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Leading With a Light Hand

February 2014 – Vol: 37 No. 2
by Dianne Molvig

Willy Kelsey, CSE, CCE, named 2013 CUES Exceptional Leader for gently expecting things to continuously get better.

Will Kelsey
William “Willy” K. Kelsey, CSE, CCE (right), accepts the CUES Exceptional Leader trophy from 2012 winner Daniel McGowan, CPA, CMA, CITP, CGMA, CCE.

When William “Willy” Kelsey, CSE, CCE, took his first credit union job in 1988, he thought it was just a stopover. “I planned to be there for only six months. I wanted to be a commercial lender,” says Kelsey, a CUES member who’s now EVP/chief operating officer at $760 million Texas Trust Credit Union based in Mansfield, Texas.

Clearly, Kelsey’s much-longer-than-expected CU career has been one of distinction. In 2006, he was selected for the CUES Rising 100; in November at CUES’ CEO/Executive Team Network™, he was named 2013 CUES Exceptional Leader.

“Willy is a great example of how to lead without pulling people along or pushing them from behind,” says CUES member Jim Minge, president/CEO of Texas Trust CU. “He’s in there making sure everybody is heading in the right direction. So he puts his hand in, but it’s not heavy.”

A Change in Plans

Kelsey remembers influences that got him headed in the right direction from the beginning. In 1988, he landed a job as a loan officer at Carswell Federal Credit Union, later to become OmniAmerican Credit Union, in Fort Worth (which became a mutual savings bank in 2005 and converted to stock form in 2010.)

At Carswell FCU, Kelsey was surprised to find four mentors among the CU’s loan officers, each with at least 20 years of experience in a previous upper management position.

“I asked them why they were here,” he recalls, “and they said, ‘We love it here.’ I asked why, and they explained what they liked about the credit union movement vs. the banking environment. It was eye-opening,” he says. “What I was able to learn from those guys was just phenomenal.”

He learned, for instance, that securing a member’s loan was a good lead-in to other products and services, and thus a way to launch a deeper relationship with the member. His mentors talked about the abundance of opportunities in the lending arena, but they insisted each loan has to be a good fit.

“They explained to me some of the things that happened in their previous businesses that didn’t work,” Kelsey says.

They also gave him plenty of responsibility. “At the time, I felt like a chick getting pushed out of the nest,” Kelsey recalls. After he’d structured a deal, his mentors were there to ask him questions and encourage him to think about aspects he might have missed. “It was the best time ever,” he says.

Building on Experience

In 2005, Kelsey brought everything he learned at Carswell FCU, plus experience gained later at other CUs, to Texas Trust CU.

Since then, he’s led the restructuring of the mortgage department to streamline the loan process. “It was taking us forever to get a loan done,” Kelsey says. He brought in a highly experienced mortgage lender to lead the department, then implemented process changes, staff training and new systems.

While doing 12 loans a month used to be difficult, the mortgage department now does about 50, with only one more staffer. And there’s room to grow. “We have the capacity to double the number of mortgages,” Kelsey says, “with maybe just one more person.”

The changes have reaped tangible results. In 2012, the Dallas Business Journal ranked Texas Trust CU as the 16th largest overall mortgage lender in the Dallas-Fort Worth market, and the top CU mortgage lender, based on 2011 results.

Kelsey also spearheaded restructuring in the member business services department. Texas Trust CU aims to serve smaller businesses that can’t get the attention of the bigger banks. “We’d rather make 10 smaller loans than one big one,” Kelsey says. “And doing that spreads our risks, as well.”

Branch operations is another area in which Kelsey has initiated changes to better serve members. He brought in a sales champion to lead the department. Systems and processes got upgraded. It used to take 35 to 40 minutes, for instance, for a member to open a new checking account. Today that’s down to 10.

“Now we’re known for our service,” Kelsey says, “and for taking care of our members. We always say that we’re only as good as our worst moment.”

Along the way, Kelsey saw need to give the CU’s sales and service culture more spark. That involved training staff to view sales as a way to serve members, and in new skills.

“Now we’re seeing record numbers in checking account and loan production coming in through our branches,” Kelsey says. “The staff takes great pleasure knowing they’re providing excellent service to members. And then those members bring their friends.”

If It Isn’t Broken . . .

Kelsey’s leadership philosophy comes down to three principles: Get the best people. Know when to lead. And know when to get out of the way.

“We have lots of consultations” with leaders across the CU, Kelsey says, “and then we tell them, ‘It’s your business. Run it.’”

He cites hiring good people as one of his strengths. Still, he’s known the frustration of hiring quality managers, only to have them lured away by other organizations.

“Finally,” Kelsey says, “one of my mentors told me to take it as a compliment. He said, ‘People are coming in and stealing your staff because you’ve trained them well and you’ve gotten them up to speed. Now they’re being recruited out. That’s a great legacy.’ I hadn’t thought of it like that.”

A second aspect of his job that he enjoys—tied directly to the first—is seeing members feeling good about how the organization helped them. In other words, if employees do well, so do members. “The two go hand in hand,” Kelsey says.

Meanwhile, Kelsey is always on the watch for ways to improve member services, whether by streamlining processes or improving efficiencies. “One of the things I do that drives my staff nuts,” he admits, “is that I run by the philosophy, ‘If it isn’t broken, break it.’ See what you can do to make it better.”

His own drive for professional self-improvement revolves around learning. Over the years, he’s earned both the Certified Chief Executive (CCE) and Certified Senior Executive (CSE) designations, from attending CUES’ CEO Institute and a previous version of what is today the CUES School of Applied Strategic Management.

To whom does Kelsey attribute his drive to keep learning and seeking better ways to do his job? “My mom,” he responds. “Being a teacher, she always said you can never quit learning.”

Dianne Molvig is a freelance writer based in Wisconsin.

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