Oakland Leaves Member-First Legacy After Stepping Down at BECU

Long-time BECU President and CEO Gary Oakland has officially stepped down at BECU after a career that spanned more than 30 years, handing the reins to new President and CEO Benson Porter. He leaves behind a credit union that is now the nation’s fourth-largest and a legacy as a selfless leader in the credit union movement.

BECU grew from less than $200 million in assets when Oakland came on board in 1980 to become one of four credit unions in the U.S. with greater than $10 billion in assets. It is the largest credit union in Washington, counting approximately one in 10 Washington residents as a member, and the largest community credit union in the nation.

The awards and accolades have been numerous. The Northwest Credit Union Association (NWCUA) recognized Oakland with the Mark of Excellence Award last year for 25-plus years of sustained leadership, and he is among the past winners of the Washington Credit Union League’s Distinguished Credit Union Professional of the Year award.

But Gary Oakland’s legacy will inevitably be his unwavering commitment to member service. Think that sounds a bit clichéd? For some, maybe. But not when you look at Oakland’s career. Oakland’s member-first philosophy was the common thread in every decision, in every new direction for BECU during his tenure.

“You don’t take a look at the bottom line,” Oakland said. “The decisions are around how it impacts the member. How is it going to benefit the member? How can we make a positive difference in our members’ lives? And for the credit union movement more broadly, it’s how can we make a difference in consumers’ lives? Because as a number of studies have shown, if there’s a strong credit union presence in a particular marketplace, consumers of financial services pay less. We have to get that word out. We have to get that story out, and the best way to do it is just to practice it and demonstrate how exactly we can help, not just on a broad-scale basis but right down to the individual.”

 “Gary Oakland is truly an example for everyone in the credit union movement,” said NWCUA CEO John Annaloro. Every credit union member, every consumer, wants the same thing: to be a little better off tomorrow than they are today. Gary understands that so thoroughly, and he has done an impressive job of ensuring that member-first philosophy guides every decision the credit union makes, big or small.”

For Oakland, that commitment played out in a number of memorable ways. During a Boeing employee strike, Oakland famously implemented programs to help BECU’s members weather the storm. The credit union developed affordable housing programs to keep people in their homes during the mortgage meltdown. When the national savings rate bottomed out in the mid-2000s, BECU started a program to encourage first-time savers.  After the WAMU meltdown in Seattle, thousands upon thousands of bank refugees turned to BECU for shelter.

“He has a pattern of thinking globally and acting locally,” Annaloro said. “He’s just been there for the people of Seattle.”

And Oakland said that instilling that mentality from the ground up at BECU, “changing the mentality of the board and the organization itself,” was initially a challenge, but that it paved the way for BECU to flourish.

“Because credit unions were started when consumers were dealt a lot of challenges, that’s really one of the purposes why we’re here,” Oakland said. “[We were] changing the attitude from worrying about the survival of the credit union to worrying about the survival of the member. With the downturns and layoffs that Boeing would have, we had gotten to the point where the credit union was going to survive, so what can we do to make sure that the member’s going to be able to survive? It was really a matter of changing the mindset from protecting the assets of the organization to protecting the assets of the member.”

Ultimately, Oakland’s seemingly selfless philosophy led to BECU’s meteoric growth. But growth was never the goal, as such.

“We want to be vital to our members,” Oakland said. “If we’re vital to our members, that will create a vitality amongst our members and potential members and their families and their friends, and as a result of that vitality, the credit union will grow. So we were not ever looking to become, you know, the fourth-largest credit union or the largest in Washington State or anything like that. We wanted to make a difference in the economics of the consumer in the region that we were operating in, giving them a better deal, and if our deal was better in conjunction with the service that we were able to deliver, the breadth of products that we were able to deliver, the advice, the education that we were able to deliver, then that’s being vital to the member, and that’s where the growth of the credit union is going to be coming from: making sure that they want to keep coming back.”

Oakland’s leadership has hardly been confined to BECU—or to the credit union movement, for that matter. He is the current chairman of the National Credit Union Foundation (NCUF) board of directors and has served as a board member for Junior Achievement of Washington and Impact Capital, among other organizations. He worked with the Washington Credit Union Foundation and other industry leaders to help fund and launch “BizKid$,” the Emmy award-winning, nationally televised program teaching financial literacy to elementary and middle school students.

Last month, Oakland was honored with a lifetime National Association of State Credit Union Supervisors (NASCUS) membership. A NASCUS statement described Oakland as “a staunch state system advocate” who was “instrumental in the development of NASCUS’ Credit Union Advisory Council.” Oakland was the NASCUS board chair from 1993-1998 and a council board director from 1991-2000.

“Gary practiced the art of great regulatory relations because it benefits the credit union,” Annaloro said. “As always, it was about the return to members. Gary built relationships with regulators and worked as an ally because it was a way to strengthen the credit union system and strengthen the credit union itself, and ultimately, BECU’s members benefited from that approach.”

In keeping with a tireless theme, Oakland sees the member-friendly nature of credit unions as being the key to the system’s future growth as a whole.

“There is a growing desire to do your business locally, to do your business with people that you know, and that’s what credit unions are all about,” Oakland said. “As long as we keep the focus of, ‘It is the member; we are here because of them,’ then we can deliver on that, and we can leverage that into a really, really positive future for credit unions. If we forget it, then we’ll just kind of be left on the side of the road, because we didn’t take advantage of some of the things that have just kind of built and presented themselves to us certainly over the last six months, and in reality, I think, over the last decade, as people become more and more frustrated with the big box type of approach.”

Oakland’s ability to use a focus on individuals to think big was of tremendous benefit to the movement over the years, and his willingness to use BECU’s ever-growing resources for the good of the credit union system has been of tremendous value as well.

“He’s always been there for me,” Annaloro said, “He’s always been there for the credit union movement. BECU is the largest credit union in Washington, and Gary always contributed in scale. Just as Gary’s philosophy has always been about benefiting the member, BECU has carried that out in terms of also asking, ‘What’s best for the credit union movement?’ It’s a big reason why we have been able to create the unique charter environment in Washington.”

When asked if he’d ever imagined such a long and storied tenure as the leader at BECU when he first joined the credit union in 1980, Oakland laughed and told a story about driving home with his wife after eating dinner with then-president and CEO Bud Jewell shortly after being hired.

“As we were driving home, [my wife] Mary said something to the effect of, ‘You know, you’re going to be the CEO there.’ I was like, ‘What? You’ve got to be crazy.’ I’m just coming in as a director of finance, and they have some needs relative to taking care of the excess deposits, doing some of the planning functions, so, you know, they’ve got two or three other guys who have been there longer and know more about it than me, so that’s not ever going to happen. I guess she was just more in tune than I was at that particular point in time.”

So, in a career that was a surprise even to him, what is Gary Oakland most proud of?

“We never lost sight of the member,” Oakland said. “In spite of however many new products and services and assets and all those kinds of things, the new technology and all of that, it’s all still reverted back to how it impacts the member. We never lost sight of the reason for being here, and the one thing I’ve said in the past is that we’re not a big credit union. We’re just a small credit union that has a lot of members. And as long as we kind of have kept that focus on why we do things and the impact it has on the members, then I think that’s probably one of the things I’m most proud of.”


Questions or Concerns? Contact Matt Halvorson, Anthem Editor: mhalvorson@nwcua.org.

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