Executive Q+A with Benson Porter

As BECU approaches some significant milestones, the credit union's CEO keeps his eye on a community-centered mission.
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BECU, formerly the Boeing Employees Credit Union, was founded in 1935 at the height of the Great Depression. As CEO Benson Porter tells it, Boeing was still hiring at the time but workers were expected to provide their own tools. “Scraping together enough money for new or replacement tools was difficult,” Porter says, “and most banks at the time would not lend to individuals. In response, 18 Boeing employees came together to help one another. Influenced by an article in The Reader's Digest about starting a credit union, these workers realized that together they could make a difference.” Each worker put in 50 cents and BECU was born — with assets of $9. The credit union resided in a tin box carried by its first treasurer, Elmer Eggleston. Its first loan was $2.50. Today, four years into Porter’s tenure as president and CEO, BECU is the nation’s fourth-largest credit union by cash assets ($15 billion) and fourth-largest credit union by membership (956,000).

EARLY YEARS: I’m a Northwest native, born and raised in Aberdeen, Washington. My family ran a third-generation small business — office supplies and furniture. I graduated with an economics degree from Whitman College, where I played on the tennis team. 

INFLUENCES: Growing up, I worked at my dad’s small business and appreciated how he was involved in all aspects of the community — supporting other businesses and engaging in community organizations. I was attracted to the banking business for the same reasons. We help people achieve their dreams and help a community prosper. Tom Oldfield, the former top banking regulator in Washington state, gave me the opportunity to learn about the banking industry when I was a newbie intern. Deanna Oppenheimer, a Washington Mutual and Barclays banking executive, made banking “real” for consumers. 

WAMU: I spent more than a decade at Washington Mutual and I was sad to see how that story ended. I left 18 months before its demise and the broader financial collapse that affected so many. I learned a lot during my time at Washington Mutual, but I had a great career opportunity to take my first job as a CEO and to shift into the credit union world with Addison Avenue Credit Union, which later became First Tech Credit Union, in California. 

JOINING BECU: As Gary Oakland prepared for retirement after 25 years at the helm, BECU offered an amazing opportunity to return to my home state and lead one of the nation’s largest, most innovative credit unions. It was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up, both careerwise and as a chance to return to my Washington roots. 

 

ELEVATOR PITCH: Our mission is to enhance our members’ financial well-being by acting in their best interest and providing fair and affordable financial services. BECU is also guided by the credit union philosophy of “people helping people” — it’s the idea that drives everything we do as an organization. This is a concept that goes all the way back to the beginning of BECU. Today, we accomplish our mission through projects like the Visa and Auto Loan Reprice program that rewards members who have improved their credit scores with [our offers of] lower rates on loans and lines of credit. Our Early Saver Account program offers great interest rates on the first $500 in deposits to help kids see the impact of saving responsibly. Rather than building expensive branches, we focus on delivering leading online and mobile tools that make us more convenient and keep overhead low, meaning we can afford to give more back to members.

GIVING BACK: Last year, we donated more than $3.5 million through programs like the People Helping People Awards that allow our members to nominate local causes worthy of financial support. We also introduced “Closing for Good,” where we closed our doors for a day in October 2015 to provide financial literacy education to 3,000 students in 21 high schools around the region.

LESSONS LEARNED: The lesson I learn over and over again is just how much we can accomplish by staying centered on our members and community. BECU is thriving; we’re on pace to grow to over one million members in the coming months and are currently the largest community-based credit union in the nation. We’ve achieved this while returning more than $169 million to members in 2015 through better rates, lower fees and more affordable services compared to a typical national bank. Mission-driven doesn’t have to mean underdog. We’re growing because people believe in what we’re doing and want to be a part of a values-based organization that puts their interests first.

NEW GROWTH: BECU has had an operations center in Spokane for over a decade and has thousands of members in the Spokane area, so it’s a natural step for us to grow there. As we prepare to open our first [three] locations in Spokane this fall, we’re exploring how to grow there as a business and a community member. Along with opening new financial centers, we have invested a great deal over the past year to continually enhance our website and mobile app, introducing Apple Pay and Samsung Pay, and rolling out chip-and-PIN security technology. 

THE COMPETITION: There has been massive consolidation in the banking industry, which left some huge financial conglomerates. People and small businesses find BECU’s service and value an attractive alternative. There is lots of industry talk of financial tech, or “fintech” as it’s being called, as a disruption of financial services, but we see many people choosing the credit union difference.

CHALLENGES: As we grow, we have to continue to innovate, both in terms of service and how we fulfill our mission. Additionally, our team has grown from 1,045 employees at the end of 2011 to almost 1,500 today, so we have to make sure the employee culture that got us here isn’t diluted. Our people are the secret sauce. Overall, we have so many opportunities that the threat is to do too much too quickly — to get hasty or sloppy about growth, or to lose humility. We’re ready for the challenge. BECU has grown from 18 founding members in 1935 to almost one million members today. Our mission has carried us through more than 80 years of change and shows no signs of stopping.  

 

TAKE 5: GET TO KNOW BENSON PORTER

1. PROUDEST ACHIEVEMENT: "Putting myself through nigh law school [at Seattle University]."

2. FAVORITE RESTAURANT: Chase's Pancake Corral in Bellevue. "A fantastic, old-fashioned breakfast spot with great family memories."

3. FUN STUFF: Outdoor activities. "Cycling and boating top the list."

4. DREAM VACATION: "Anywhere with family. We love adventure."

5. NOW READING: The Three-Year Swim Club by Julie Checkoway. "It's the Hawaiian swimming version of The Boys in the Boat."

 

Coffee with Guppy: Seeking Authenticity with Tom Kundig

Coffee with Guppy: Seeking Authenticity with Tom Kundig

A chat with the celebrated Seattle architect.
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Tom Kundig is a principal and owner at Olson Kundig, the Seattle architecture firm and design practice founded on the idea that “buildings can serve as a bridge between nature, culture and people.”
 
Nancy: What does an architect do? 
Tom: An architect solves problems. We observe what’s going on culturally, both historically and currently, and try to make buildings that resolve a situation, whatever it might be. 
 
Did you always want to be an architect? 
Oh, no. My dad’s an architect, I grew up with architects around me and there was a certain culture about architecture that I didn’t particularly appreciate, but what I did appreciate were the artists in that environment. Eventually, against all sanity, I wound up in architecture and couldn’t be happier. 
 
How important is the budget when you take on a project? 
It’s critical because a budget gives context and, from my perspective, the tighter the budget (within reason), the better the building because it makes you edit. When the budget is loose, the building can become overindulged. 
 
Are you a different designer now than you were when you started out? 
Oh, yes. I understand a lot more about the human condition and I understand the technical drivers much more completely. Architecture is a profession of wisdom, and it’s rare when you see that wisdom in a young architect.
 
Do you have a favorite building in Seattle? 
It’s a toss-up between the Pike & Virginia Building, designed by Olson Walker in the late ’70s/early ’80s, and St. Ignatius Chapel on the Seattle University campus. 
 
Is there a building you wish you had designed? 
Nope. There are so many conspiring forces to make mediocre buildings that when a good building happens, no matter who did it, we should just stand back and applaud! 
 
 
Tom Kundig says his main driver is "to make as much as I can out of life."
 
Are there signature elements of a Tom Kundig design? 
My desire is for an authenticity, both in cultural function and in the way that the natural materials — whether brick, steel or wood — age and get better with time. 
 
In every project you’ve done, is there always at least one thing that you hate? 
Uh, yeah, on virtually every project, but I never admit it! (Laughs) 
 
What gets you excited about a project? 
A client who’s curious about the world because that person is going to engage and ask questions in a way that may take me out of the way I typically answer.
 
What has to be there in order for you to take on a client?  
Trust. If you hire me, then I’ve got to trust you as a client and you’ve got to trust me as your architect, that I’m going to be doing my best work working for you.
 
Have you ever had to walk away from a project? 
Yeah. It’s difficult but it’s not about me. It’s about the situation. I’m not the right architect for you, you’re not the right client for me and we are wasting our time.
 
When do you know if something you’ve made is good? 
When I’m drawing and things are happening and fitting together, it’s like listening to music inside my head. It flows.
 
Is there a Tom Kundig Life Statement? 
I put a quote in my first book: “Only common things happen when common sense prevails.” I don’t know who came up with it, but it always makes me smile and it’s kind of true. If you’re looking for adventure, or something new or something worth living for, you’re looking for the edge, whatever that might be. 
 
How do you balance your creative mind with your business mind? 
I think a creative mind is a business mind because business is creative. You’re dealing with a set of issues and you’re trying to find a pathway, trying to resolve the issues, into a success. 
 
What piece of advice would you give to your younger self, when you were just starting out?  
Be more secure about your abilities and less insecure about your existence so that you can do things with a well-placed confidence. 
 
What song would you like played at your funeral? 
(Laughs) I don’t know! I won’t be hearing it so I don’t really care. 
 
You’re stuck on a desert island and can have one book, one record, one food and one person
My wife, Jeannie. Beethoven’s Ninth. A hamburger. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
 
Who or what is your worst enemy? 
Noncritical thinking. People who don’t think about what they’re saying. 
 
Beatles or Rolling Stones?  
Beatles. I share a birthday with John Lennon and sympathy with his larger musical and political agendas.
 
What four guests would make for the perfect dinner party?
Kurt Vonnegut, Richard Feynman, Indira Gandhi, Muhammad Ali. 
 
Do you have a spiritual practice and if yes, how does that practice manifest? 
I was raised a Unitarian, so it is a very personal spiritual practice and certainly influenced by both Buddhist teachings and Jesuit friends. 
 
› For more on artists, entertainers and entrepreneurs, tune in Art Aone with Nancy Guppy on the Seattle Channel (seattlechannel.org/artzone).