October 9, 2017
Ian Warner

Case study – Interview with Point West Credit Union CEO, Amy Nelson

How can a small credit union with limited resources rise to the top? Community credit unions face fierce competition yet can be slow to innovate, fearing that they’ll leave behind old-fashion strengths in the process.

In this interview with Point West Credit Union President and CEO, Amy Nelson, we ask how a small, once-struggling, credit union has used technology to survive and thrive?

Point West Credit Union is based in Portland, Oregon, and is 85 years old, founded in 1932. After being on the brink of closure during the recession, Point West rebuilt its capital and strategic focus. Today, Point West has $100M in assets under management.

Q: Despite some historic hard times, Point West has emerged as an innovator among American credit unions. How did that happen?

Amy Nelson:  Through our own turnaround, we found our innovation backbone. When resources are limited, you need to get fiercely clear on how to leverage your member’s capital. We’ve come through a decade of asking non-stop ‘how can we move our credit union forward?’ – and in that journey technology became a key success factor.

Affordable and user-friendly software has helped us to develop our staff and improve services to members. Among our early technology discoveries, we found a low-cost credit union micro-platform that leap-frogged us ahead with online micro-business loan data collection for our hard-working members who were business owners. And one of our most recent technology decisions was to purchase Aprio as our board portal.

Q: Was Point West concerned that use of technology would threaten strong in-person member relationships?

Amy Nelson: We’ve found through our own experience that self-service technology can actually bring you closer to your members.

Last year, we won recognition for both outstanding services to our members and innovation. CU Times’ selected us for their 12th Annual Trailblazer Award for Outstanding Service to the Underserved, for of our outreach to non-citizens and low-income community members. We were awarded CUNA’s – Louise Herring Philosophy in Action Member Service Award, for applying credit union philosophy in an extraordinary way. And in the same year, I was honoured with NWCUA Innovation & Impact Award for my work guiding the credit union through harsh economic times and helping it serve diverse and underserved populations. Innovation via technology was key to many of those achievements.

Q: What led Point West to explore how it could better engage with its board of directors?

Amy Nelson: Considering the strides we made using technology to improve service and communication with members, it was a logical next step to look at our board. We had a board portal in place that was highly cumbersome. Our directors and management team didn’t want to use it, because it took an inordinate amount of time to load, download or organize documents, was not intuitive, and lacked mobile compatibility. Just having technology doesn’t help you; it has to be the right technology which is user friendly, fun to use, and can be easily enhanced over time.

Q: How did you learn about Aprio?

Amy Nelson: The Northwest Credit Union Association invited Point West and other respected U.S. credit unions to join in a task force on innovation

When I saw a presentation of the Aprio board portal – mine was the first hand up to ask more about it. Visually, Aprio’s ease of use stood out right away. The design and functionality was logical. Actions made sense like If you need a board member to sign minutes – there’s a pen icon right there to do that. We could envision board members logging in from desktop or mobile devices and wasting no time pinching and resizing screens. In many ways, we saw ways to connect better and save our time.

Q: Spending cautiously has been core to Point West’s turnaround success. How did you get the board to invest in new technology?

Amy Nelson: Like every technology purchase we make, we assess several options and take a hard look at the value. Compared to other portals, Aprio offered the biggest bang for the buck providing the same extensive security of more expensive portals as well as providing training and unlimited support at no extra cost.

Q: So, has a board portal improved Point West board meetings?

Amy Nelson: In our first eight months on Aprio, we have made measurable strides.

The biggest win with Aprio is how much we’ve improved pre-meeting engagement, which has led to more productive meetings and better attendance. The way Aprio pushes out our agenda and meeting reminders right to people’s inboxes, prompts directors to prepare more thoroughly, in advance, resulting in informed, succinct, and decisive discussion at meetings. Aprio makes it easy for directors to pose questions to management before meetings with answers shared to all. This has virtually eliminated the repetitive background questions, which often eat time in meetings. All of this, and directors being able to collaborate with each other prior to meetings, has made us more productive as a board, kept meeting agendas on track, and boosted attendance as a result.

Aprio also helped us fine-tune our meeting agenda. Point West uses a Carver-based governance model – so our content and process for our board meetings was already strong. With Aprio though, we could apply time limits to agenda items to enforce smart use of precious time for discussion and decisions.

Q: How has Aprio impacted preparing for meetings or board management in-between meetings?

Amy Nelson: We’ve won back time and gained flexibility with our meeting prep. It used to take the effort of 6 people to get board packet elements all posted and our process demanded we all be working together at one time for 4 to 8 hours.

Using Aprio, we can create the board packet and corresponding email communication in under two hours – our last packet took less than one hour. This frees us to do things more flexibly. Different committee leaders and members of our management team don’t have to be working in sync or in a specific order.  We all know the deadline to have board materials ready. We do our work independently, when time permits. And at the post deadline, our administrator goes in and everything is there, easy to unify and distribute. Then instantly, directors can see the full board package wherever they are in the world, and on any device.

In-between meetings, there’s more we can do and we’re continuously trying new things. For example, I’m glad to have the means for online voting when we need a decision between meetings. We can do an efficient survey and communicate to directors the vote outcome for recording at the next meeting.

Q: Not all boards experience the same productivity gains when they adopt board portal. How would you explain Point West’s unique success?

Amy Nelson: We chose the right software. Aprio is a great fit for us and that’s key.

It’s also really important that you have a strong board chair that communicates to directors their role in taking advantage of the technology. It used to be at Point West, in any given month, half or a quarter of our board would want a board package printed and delivered. Directors would not attend because they did not feel prepared.

The first month Aprio was up and running we communicated to directors the new expectation to embrace technology and completely forfeit their use of paper. Each director was also promised individualized training, to which two-thirds took advantage of (the other two are techies…they figured it out just fine). Aprio provided ongoing training that is exceedingly practical – focusing on the different actions each of us needs to perform. We had several follow-ups and focused training sessions, often just 30 minutes, to learn even just one or two tools at a time. Small steps return big gains.

Q: Any other lessons-learned that might be valuable to other credit unions striving to innovate?

Amy Nelson: A lesson for credit unions – don’t mistake technology as something useful only if you’re big. Having a board portal like Aprio should be the norm today even if you are a $10-million credit union. Even with a five-person board the efficiency for your management and directors will be critical to you, not just for board meetings but for sub-committee meetings or management meetings as well.

I get asked all the time: Do you have a board portal, one that actually works and makes sense? I share, what I’ve experienced firsthand – that Aprio is the right blend of broad functionality and affordability. That combination is key for credit union innovation.

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