Wegner Winner Gary Oakland: ‘It Was About Making a Positive Difference’

Retired BECU President/CEO Gary Oakland says he looks back on his 38-year credit union career and hopes “that I made a positive difference.”

He needn’t worry.

For Boeing workers facing the loss of their jobs during economic downturns, the “Surviving a Layoff” workshops Oakland created and his insistence that the wage-assignment programs that withheld final paychecks be discontinued were a lifeline.

For kids who would one day have to pay for a college education, buy their first car or save for retirement, the “BizKid$” television program Oakland helped to launch provided an entertaining path to financial literacy. And the BECU Foundation he helped establish awarded hundreds of college scholarships based not only on academics but also on leadership and community service.

For first-time buyers facing roadblocks to home ownership, Oakland’s commitment to affordable housing and his work with nonprofits such as Habitat for Humanity resulted in stronger, more vibrant neighborhoods.

And for an industry facing a variety of legislative and regulatory challenges, Oakland’s early involvement with the Filene Research Institute and his leadership roles on the boards of the Credit Union National Association, the National Credit Union Foundation (NCUF), and other organizations provided unparalleled support for the credit union movement.

For all of those reasons and more, Oakland has been awarded the 2014 Herb Wegner Memorial Award for Lifetime Achievement. The award, one of the credit union movement’s highest honors, will be presented on Feb. 24, 2014, at the NCUF’s annual gala dinner in Washington, D.C.

“We didn’t follow the book,” Oakland says of his accomplishments. “It really was about not knowing any better, about being willing to try anything, and about having solid people around me who understood that we simply couldn’t do things the way they’d been done before.”

Oakland, who graduated with an Economics degree from Washington State University, began his career as a teller at what was then Seattle Telco Credit Union. Five years later, he joined Boeing Employees’ Credit Union as director of finance. In July 1986, he became BECU’s president and CEO, a position he held until his retirement in 2012.

At every step–whether as a teller or a loan officer, in collections or in management–he always seized the opportunity to “do something different.”

“I’ll always remember one of my first board meetings as president,” Oakland says. “At that time, we were very closely aligned with Boeing. When they expanded, we grew. And when they had significant layoffs, that would hit us hard, too. We needed to understand that we were part of the broader financial community, not an underling of The Boeing Company.”

Oakland persuaded the board to eliminate its wage-assignment program, which applied laid-off employees’ final paychecks to outstanding credit union loans. He made sure that members could continue their relationship with BECU after leaving Boeing. And he created “Surviving a Layoff” workshops that provided outplacement services and made sure members knew that “these are economic decisions. This is not about you. You are not a bad person.”

“The book didn’t say you did this kind of thing,” Oakland says. “But it was the right thing to do.”

Oakland also believed that expanding BECU’s field of membership was the right thing to do. During his tenure, the credit union grew from 108,000 members to more than 775,000, with branch offices in more than 30 Safeway stores statewide. Today it is the largest credit union in Washington, and the fourth-largest in the U.S.

“Practically, we continued to operate primarily in the Puget Sound area,” he says. But when state regulators gave boards of directors the authority to expand, “we grabbed that authority and implemented it with innovation and leadership.”

Examples of Oakland’s innovation and leadership abound:

  • One BECU program, the Member Advantage account, reversed interest-rate tiers to provide more return for smaller savings accounts and created an incentive to save at a time when U.S. savings rates were near zero.
  • Another Oakland initiative, the BECU Foundation, awarded more than $1.5 million in college scholarships to hundreds of students.
  • BECU played a key role in keeping more than a dozen low-income credit unions afloat during the economic downturn, and created a service organization to provide mortgage solutions to more than 600 credit unions.
  • And with Oakland’s influence, BECU contributed the first $250,000, matched the next $250,000 and raised more than $1 million to help launch “BizKid$,” PBS’ award-winning financial education show for youth that is 100-percent funded by credit unions.

“How,” Oakland always asked, “can credit unions get more involved in the communities they serve?”

That guiding principle hasn’t changed in retirement. Oakland now volunteers with Fabric of Life, a Washington-based nonprofit that focuses on improving the quality of life for women and their families in developing countries through economic development and education.

If that sounds a lot like credit unions’ “People Helping People” philosophy, it’s no coincidence.

“It was never about me, or about BECU,” Oakland says. “It was about doing what’s best for members, for consumers and for our employees.

“It was about making a positive difference.”


Questions? Contact Gary Stein: 503.350.2216, gstein@nwcua.org.

Posted in Awards.