Incoming CUNA Board Chairwoman Susan Streifel Builds the Foundations of Mighty Credit Union Advocacy

Incoming CUNA Board Chairwoman Susan Streifel receives the ceremonial gavel from outgoing Chairman Dennis Pierce. Photo by CUNA.

In her off time, Woodstone Credit Union President and CEO and newly elected CUNA Board Chairwoman Susan Streifel helps her husband Rick care for a 21-acre private forest in the Cascade Mountains east of Puget Sound. “It’s my sanctuary,” she said.

They hired an expert to develop a forest plan that is designed to promote a healthy environment, and Streifel said that it gives her the chance to do hard physical work, and to do her part to preserve the natural world. She has a picture of the view from the forest’s ridge hanging in her office at Woodstone, right next to the window behind her desk. In the frame, snow-capped mountains fill the sky between parting trees.

“My husband is the leader of that project,” she said. “He constantly challenges me, but never asks me to do more than I can.”

Streifel has plenty of leading to do. Helming Woodstone and taking on the chairwomanship of CUNA’s board of directors are only the top lines in a list of leadership roles that would be impressive even without the top two. Her business, advocacy and community service impact have lifted her to the highest ranks of the credit union movement. But Streifel didn’t start her professional life with credit union ambitions.

Discovering the Movement

“I was an artist,” Streifel said, “a hungry artist.” Streifel designed and built stained glass windows in Renton, Washington, and worked for a credit reporting agency in Seattle to make ends meet. “My friend went to work for something called Boeing Employees Credit Union. She told me, you have to come work here! It had a 9-5, steady pay, benefits, all the things hungry artists don’t get.”

While BECU was the largest credit union in the state, Streifel was unaware of the magnitude that the change presented in her life. There were only around 50 employees when Streifel joined BECU. Shortly after she started, Gary Oakland joined the credit union as its new CEO.

“It was when Gary became CEO that I was invited into the movement,” she said. “I got to see that we were part of a global system that empowers people to improve their lives.”

She remembers one experience in particular. A woman came to her in the checking department, which was new at the time. “She was well put together and wearing designer sunglasses,” said Streifel.

The woman was having trouble accessing her account, so Streifel investigated and found that the woman’s husband had taken her off their joint account. “She took off her sunglasses and had two black eyes,” Streifel remembered. She set the woman up with her own checking account — something the woman had never had — and connected her with a lawyer who could help her.

Experiences like that one shaped Streifel’s understanding of what a credit union could — and should — be. “I’m heavily weighted on mission,” she said. “I ask myself, ‘What is good for the member, and how do we make that good for the organization?’”

Streifel stayed at BECU for 12 years, taking on increasing levels of responsibility and enjoying the mentorship of people like Oakland. She sat on the committee that helped design the credit union’s corporate headquarters, and she became a delegate to the National Youth Involvement Board, her first national position in the credit union movement. She also chaired Professional Credit Union Women, a group that raised career development scholarships for women in the credit union movement.

As her investment in the credit union movement grew and her understanding broadened, she thirsted to learn every part of the industry more deeply.

“I’m a lifelong learner,” she said.

Leaving Home to Build It

Streifel decided to leave BECU for a smaller credit union where she could dive into more aspects of the business. “It was really hard,” Streifel said. “I cried every day for a month.” But she accepted an executive vice president role at Nordstrom Federal Credit Union and walked into Oakland’s office to tell him.

“I want to introduce you to someone,” she told Oakland. He looked behind her and there was no one there. She stuck out her hand, “I want to introduce you to the new executive vice president of Nordstrom Federal Credit Union.”

“Gary hugged me and said he was so proud of me. He said, ‘If you ever need anything, call home,’” Streifel recalled.

At Nordstrom Federal Credit Union she immersed herself in every aspect of the business. She went to CUNA School on a full ride for three years to better educate herself on the industry and the movement. Then, during finals on the last day of CUNA School, she listened to the regulator’s exit interview back at Nordstrom Federal Credit Union.

“It was not good,” Streifel said. “I hadn’t had enough experience to ask for the financials before taking the job. Without knowing it I had walked into a troubled institution. I knew right then that it was time to go home and get the credit union turned around.”

She talked to Rodger Bulger, then CEO of Woodstone Credit Union, with whom she served on the local chamber board. He was trying to get Woodstone healthy, too. “I made a bet with Roger on who could build capital and turn around their credit union the fastest,” said Streifel, a smile playing around her eyes. “I won.”

After five years at Nordstrom Federal Credit Union, Streifel got a call from Bulger asking if she knew anyone who might be interested in a vice president position at Woodstone. “I get a lot of calls like that,” she said. “I asked what areas the position would handle, and he told me it would be finance, accounting and IT.”

Those were the last areas that Streifel felt she needed to immerse herself in to understand the entirety of a successful credit union, and she told Bulger she was interested. Shortly thereafter she moved to Woodstone as its newest vice president and “from there, it’s all history,” she said. In 2000, Streifel became executive vice president, with all departments reporting to her, and in 2002 she took over as CEO.

The Roots of Advocacy

But Streifel’s drive to learn, work hard and make a difference didn’t stop when she got the top office. In 2003 she went to Credit Union Executive Society School, studying at top MBA programs across the country.

“It was amazing having access to these brilliant professors,” said Streifel. “I don’t think I slept. I just kept bugging them with question after question.”

Everything she learned improved her contributions not only at Woodstone, but also in advocacy, in which she had gotten deeply involved while working with Bulger. “Roger was an ex-banker, and he was adamant about advocacy,” she said.

Bulger took her to Washington D.C. for her first time and showed her how influence there could affect the entire movement. “It’s a playground of advocacy,” she said. “We live in this great country where we can have influence on what happens in our legislature. It’s an amazing opportunity.”

Streifel said that her advocacy starts with her service to and investment in the community. Currently two community organizations — Advancing Leadership and Communities in Schools — call the Woodstone building home. And Streifel has helped guide many other efforts, from chambers of commerce to a new performing arts center in Woodstone’s hometown of Federal Way, Washington.

“They understand what’s good for the community,” she said. Streifel said the cooperative nature of credit unions has helped her find places where Woodstone and community organizations can support each other and impact the community.

From that base, she says it’s important to develop relationships with the city council, which is focused on what’s best for their municipality, just like credit unions are. From there relationships and influence can expand to the state level, and then nationally. “These steps build the foundations of advocacy,” she said.

At the state level, Streifel served as chairwoman and co-chair of the Washington State Governmental Affairs Committee. “Our advocacy worked,” she said. “We saw so many great things happen during that time. We got to see how advocacy could change the state landscape for credit unions.”

At the national level, Streifel is entering her ninth year on CUNA’s board of directors and her first as its chairwoman. She worked closely with key Washington advocates to gain the experience and understanding she would need to join the board, and when the time came, she got the seat. Her relentless learning and hard work saw her rise to chair CUNA’s governmental affairs committee and the executive search committee that hired CUNA President and CEO Jim Nussle. (“My only regret is that I didn’t meet Jim earlier in my career,” she said. “He’s an amazing person.”) And now she’s chairing the board itself.

Building Influence for Impact

Streifel’s lifelong learning is not slowing down. And neither is her work ethic or her impact. She says that looking ahead there are two big issues she is focused on. First, she said that there is an opportunity to maximize the structure of the credit union system to get the best return. “We need to make sure our governance and structure are poised to compete going forward in terms of advocacy,” she said.

And second, she wants to help credit union CEOs and leaders understand the power of their communities as the roots of effective advocacy. “Credit unions are well-poised to have influence because we are invested in the health of our communities,” said Streifel. “The more that we build relationships with the people we serve and with other people and groups doing community service, the more influence we have at every level of advocacy.”

For Streifel, the building influence for credit unions is top priority, because she believes deeply in their cooperative structure and the way that structure positions them to make people’s lives better.

Back in her office at Woodstone, the picture of the forest hanging next to the window takes on new meaning. The forest is her sanctuary not only because it is beautiful. It’s her sanctuary because in caring for the forest, as in credit unions, she can dive into learning, work hard, and make an impact on something she believes in. And that is where Susan Streifel loves to be.

Questions about this story? Contact James Pearson: 206.340.4790, jpearson@nwcua.org.

Posted in Advocacy News, CUNA, Federal.