Vision and a Scottish word: A new CEO’s take on teamwork, brand, and growth

Building something new isn’t always easy – it often takes a lot of time, a lot of thought, and a lot of persistence. Justin Olson, newest President and CEO of Forrit Credit Union ($106M) in Portland, Oregon, knows such variables all too well. As a young, first-time CEO, Justin landed amongst the legacies of a longtime brand presence, leadership style, and structure. And, within the first few months, the credit union’s leadership and board quickly developed a new direction for their members’ 86-year-old institution.

I reached out to Justin to pick his brain some on what it’s like being a new CEO, where the changes to the CU originated, and how the implementation process has unfolded. His insights and clear commitment to this great credit union system shed light on the benefits of new and youthful leadership and the importance of teamwork in brand strength.

Thank you, Justin for taking the time to talk with me. For starters, your institution has been around for almost a century and has held a couple of different names, most recently USAgencies. As the new CEO, why the name and brand change and why Forrit?

USAgencies was an extremely well-run credit union, which made it appealing for me to take on the role of CEO. With the retirement of the longtime CEO, Jim Lumpkin, the board was very specific in what they wanted: membership growth.

Our original charter was to serve the Portland Federal workforce. We used to have strong ties with them, and we even had our locations inside their buildings. But, after 9/11 that all changed, and we were no longer able to be in the buildings or solicit employees. The credit union rebranded to USAgencies to appeal to a broader base of federal employees and to keep its ties to the federal workforce. Unfortunately, that did not work out as hoped and the credit union continued to lose membership.

In my initial meetings with senior leadership, it was clear we needed a new name, brand, and charter. We wanted something that we could own proudly and something we could define in our market. We went through multiple rounds of name options. Each time, we narrowed names down until we had a top 5 list. The name “Forrit” rose to the top. It is a Scottish word for Forward, which we loved because that is exactly where we are trying to go, forward. The new name and brand evoke energy and movement and has really energized our staff. They truly are proud to wear the logo and represent the brand.

One of the coolest things to me is that our logo is a heart. I think there is no better symbol than that to represent the people of Forrit. We hope this is the last name the credit union ever has.

I agree and love the new logo. With the change, and coming from another credit union into a brand-new role in your career, what are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced thus far?

Outside of COVID, civil unrest in downtown Portland, and having to close the branch due to smoke from wildfires all in 2020? If I can’t choose any of those, then I would say that the initial challenge would be learning the new role.

Being a CEO is so different and vague. There is a big learning curve because you must be what the credit union needs you to be. Plus, you must get people to see your vision and build a framework within the organization so they believe that it can happen. Thankfully the team I have is amazing, each employee is extremely skilled at what they do, and they work hard to make things happen.

The board has also been supportive and bought in to what I set out for plans. They ask great questions and really want to understand why we are doing the things we are. It is amazing to see how dedicated the people of Forrit are and how much they truly care.

Another challenge is turnover. While we haven’t had it as difficult as some, losing good people is hard on everyone. I always wish the very best to them and hope they land someplace amazing, but cohesiveness is such a vital part of what we do to set ourselves apart and serve the members well. It is our team up front that the members think of when they think of Forrit, and it is the team behind the scenes that allow them to serve members. So, when we lose people, it takes time to get new people up and running. Although, I am really excited for the team we have put together, I can’t wait for the members to get to know the newer team members, and I am grateful for those that have been here through it all.

I love what you said about your “people of Forrit”. I like to refer to staff as “credit union super-members” because they ARE the brand. You can wow folks with new colors and technologies and buildings but if your staff isn’t wow-ing, these advantages are as good as money buried in the backyard. How do you inspire Forrit staff to be ‘wow’?

I couldn’t agree more. They truly are the heart and soul of the credit union. For me, authenticity and empowerment are crucial. I have had the good fortune to be able to be myself in almost any environment I have found myself in. I don’t know why, but I thank God that I was blessed with the security, or ignorance, to just be me. So, authenticity is what I try to allow in my team.

My executive team and I are fostering a culture that allows our team to be who they are when they are at work ― that way they can really connect with our members, our community, and anyone that walks in the door. We do set expectations and behavior standards, but people don’t have to look a certain way or speak a certain way to work here. If they are polite and take pride in serving, then we are the place for them.

Empowerment is huge too. I want my team to feel free to “own their role”, to strive to find ways to make things better, to be more efficient and effective, and to have the freedom to fail. If they make a mistake but were acting in good conscience, then we see that as a training tool.

I enjoy getting to know everyone on my team as well. Being that we are only a team of 20 currently makes it a little easier. But, having conversations, going Paintballing, and having potlucks together all help to build a strong team. I try to connect with everyone, meet them where they are at, and help them get to where they want to go.

I love it. One final question, and because I like asking, what does the credit union system look like in 50 years? What will Forrit look like?

The trends concern me, with all the mergers and lack of new credit unions entering the market. If the trends continue, we will be down to 3,008 by the year 2035, which means we will be a less diverse financial option for American consumers. I am not opposed to mergers when it makes sense or is unavoidable, but my hope is that our industry will do something different, and maybe find an alternative to mergers, allowing smaller credit unions to flourish when their CEO retires or moves on. I know that is a lot to ask because we are all trying to run our credit unions the best we can, but if we are not careful, we could be creating a situation where we have so few credit unions that we don’t need the NCUA anymore and the FDIC and CFPB regulate the industry. Who knows what that would mean for us? When there is less competition in our free-market system, then we all are worse off.

As far as Forrit, I see us finding our niche serving our members and community with passion and carving out our corner of the market in Oregon.

Healthy practice for any leadership team is conducting an annual brand audit, but more importantly, to revisit how employees are being fostered and inspired. “People helping people” goes beyond our members and communities, for internal members are often the main key to your success.

The people of Forrit clearly believe in their brand, their members, and most importantly, their individuality. I’ve watched many leadership teams blindly follow the “we’ve always done it this way” mantra to their peril, and while it’s not necessarily a shop killer, I do think it’s a brand killer.

As the financial industry continues to ebb and flow and the future of the movement emerges, it’s comforting to know we have leaders out there who believe in growth and change. Remember, too, that people are the true brand, and that a well-defined, healthy culture where individual expression is encouraged and cherished, can make all the difference.

Thank you to Justin and to the people of Forrit Credit Union for daring to be different!

Michael Murdoch

Michael Murdoch

Michael, CUDE, CCUFC, (he/him) has primarily held marketing and communications roles within Pacific Northwest credit unions. Michael serves as a CUNA Diamond Awards and Conference Committees Member, Co-Chair of ... Details