Seattle CU’s Romero is a Trailblazer in the National Spotlight

3/27/18

Richard Romero recently earned national accolades as CU Times CEO of the Year.

Richard Romero still remembers vividly his first day of kindergarten.

He stood outside the school and held onto the fence, watching his mom leave after dropping him off. He was known then as Ricardo.  The only language he knew was Spanish, and he was about to start school with classmates and teachers who knew only English.

“To be quite honest, I don’t recall how I made it through,” Romero said. “What I do recall are the challenges of not knowing the language and coming from an immigrant family. I couldn’t go to my mom for help with English homework. Nothing is tailored to you. You just basically sink or swim. I was lucky to persevere.”

But he did.

Romero went on to study at two universities, including Cal State Northridge and the University of La Verne, from which he earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Organizational Management.

Somewhere along the line, an employer suggested that the name “Ricardo” would not get him far and pushed Romero to change his first name to Richard.

It wasn’t the name change that galvanized Romero’s successful career, but rather never forgetting where he came from.  “That’s where I get my empathy from,” he said.

Romero spent 12 years working his way up in the banking environment, before joining the Credit Union Movement in 2000.

In 2012, Romero took the reins as President/CEO of then Seattle Metropolitan Credit Union. On his watch, SMCU underwent a three-year branding and cultural transformation to become Seattle Credit Union.

As in his own case, the name change was only part of a transformation. In fact, Romero says that part was easy. The credit union also changed its vision and mission and redirected its market focus right back to its cooperative roots.

“We focus on everyone in Seattle, but I thought there needed to be a bigger focus placed on those who are underbanked and underserved, which I feel is the original foundation of credit unions,” Romero said. “We did a lot of training and redirection to really focus on empathy. I know that’s a buzz word now, but the empathy that I personally talk about is one I relate to personally being an immigrant.”

For several years, Seattle Credit Union has offered loans to help people complete the citizenship process. More than 20 languages are offered to help members navigate the financial landscape, and Spanish classes are offered to Seattle CU’s employees.

That service is a major challenge in today’s political environment, Romero acknowledges.

“We made the decision to serve this market before the (2016) Presidential election,” he said. “Unfortunately, since that election, a lot of that market has gone underground. There are 45 percent fewer Latinos using public services in Washington than there were before the election,” he notes, adding financial institutions have to work harder to earn trust.

Picture of Burien Branch

Under Romero’s leadership, Seattle CU has expanded and contemporized its network of consumer-friendly branches.

Romero attributes the trust Seattle CU has earned to “old fashioned leg work.” Romero and other staff members serve on community boards. A Vice President of Strategic Partnerships, Barney Herrera, focuses on community outreach, and Seattle CU employees have volunteered in force at city-sponsored events where they help consumers with financial transactions.

Despite its unique focus, Seattle CU also offers cutting-edge financial services to all consumers in the communities it serves.

The credit union has become known for contemporary, open branches featuring technology favored by as many of Seattle’s young and high-earning consumers as by its underserved members.  In fact, since Romero became CEO, the credit union has added more than 5,000 members and grown assets by nearly $300 million.

“I truly believe the definition of being a cooperative means we are owned by our members, and here for our members,” Romero said. “We are here to serve everyone. To me, it’s why we are here.”

Editor’s note: For his leadership at Seattle Credit Union, the Credit Union Times recently named Romero as its Trailblazer CEO of the Year.

Posted in Around the NW.