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BELLEVUE, Neb.-Since Gail DeBoer became head of SAC Federal Credit Union in 2007, it has become the largest CU in Nebraska, growing to $505 million from $306 million, while also becoming the No. 1 indirect auto lender in the Cornhusker State.

For those reasons and others, NAFCU has named DeBoer its CEO of Year for credit unions with assets of $150 million or more, but DeBoer insists on sharing the award with her senior management team, the CU's board and staff.

"For me, this award stands for teamwork," she told Credit Union Journal. "It was not all me; no one person could make it happen. I have a great senior management team, and we have an amazing team of employees who made this all happen. This award is a testament to the teamwork we have and the vision of the board to take on some pretty dramatic changes. The board had to trust the senior management team to make these dramatic changes."

The changes DeBoer referred to began shortly after she took over as president and CEO in January 2007. She had been SVP of operations prior to being tapped to lead the credit union, so she knew one task management had not previously taken on.

"We had never determined how we were doing by asking the community what our image was," she recalled. "We hired an outside company to conduct a 'Voice of the Customer' study of both members and non-members."

The good news: the survey found SAC's members trusted the credit union. Fully 90% said they would recommend it to their family and friends.

Good News, Bad News in Survey

"The No. 1 thing that came out was they absolutely trusted us," DeBoer said. "The survey company told us that was very important because it is so rare."

The bad news was that age-old bugaboo that afflicts CUs everywhere: a misperception of membership eligibility. Of the general public, 50% thought they had to be in the military to join SAC FCU, even though it had been a community charter since 1991.

According to DeBoer, the survey findings were "an opportunity" to connect better with the greater Omaha area. She said a name change was considered, but eventually ruled out because the CU still had (and has) "very close" ties to the Strategic Air Command base and many of its members are retired SAC employees. However, it modified its logo to make it look "a little less military."

"We wanted to honor the past by keeping some of what was in the logo while showing the community we served more than just the base," she explained.

The biggest internal change was the establishment of the CU's first staff training program. The study found SAC FCU employees were friendly, but they were not cross-selling products and services.

"We needed to meet members' needs, but we needed to ask them," DeBoer observed. "We assumed our employees knew how to do this, which we should never do. A simultaneous survey of our staff found they wanted training. They felt they were lacking in certain areas."

At the end of 2007 DeBoer met with the board and asked for a commitment to increase marketing, branding and training, which was approved. In 2008 it hired a trainer and established what was referred to as a "culture development department" because DeBoer wanted to change the culture of the credit union.

"We had not previously spent a lot of money on marketing, but based on the survey our story was not being told. People told us we were a secret, and no business wants to be the 'best-kept secret.' I do not have a marketing brain, so we hired an agency and an SVP of marketing and HR."

'Perfect Storm'

The result of the marketing, branding and training efforts was a "perfect storm," DeBoer reported. As other financial institutions were pulling back in marketing and training during tough economic times, SAC FCU was "pushing forward."

Another element that was added was the credit union opened branches in areas where it was not represented previously. Some of these branches went into retail locations such as grocery stores.

"That was when we really started growing," said DeBoer. "We saw immediate results. I think if we had done just one of those areas we would not have had the same results, we needed to do all of them-marketing and branding, training, and building new branches."

SAC FCU is the No. 1 indirect auto lender in the state of Nebraska, but DeBoer said when it first entered the space it did so "cautiously." Management talked with lending officers at other credit unions to set it up correctly.

To succeed at indirect lending, DeBoer said the credit union needed to have good relationships with dealers, and it had to be in the market consistently, not going in and out. It has a policy of not accepting paper from borrowers with less than a 650 credit score, and she said it closely watches its loans for signs of trouble.

"We have been able to keep our delinquencies around 0.5%. Our peer rating is about 1.5%. The indirect program has been in place for some time, but we were able to grow loans with our assets over the last three years. We are close to 100% loan to share."

Other initiatives launched during DeBoer's tenure have run the gamut from a high-interest savings promotion to financial literacy programs at local schools.

DeBoer also serves as a board of trustees member on the Omaha Ethics Alliance, and was elected to what the CU said is one of the most coveted board seats in the region, a director of The Greater Omaha Chamber Board. She serves on the ICAN board of directors and is a member of the ACG and the Small Business Cabinet for Greater Omaha.

DeBoer was a keynote speaker sponsor of the Integrity Awards for the tri-state BBB's Integrity Awards Ceremony. She continues to work on developing a public, private and military led program to support and protect the financial health of America's troops. This year, she was personally invited to attend the Department of Defense's 57th Annual National Security Forum at the Air War College. Being one of only 120 civilian business leaders invited, she represented the credit union community, her local community, Strategic Air Command and Offutt Air Force Base.

In 2010 SAC FCU was awarded a Greater Omaha Excellence in Business Award, known locally as one of the Omaha Top 25.

Defending The Title

For many organizations, getting to the top is easy compared to staying on top. DeBoer said SAC FCU is fighting back against complacency in a number of ways.

"We had been working so hard to be No. 1, so when we became No. 1 a year ago it was exhilarating," she said. "We are continuing employee training to keep them engaged and continuing marketing to make sure our story is being told. We want to keep pressing forward and not let our foot off the gas."

Among the future agenda items to ensure continued growth: DeBoer said SAC FCU is exploring a FOM expansion and building additional branches. She said it wants to "make sure we cover all of the community."

"Branches are critical for new member relationships, even if they never come in again and do everything online," DeBoer said. "Many people think brick-and-mortar is going to go away, but every time we move into a new location with a branch, that is when we add members."

With that said, technology is the next big change for SAC FCU, she continued. It will soon select a new core processor with more functionality, with the goal of helping its employees by having a more robust system.

"We are missing some things our members want, including text banking and expanding home banking."

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