Dependable As A Utility

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SPRINGFIELD, Va.-People count on their utility companies, and utility company employees need to be able to count on their credit union.

That's one of the principles of management that has helped Lynette Smith, president of Washington Gas Light FCU, to drive growth at the credit union that she joined in 2008. It seems to have worked, as Smith was recently named by NAFCU as CEO of the Year for CUs with assets of $150 million or less.

"I always tell people that utility people need help, too," said Smith, who came to the $80-million CU after nearly two decades at Treasury Department FCU.

Arriving in the midst of the financial crisis, Smith entered into an institution she knew needed help-for instance, its accounting department was "a mess." On the upside, WGLFCU had 23% capital, which Smith tapped to leverage opportunities to expand lending and grow the business. Moreover, said Smith, having spent more than a decade as CFO at Treasury Department helped her immensely.

"During my career in the industry, I had to roll my sleeves up in order to accomplish the credit union's goals," she said. "As a result, I had a decent reputation in the industry. So when it came time to recruit for positions at Washington Gas Light FCU, I had no problem recruiting effective employees to help me accomplish the strategic growth of my credit union."

Since Smith came on board at the 6,700-member CU, assets have increased to $80 million from from $71 million, the average CD term has lengthened to five years from 12 months, and the use of online bill pay nearly quadrupled to 500 from 125 members.

Smith, who is also involved with the African-American CU Coalition and sits on the Governmental Affairs Committee for the Virginia league, has further instituted financial lit programs for members, including "CU at Lunch," a mid-day workshop that seeks to demystify many of the products and services the institution offers. Smith credited her members' strong savings rate and low delinquencies ( 0.34%), but also acknowledged that "savers aren't going to be big lenders." At press time, WGLFCU's loan-to-share ratio was at about 50%. "It's been a juggling act. My loan volume has remained steady, but it's not growing by leaps and bounds."

While most of WGLFCU's loan portfolio consists of autos, Smith recently implemented a partnership with McLean Mortage Lending to expand there. Right now that portfolio is very small-only about three-but Smith expects it could grow to around a dozen loans.

May Need To Add CFO

As the credit union continues to grow, Smith noted that she may have to eventually bring on a CFO should the institution hit the $100-million mark.

"I'm going to need a position to devote more time to oversee the ALM side of the financials," she said, but added that because of her more than 16 years' experience in that position, "even if I hire a CFO down the line, I would still continue to challenge the numbers."

Since joining Washington Gas Light FCU three years ago, Smith has overseen a near-doubling of staff, and she credited her "deep bench" with helping drive that growth.

"The key to my success is to take a little bit from every CEO that you work with," she continued. "When I started at my credit union it promoted from within utilizing the current staff [eight FTEs], which welcomed me with open arms. I then brought new employees [another eight FTEs] that would complement the existing staff. I think that's the key to any success-take the good from the staff that you already have, and then bring your new staff in, and if it's a good mixture, you're going to grow the credit union's business."

Smith has also done her best to make the CU a pleasant place to work, and offers flexible hours for those employees that need them. "Happy employees make for a productive environment."

Smith comes from an accounting background, but said that she continues to love her time in the CU community-a movement she unexpectedly found herself in more than 20 years ago. "Whatever credit union you work at, you need to expand your horizons and learn as much as you can about that credit union," she said. "Don't limit yourself to just lending, but know member services" and other areas of business. One shortfall that I had was that I didn't have much lending experience when I came (here), so I had to wrap my hands around it. My suggestion is that if you're going to make the credit union industry your choice for a career, do the best you can to learn as much as you can and be involved in all departments. I think that's key."

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