Hooked on Credit Unions: Unitus President/CEO Pat Smith Wins Lifetime Achievement Award

Lifetime Achievement Award winner Pat Smith was paid a surprise visit by her daughter and two grandchildren during the 2015 Amplify Awards Dinner & Gala.

As she listened to the description of this year’s Lifetime Achievement Award winner being detailed from the Amplify stage—the Board positions, the Credit Unions for Kids engagement, the Texas roots—Unitus Community Credit Union President/CEO Pat Smith realized that they sounded familiar.

“I was stunned,” she said. “I recognized that they had to be talking about me. I was not expecting it.”

But when her daughter and two grandchildren walked out on stage to present the award, that’s when it hit her. “It was a ‘This is Your Life’ moment,” she said. “I could only think about what my daughter had to do to be there. Then here come the two little ones at 8:30. I was overwhelmed.”

Smith began her career in credit unions in July of 1980 after stepping away from an advancing banking career to raise two children. “I didn’t know what a credit union was,” she said.

With her kids in school, Smith was looking to go back to work. The daughter of a friend from her banking days reached out to her with a temporary opportunity at BECU. “Sure,” Smith said. “Why not?”

This began one of the most impactful careers in the Northwest Credit Union Movement, recognized on the evening of October 8 with a Lifetime Achievement Award from her peers in the Northwest Credit Union Association.

Hooked on Credit Unions

Smith started in student loans at BECU and was soon asked to start and manage the credit union’s IRA program. From there she took on a Senior Operations role that included Chief Lending Officer.

“Coming to BECU was a breath of fresh air. It was so different than when I worked at the bank, where everything was about average account balance and making your numbers,” said Smith.

“I once had a member in my office at BECU, and it was clear that the best option for him was to file for bankruptcy,” she said. “This isn’t an easy thing to say as Chief Lending Officer, but it was what was best for the member. He cried in my office because bankruptcy wasn’t in his nature. And he promised me, ‘If I do this, I will pay you every penny back.’ And sure enough he did.”

Stories like these, Smith said, are what solidified her commitment to credit unions. “You live through a few moments like that and you’re hooked,” she said.

A ‘Head and Heart’ Culture

Smith started looking for opportunities to build a culture where people could thrive in this unique credit union mix “the head and the heart,” as she says. Her big opportunity came when, in 2002, Oregon Telco Community Credit Union recruited Smith to replace their retiring CEO.

“It couldn’t have been a better opportunity to exercise that dream,” said Smith. “It’s been challenging but extremely rewarding to align the hearts and minds of our team towards making a difference for our members.”

Smith said that the most important aspect of building a good credit union culture is maintaining the differentiation of the member-first credit union structure. “You have to look at everything through the membership lens,” she said. “Of course you have to balance it with the bottom line, but membership needs have to be put first.”

More Change Ahead

Smith oversaw Oregon Telco’s rebranding to Unitus in 2004, and has led the credit union to impressive growth in assets and membership—from $600 million to nearly a billion in assets, and from under 40,000 members to nearly 90,000 today.

With her 14th anniversary at the helm of Unitus approaching, Smith is looking ahead. “We need to be ready for dramatic changes,” Smith said, citing the changes seen in the music, book, and retail industries. “Technology has dramatically changed those industries. Our industry might change more slowly because the world relies on a stable financial system, but we should not be too myopic.”

She said that members’ needs are changing with the technological revolution. “We need to better understand Millennials,” she said. “They’ve grown up with technology, so to them it’s not an option, it’s a requirement. They realize that waiting in a line is wasting their time because they can get information on their phones.

“So when they do contact us,” Smith continued, “they are treating us as advisors and asking more complex questions.” She said that Unitus member service representatives are getting advanced training so they are prepared to help members with their more complex needs.

This responsiveness to industry change is just one of her latest contributions in a 35-year career of serving the members of not-for-profit, cooperative credit unions. A highly-abridged list of her other accomplishments includes: leading Unitus to consistently rank among the top places to work in Oregon; Unitus earning the Portland Business Journal’s Corporate Philanthropy Award for the past seven years; Unitus being named one of Oregon’s Most Admired Companies (Top 10 Financial Services); volunteering 1,400 hours of personal time in the last five years alone.

After greeting her daughter and grandchildren on the Amplify stage and receiving her Lifetime Achievement Award, and after she was down from the stage and recovered from the overwhelming nature of the moment, someone told her that there hadn’t been a dry eye in the house.

“I wouldn’t know,” said Smith. “I was crying so much I couldn’t see anything.”

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

Posted in Awards, Events.