Sound CU CEO Richard Brandsma Looks Back

When you talk to Richard Brandsma, retiring President & CEO of the 108,000-member Sound Credit Union in Tacoma, Washington, there is an immediate command of facts, of institutional memory and commitment to the Credit Union Movement—along with an aversion to taking too much credit.

“Every good CEO has a lot of great people working with them, great board members,” he said, rattling off names from the beginning of his career (Lyle Mettler, his first trainer) to his current deputy (Sound’s Executive Vice President and Chief Operations Officer Denise Reagan). At nearly every turn Brandsma can point to someone who either helped him along the way, or on whom he relied for advice or counsel.

It wasn’t always a given that Richard Brandsma was headed in this direction, though. In fact, he nearly took a position with the Internal Revenue Service, which made overtures to the University of Eastern Washington graduate shortly after college.

“In fairness, that was my first choice,” he said, describing the tough call between delaying his career and starting later with the IRS or working right away with his eventual employer, the National Credit Union Administration as an examiner. So, he packed up his wife and belongings and headed for sunny California—the first time he’d even left the state of Washington, to start with NCUA, which made a promise to (eventually) get him back to Washington.

Months later, Brandsma even got a check-in call from that IRS recruiter, telling him “thanks but no thanks” and stayed with NCUA.  Nearly four decades later, Brandsma spoke with Anthem about his decision to retire from the Credit Union Movement after 16 mergers, 34 branch openings and one already-deferred decision to retire.

“I was hooked in the very beginning,” he said, talking about his beginning with NCUA. “It’s one thing about the credit union movement: if you truly like what you’re doing, it can have an impact on you, and it did with me.”

From Supervisor to Strategist

After a stint with NCUA as an examiner, Brandsma made his way back to his home state in 1981, joining Tacoma’s Telco Federal Credit Union. Telco, formed in 1940 by 51 employees of Pacific Telephone and Telegraph, had total opening deposits of $106.50, according to former Telco materials, growing to 26 employees and $18.9 million in assets by the time he arrived. Brandsma went on to lead the credit union through the transition from federal to state charter and through 16 mergers, including a merger with Watermark Credit Union, the largest credit union merger in the history of the state of Washington, at the time.

He leaves now-Sound Credit Union with more than 270 employees serving members at 24 branches across the Puget Sound-area, protecting more than $1 billion in assets. He has led Sound through “charter changes, name changes, and has helped create one of the largest and most financially stable credit unions in the state,” said successor Don Clark in a statement announcing Brandsma’s retirement.

Grappling with shifting field of membership and an increasingly restrictive regulatory environment required creativity, particularly with one of the earlier mergers in Brandsma’s career.

“One of the most benefitting changes in credit union regulation was allowing expansions of field of memberships,” Brandsma noted, while discussing the complicated evolution of Telco to a state charter with Federal share insurance, before merging with Peninsula Federal Credit Union, and eventually into Sound Credit Union. One of the biggest near-snags in the deal? Field of membership. He explained:

“So the decision was made to either liquidate or merge with another credit union, and the board voted to merge with Telco, taking it all the way to the NCUA board. NCUA decided not to allow a credit union to have a company field of membership and a community field of membership. You had to select one or the other.”

For someone looking to do just that, his response wasn’t surprising.

“I went ballistic,” he said. “We couldn’t give up our origin. These were my friends. All of our board members were telephone employees, but we wanted a community charter.”

Brandsma went on to convince the supervisor of state-chartered credit unions of a new direction. He pitched a plan allowing Telco to convert to a state-chartered credit union, if it would allow Telco to merge with Peninsula Federal Credit Union, leading to a dual community and company membership field.

“There was a time, back in the 1970s, where credit unions actually turned a lot of people away because they weren’t in their field of membership,” Brandsma continued. “And it is still that way in some states, but now of course, anybody can serve anyone pretty much, if you go through the process.”

A Background of Contribution, Achievement

True to the larger Credit Union Movement, Brandsma devoted much of his time to community service through a number of pursuits, including stints as President of the Puget Sound Credit Union Executives Society and Chairman of the Board, Washington Credit Union League. He was also recognized with the Northwest Credit Union Association Lifetime Achievement Award in 2013.

Brandsma again deflects praise to those he has worked with, led and served through membership, saying he’s benefitted from some “great bosses and vice presidents who really stepped up for me.”  Though, he also paused to acknowledge the need for a thorough learning process, noting that at times he wanted to “pull my hair out, of course. But, if everything is easy, and you don’t have major challenges, are you really going to grow?”

Now What?

Going from the heavily-scheduled days of a CEO to the more relaxed environment of a soon-to-retire CEO could be a tough transition for some. Brandsma, though, has his eyes set on golf and sun in Arizona.

“Oh, I’ve talked to several CEOs from this state that have retired and, they all really like their retirement,” he said.

He came close to retirement in 2011, before agreeing to renew his contract at the behest of his Board of Directors, which recently decided to name the Sound headquarters after him, something he called a “tremendous honor.”

Wrapping up, Brandsma was asked to reflect on his substantial contributions to the Credit Union Movement and his place in it, and if he would change anything if he could talk to the fresh-faced college graduate version of himself. Brandsma confidently declined the chance, noting that NCUA held up their promise to get him back to his home state when possible.

Thankfully NCUA held up that promise, and the Northwest Credit Union movement has been better off for it, ever since.

Questions about this story? Contact Eric Horvath: 503.350.2222, ehorvath@nwcua.org.

Posted in Federal, NCUA.