Byrnes Passes Baton After Two Decades of Credit Union Leadership

How does a large credit union keep it personal with nearly 70,000 members and assets of over $640M?  Helen Byrnes knows, and so does her team at Northwest Community Credit Union.

The personal touch is in their DNA.

“My belief is that credit unions truly, truly focus on helping their members,” she said emphatically. “We focus on the type of people we hire. They have empathy for the members. The staff has the passion to reach out.”

That passion and Byrnes’ leadership saw Northwest CCU triple its member-owned assets, improve the credit union’s financial rating, open three high school branches, and grow business and mortgage services.

During her nine-year run as CEO, Byrnes carefully managed the growing home lending services, while steering the Eugene-area credit union away from unsustainable mortgage programs buyers could not afford. On her watch, the membership experience was a priority. Saturday hours, a more user-friendly website, on-line loan applications, and extended phone center hours became available.

As a former Habitat for Humanity volunteer, Byrnes is used to being hands on and involved. She is just fine talking directly with members who want to “talk to someone in charge” and has been known to roll up her sleeves and help the consumer and home lending team juggle a high volume of requests.

Her approach as a hands-on leader who favors teamwork is now legend. A new employee was once being given the first-day tour and ran into Byrnes in the hallway. “My name is Helen and I work here,” she said matter-of-factly. The newbie did not know she had just met the CEO until later in the day.

“I have a fabulous team,” she said. “I am just one person on the team,” she explained.

After getting her BA and MBA from DePaul University, Byrnes started out in the savings and loan industry during the troubled period in the 1980s. She saw “some of the bad decisions” that brought the industry down, as well as the efforts of the effective people who tried to fix those mistakes. That led her to the credit union industry where she would remain a leader for 20 years.

An advocate for community-based membership, Byrnes sees the credit union image problem as a big challenge. She is amazed that so many people still believe you have to be in a labor union or work for a particular company to be part of a credit union community.

In addition to keeping the focus on members, Byrnes sees the regulatory climate to be the biggest challenge ahead of credit unions.

“So much legislation that is intended to help consumers ends up hurting them,” Byrnes said. She noted that “unintended consequences” of financial reform have resulted in higher fees and changes in useful services.

Byrnes has been married for 50 years, has three children, is a grandmother to four, and has a great grandchild.

Brynes passed the baton on June 24, 2011 to her successor, John Iglesias, former president & CEO of Salal Credit Union in Seattle, Wash.


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