our core processing at a third of the cost they would have paid another provider," he added.
Credit unions that are concerned about revealing strategy can collaborate with a credit union that is outside their marketplace. Just do it, he urges, and resist the urge to complain about all the issues that our movement faces. Instead, see the possibilities of a collaborative enterprise.
"Every other business is reinventing itself constantly. The grass is not greener elsewhere. The medical field is one of the most highly regulated and they are told how much they can receive for services through Medicare reform. You have to have a board that expects executives to be entrepreneurial – someone who looks at the rules of engagement as they are and says 'ok, now how will we win this game,'" he said.
"Advocating for credit unions' tax status, shaping the regulatory
environment, and contributing to support pro-credit union
lawmakers and candidates are all ways of
removing barriers. Just help team members understand the value of what
your credit union can do as a result," he emphasized.
Kevin also urges credit unions
to factor their next generation and youth outreach into a broader plan
of remaining relevant and serving members for life. A credit union
service organization (CUSO) that Kevin co-founded in Ohio and
CitizensFirst Credit Union recently purchased, called Chatter Yak!, takes that into
account when consulting with credit unions.
"Show your team the financials that reveal the need for a mix of members from every life stage for growth and income," he noted. Fostering service excellence is another key action area of the Unite for Good effort because care for all members is so critical, he says.
Kevin has come a long way around the block to
find credit unions, but says he loves the movement because it fits so
well within his priorities, which he cites as God, family and work
– in that order.
And his family is glad he's found a good life balance. Kevin and his wife spend a lot of time with their three children enjoying the outdoors. He also loves music, from his favorite bands – Blink 182 and Fallout Boy – to legends such as the Grateful Dead and James Taylor.
"Working for credit unions, I can do my job with conviction and live the kind of life that aligns with my priorities," he says.
The Unite for Good effort is an internal growth strategy developed by CUNA in conjunction with its Board, state leagues, credit unions and system partners. The plan's action steps – to remove barriers, increase awareness and foster service excellence–are aimed at helping more credit unions become their members' primary financial institution by compelling members to see credit unions as their best financial partner. Read more articles in our Unite for Good series.
©2005 Wisconsin Credit Union League. All rights reserved.