Jim McCarthy Honored for Transforming Trailhead Credit Union

In 2011, Jim McCarthy saw an ad in the back of a credit union trade magazine. It called for candidates to fill the CEO role at Northwest Resource Federal Credit Union. “I always thought I could be an effective CEO,” McCarthy said. “I wanted to prove it to myself. Luckily the Board selected me.”

It was just as lucky for the Board—and for the credit union’s members and staff. Of course none of them could have known that four years later McCarthy would be honored with the Northwest Credit Union Association’s Innovation and Impact Award for his leadership at what is now Trailhead Credit Union.

McCarthy had spent the previous 11 years with TwinStar Credit Union, the last six of those as VP of Strategic Planning, a role that gave him both broad and deep insight into the functioning of a credit union. “Plus, I had great people to work with and learn from,” he said.

“Still, it was kind of daunting on my first CEO role to come on board and say, ‘What don’t I know?’” McCarthy said of joining what would become Trailhead. “But the Board and senior management welcomed me with open arms.”

At their first strategic planning session the team discussed how to turn the tide of seven years of negative loan and membership growth.

“We realized right away, with our one branch in Old Town, that we couldn’t be all things to all people,” said McCarthy. He then worked with the Board, senior management, and employees to figure out who Trailhead was, to find their niche.

They realized that they did not resonate with buttoned-up corporate culture. That in fact they related with young Portland urbanites. “So that became our focus,” said McCarthy, “both for our own culture and for the members we would target.”

They quickly threw out the business dress code, making jeans an everyday option. And together with Weber Marketing they embarked on a complete rebrand.

The result is Trailhead Credit Union. Launched in early 2013, its two branches, online and mobile services, and financial offerings designed to appeal to the young urbanite niche. And it’s working. The average age of new members at Trailhead’s newer Mississippi Branch is only 33.

Membership growth is up. Loan growth is up. And staff turnover is down. “It’s been very rewarding for the staff,” said McCarthy. “They can see all their hard work paying dividends.

“People smile a lot more and the stress level is markedly down. People look forward to coming to work—or at least I hope they do!” he laughed.

McCarthy said that most of the credit for the transformation into Trailhead Credit Union goes to the Board, senior management team, and staff. “None of this could have happened without all of them,” he said. “We’ve changed pretty much everything we do here, and they have been incredibly hardworking and supportive. After all, they’re the ones who did all the work!”

Looking ahead, McCarthy said he and the Trailhead team continue to innovate to serve their tech-native target audience. “We’re updating our mobile apps, our online banking, and our electronic communications,” he said.

He said that one thing that has impressed him is how supportive the Portland credit union community has been. “They have always been there to help,” said McCarthy. “Especially [Unitus President/CEO] Pat Smith. She has been an incredibly faithful friend.”

On the night of October 8, as he sat in the audience at the NWCUA’s Amplify Awards Ceremony, McCarthy was not thinking about winning an award. It wasn’t until his sister—who was supposed to be in New York—walked out on stage that he realized he was being honored.

“She had been sending me pictures all day like she was still in New York,” he said. “I could feel my face turning red.”

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

Posted in Awards.