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Great Expectations Realized

November 2013 – Vol: 36 No. 11
by Dianne Molvig

CUES Outstanding Chief Executive Kent Oram, CSE, CCE, grew up with his Idaho credit union.

CUES Outstanding Chief Executive Kent Oram, CSE, CCEWhen Kent Oram, CSE, CCE, finished college in 1984, he promised himself that every five years he would pause to assess whether he liked where he was in his career. In 1999, he arrived at “one of my five-year checkup points to see how I was doing,” he says.

He’d been at Idaho Central Credit Union—headquartered in Chubbuck just outside Pocatello, Idaho—for 15 years, working in back-office operations. Chris Hyer, CCE, CEO at the time, asked Oram if he’d like to get involved in other aspects of the business, such as lending or branch management.

“By then, credit unions had gotten their hold on me,” Oram says. “I could see how they really helped people in their financial lives. It was a big decision: Did I want to be a technology guy for the rest of my life, or did I want to switch to get more in the trenches with helping members face to face?” He felt pulled in the latter direction.

Another notion also crossed his mind at the time: Maybe someday he’d be a credit union CEO. “I would have felt comfortable even back then about going to a small credit union and giving it a shot [as CEO],” he says. “But Idaho Central was my baby.”

In fact, you could say that Oram and Idaho Central CU have grown up together. He started working there, fresh out of college, as the data processing manager in 1984, when the credit union was around $30 million in assets.

Today, 29 years later, it’s a $1.4 billion organization—the largest credit union in Idaho—and Oram is president/CEO. He’s also the 2013 CUES Outstanding Chief Executive, and will receive this top recognition at CUES’ CEO/Executive Team Network in San Diego on Nov. 3.

Choosing to Stay Put

Oram’s path to Idaho Central CU began in 1983 in a maternity ward waiting room when he and his wife were expecting their first child. His wife was undergoing an emergency Caesarean section surgery.

He got to talking with another anxious dad-to-be and mentioned he’d soon finish a computer science degree. His companion said he wanted to recruit Oram after graduation to come to work for his employer, Idaho Central CU.

Oram remembers walking into the credit union’s computer room months later on his first day on the job. Although he had a computer science degree, “I’d never touched a computer,” he says, having interacted with computers solely through punched cards created on a key-punch machine, as was common in those days.

“I walked into the room,” he recalls, “and looked at the computer and thought, ‘I don’t have any idea what I’m doing.’ It was a big box with a small capacity. My iPad probably has a billion times more capacity than that box had.”

After his decision in 1999 to shift into general management, Oram went on to gain diverse experience at Idaho Central CU, managing nearly every area at one time or another.

Though he moved around inside, Oram never felt tempted to leave to pursue opportunities elsewhere. “To get ahead, a lot of people bounce from bigger to bigger to bigger,” he says. “I didn’t want to go down that road. I’ve lived in Idaho all my life. I like where I live; I’m an outdoors kind of guy. I like the credit union. I’m having a blast, and I plan to retire here.”

He knew he’d take the reins as CEO long before the Oct. 1, 2007, date Hyer had set for his retirement many years in advance. Hyer had broached the subject of Oram’s future one evening after the credit union had closed when the two men were talking, as they often did.

Hyer popped the question: What did Oram think about the idea of becoming the next CEO in a few years? “I said, ‘I’d love it,’” Oram recalls. “I had no doubts. I was good to go.”

The credit union’s directors had the same opinion. The board unanimously endorsed Hyer’s choice of successor, says Cindy Watson, who was a board member at the time and now is the board chair. “We’d watched Kent over the years,” she says, “and we’d seen his leadership abilities.”

Expecting the Best

Hyer, whose Idaho Central CU career spanned 33 years, 25 of them as CEO, invested years mentoring Oram. “He helped to sit me in a chair where I was bound to succeed,” Oram says. He also counts executive vice presidents Shelli Bardsley, CSE, CCE, and Brenda Worrell, CSE, both CUES members, as key mentors who helped to shape his professional growth.

“We have a team of vice presidents that’s just awesome,” Oram says. “We have great arguments and great successes together. I think I have helped them, and they have helped me.”

He also gives a lot of credit and thanks to his wife and family, who “put up with my compulsion to be a credit union guy and CEO for 30 years.”

Before becoming CEO, Oram attended what is now the CUES School of Applied Strategic Management™ and CUES’ three-year CEO Institute program to earn the certified senior executive (CSE) and certified chief executive (CCE) designations. He also was inducted into the inaugural group of CUES Rising 100 in 2006.

“A lot of folks with me at the institutes were already CEOs,” Oram says, “so I had a chance to pick their brains. I like to learn anyway, so having that kind of opportunity and exposure was tremendous.”

He remembers talking with Chuck Fagan, whom he’d known for some time, shortly after Fagan became president/CEO of CUES. “I told him that I didn’t get to be a CEO because of CUES,” Oram recalls. “But I absolutely know I’m a better CEO because of CUES.”

By the time Oram moved into the CEO spot, he’d had 23 years of history with Idaho Central CU and at least five years of being primed for the CEO position. Even so, a couple of realizations hit him when he officially became the person at the top and Hyer was no longer at his side to bounce around ideas.

“The shift in responsibility was real,” he says. “I felt there was nobody but me. I took that way too seriously at the beginning because there’s a team around you at all times. But the buck does stop somewhere. I felt that immediately.”

It took him a year or two to come to grips with another difference he noted as a new CEO. The words he spoke and the ways he approached people—both inside and outside the credit union—had more impact than he’d recognized before.

“As an executive vice president, I’d say something and people would go, ‘Ehh,’” he says with a laugh. “But as CEO, I’d say something in a meeting, and a few minutes later someone would be quoting me.”

Sure, being the boss does command some respect, perhaps even awe. But board chair Watson says one of Oram’s strengths as CEO is that he makes everyone around him feel comfortable. He’s not, she notes, “a black coat and tie, sit in his office” kind of CEO.

She adds that Oram has an open-door policy so employees can come in to talk, and they can leave anonymous comments on an intranet page. “He listens,” Watson says, “and he responds to everything, good or bad, that comes his way.”

In Watson’s view, Oram has a knack for building people up and making them feel confident. “He expects they’ll do a great job, and he coaches them,” she says. “They love him, so they want to do whatever he wants done. And then good things happen.”

Reaping Rewards

Evidence abounds that Watson’s assessment of Oram’s abilities is on the mark. He’s led his team and organization to score several achievements. In recent years, Idaho Central CU:

  • won the Financial Services Industry Excellence Award in 2013 from the Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce;
  • was voted the best place to work in Idaho among large companies (more than 100 employees) for 2013, based on confidential employee balloting conducted by the Idaho Business Review (after placing second the year before);
  • was named Idaho’s favorite credit union by readers of the Idaho State Journal during its 2013 Readers’ Choice Awards; and
  • was selected by SNL Financial, a Charlottesville, Va., firm, as the top performing U.S. credit union for 2012. The firm’s analysis showed that Idaho Central CU had the best numbers in five key areas: membership growth (19.75 percent), loan charge-offs (0.21 percent), operating-expenses-to-operating-revenue ratio (54.53 percent), loan delinquency (0.34 percent) and deposit growth (21.06 percent).

Since Oram became CEO in 2007, Idaho Central CU’s assets have grown 122 percent, as of the end of April 2013. But he views two other growth measurements as much more crucial—namely, loan growth and membership growth.

“We were able to grow loans during the recession,” Oram says, “when a lot of folks struggled to do that.” For instance, Idaho Central CU started a small business lending program, despite the struggling economy. The CU also ramped up its mortgage lending while others pulled back. “We branched out and said, ‘Everybody else is choosing not to do mortgages. So let’s do more,’” Oram reports.

As for membership growth, that has stood at double digits for several years. And for the last couple of years, “we’ve been at just a hair under 20 percent growth,” he says.

To what does he attribute these successes? For one, Oram explains, when you have 21 branches across southern Idaho, people notice you. In addition, the credit union was well positioned to benefit when consumers felt mounting disillusionment with banks.

“During the recession, banks were consolidating and changing this, dropping that,” Oram says. “It sort of played right into our hands. More and more, we were viewed as a stable, solid place to be. Someone once asked me if I saw a big spike in new accounts on Bank Transfer Day. My answer was ‘no, every day is Bank Transfer Day here.’”

Building a Great Workplace

Tracking the credit union’s numbers and trends is an important—and enjoyable—part of Oram’s job, he says. But what does he like best about being CEO? “That’s easy,” he responds in a heartbeat. “I like working with the people in our credit union. There’s nothing like talking with our employees and trying to make them feel good about what they do, and that they’re in the right spot. There’s no question that’s my favorite part.”

The “best place to work” award is validation of the positive work environment Oram has created at the credit union. In turn, that feeds into the outstanding growth numbers attained in recent years. “If the employees who work here love it,” he says, “then I know they’ll treat our members with tender loving care.”

Reaching that point has been a long journey, Oram explains. Years ago, the credit union set a goal of becoming recognized as an employer of choice and a strong leader in the community. Getting there took staying power.

“When we said we were going to adjust the culture,” Oram says, “we knew it would take years. We had the patience to do that—and the luxury of good financials to allow us to do that.”

As the person guiding the way at Idaho Central CU, Oram says his style is to “lead from the front.” In other words, he explains, he wouldn’t ask any employee to do something he wouldn’t do. And they always can call on him to give a hand when they need one.

“There isn’t a job here I won’t help people do, and they know that,” he says. “If I walk into one of the branches and it’s time to close and count money, I dive in and help.”

He manifests that same attitude when the credit union gets involved in community activities. Oram is there to pitch in, whether it’s painting houses, running a relay race or attending a baseball game the credit union is sponsoring.

His overriding message to employees is that Idaho Central CU is a place where people truly care about each other. He imparts that message from day one, when new employees go through orientation sessions. Overwhelmingly, they get on board with the workplace culture.

“We’re certainly not perfect,” Oram says. “There are people who leave and don’t like us one bit. But that doesn’t happen very often.”

Dealing With Abstractions

While the people aspects are Oram’s favorite part of his job, the most difficult, he says, is getting a fix on the big picture in the financial world. Who are the major players? Who will be the survivors? Where is the credit union industry headed?

“That’s the toughest part for me to get my arms around,” he says, “because things shift so fast. Trying to stay ahead of the curve is a big challenge.”

Reading and learning are essential to stay up to speed, Oram notes. Still, the available information and forecasts sometimes conflict. And it’s anyone’s guess as to who’s right.

For instance, Oram points out, many believe the branch is already dead, or soon will be. “For us,” he says, “that’s absolutely not true. When we build a branch it comes to life in a hurry.”

Still, he recognizes that the day may come when branches no longer serve his members’ needs effectively. The trick, he says, is predicting future developments and when they’ll occur—and then being ready to move the credit union in the right direction at the right time.

“I’m better with real things I can touch and see,” Oram says, “than I am with the conceptual, abstract stuff.”

To help to steer him through the sorts of dilemmas that his and all credit unions face today in a rapidly changing financial world, he relies on a guiding principle he traces back to his now-deceased parents. His mother worked as a school secretary, and his father was a car salesman. Both were great influences on him, Oram says. One key lesson they taught him was that there is no one right way to do things.

“That’s especially true in this job and in what we do in credit unions,” Oram says. “I’ve seen so many different credit unions with many different business models, and they all can work. Ours is just one model, and it’s working for us.”

Dianne Molvig is a freelance writer based in Madison, Wis.

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