After 28 Years, Veteran CEO Retires With Thoughts On What's Ahead

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From the day he set foot inside Mid-Minnesota Credit Union 28 years ago to the day he retired in December 2002, Ray Burnett has been a leader, an innovator, a guru even. Besides turning a troubled, small CU with "a lot of bad loans" into a successful, $110-million institution, Burnett has served on every CU-related state and national committee he could.

For starters, he served as a director with CUNA, a director with the National Credit Union Foundation, director of CUNA Service Corp., director/chairman of Minnesota CU Network, a director with Minnesota Corporate Credit Union, and director/chairman of Central Minnesota Chapter of Credit Unions.

And, four years ago, Burnett co-founded the National Association of Community Credit Unions and served as its chairman. Not surprisingly, he believes CU leaders should get involved in the movement, not only to have a say, but to be prepared for issues coming down the pike.

"The worst thing you can do is operate in a vacuum," he said.

A week before he shook the last hand, waved his last good-bye, made his last trip to the parking lot as MMCU's commander-in-chief, Burnett talked about the industry's and his own future. Having entered into the CU community by way of a small credit union-Mid-Minnesota had $5 million in assets-Burnett knows what it's like to struggle.

"We had six employees," he said. "And for the first few years, most of what I did was collecting on a lot of really bad loans."

At the same time, he said, his team worked on establishing good policies to "get good footing."

Fortunately for the credit union and the community, Burnett had the ambition and vision to expand. Within a five to six-year period, the CU took in several other struggling area CUs, two of which had community charters.

Now a very large, community-based CU, Burnett said he hasn't forgotten where he came from. "Small credit unions are one of our real political assets," he said. "I have worked very hard to keep them going by doing a lot of consulting and working with them."

He is confident that with good, innovative leadership, small CUs can be just as successful as the large ones. The challenge, he said, is finding the funds for salaries that are attractive enough to get top-quality leaders.

As for the survivors, Burnett expects most will be community charters. "That is the wave of the future," he predicted. "Really, we're just going back to our roots, just back where we belong."

Burnett said many in the industry have paid too much attention to how others-particularly those in the banking world-define "community." "I think the biggest credit union in the world-Navy FCU-is a community charter," he said. "What bigger community is there than military people stationed all over the world?"

As for his own CU's accomplishments, Burnett said he couldn't feel better. Among them was his role in founding the National Association of Community Charter Credit Unions four years ago. The organization, which operates under the auspices of CUNA, is not a trade group and does not take political stands.

"What we wanted to be was an educational outreach organization for boards and management going through the transition from a closed membership to community charter."

On the homefront, Burnett said he is "very proud" of his own credit union. "We are lifeline banking for a lot of people in this area," he said. "We have high transaction, low balance and 40% to 50% penetration-and we're 108% loaned out."

Burnett attributed the CU's successes to a staff that "lives and breathes member services."

He said he has been very fortunate to make a lot of friends all over the country through his work. "It's really been a great experience."

Among his retirement plans are to travel with Joan, his wife of 40 years. More noteworthy, however, may be his plans to keep his hands out of credit unions-for awhile anyway. "A lot of people have talked to me about getting involved in different aspects (of the industry)," he said. "I told them to give me some time, at least a year."

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