New CU*Answers CEO Geoff Johnson Shares His Optimism for the Credit Union Industry

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As he prepared to step into his new role as CEO of CU*Answers, Geoff Johnson sat down with the CUSO Magazine team to discuss the paths that led him here, his thoughts on the industry, and what he envisions for CU*Answers in the coming years.

CUSO Magazine: First off Geoff, congratulations on your new position! Can you tell us a little bit about how you got here and why you wanted to be the CEO of CU*Answers?

Geoff Johnson: I appreciate the congratulations! It’s been many years traveling some very unique paths that brought me here to CU*Answers. Really what drew me here after years working in credit unions was the opportunity to work for multiple institutions instead of just one. I was interested in participating with credit unions, and the more involved I became with them the more excited I got about the future and how I might be able to contribute. As I became more accustomed to working in a cooperative business model and the unique opportunities it affords, I knew CU*Answers was an organization I wanted to stick around long term.

When the time came and I had the opportunity to throw my hat in the ring, I leapt at it. Being selected to serve CU*Answers and our network as CEO is an honor, and I can’t wait to get to work, just as I have every day for the last seventeen years!

So, first things first: what’s next for CU*Answers? What can clients look forward to?

First, it’s my goal to see CU*Answers continue to grow in the cooperative spirit around the country as new regions and marketplaces open up. With team members as far as the Innovation Center in Las Vegas, there are plenty of great partnership and growth opportunities in the Southwest. California, for example, this year will see the first credit union join our organization. So, as far as new partnerships go, opportunities abound!

In the coming years, I’m confident we’re going to see some exciting product and feature developments here at CU*Answers. Changes in mobile and online banking, expanding our loan origination system and the changes associated with that, and additional tool set enhancements, to name a few, are what clients can expect on the horizon.

All it takes to realize all the exciting things to come is to step into a production meeting and see the passion and care that goes into what our teams develop. And the pride that goes not just into what we develop, but why: to give our credit union owners and clients opportunities to succeed, whatever that means to them.

You worked alongside Randy for many years. What’s something you’ve learned from Randy that will help guide you into your new role?

One of the best takeaways I learned from Randy was building “train schedules.” The idea that success comes from the repeatable. It’s so important from a business standpoint to have set calendars, not just for business events and planning, but also executing on a repeatable business schedule. Whether it’s our products and services with spring and fall releases or it’s our marketing messages to new and existing businesses, we continually find success when we’re disciplined.

When we put time, energy, and effort into our work, we’ll always see a return.

If we talked about some of our businesses within CU*Answers, particularly with CU*Answers Management Services, it was a great deal about a recurring message. We had a schedule, we stuck to the schedule, we executed on the plan, and it found success. Of course, we listened to our credit unions about opportunities to adjust, tweak, or evolve the plan, but it was always about executing on that schedule. That has definitely been one of those success stories for us and something that is important for us to carry into the future. When we put time, energy, and effort into our work, we’ll always see a return.

Absolutely, consistency has certainly been a strength for the organization. That being said, what’s another one of the biggest strengths of CU*Answers right now?

One of those biggest strengths is the diversity of our teams and the different perspectives between our internal and external contributors in the network. CU*Answers’ many teams are made up of individuals with different backgrounds, stories, and experiences, and each brings something unique to the table. But development doesn’t end with our teams.

We pride ourselves on our cooperative principles and not only including but encouraging our nationwide network of credit unions to be a part of our development. It’s through their inclusion that we can supply the products and services that will provide for all communities. In the coming years, we will look to continue that and bring on individuals and partners that can bring fresh perspectives to our cooperative.

You mentioned you want to “provide for all communities,” can you expand on that? What does that mean to you?

To me it means continuing to disrupt the market through access and price. When it comes to our development strategy, you’ll often hear us say we follow the second-to-market mold. Being on the cutting edge can be costly and lead to product dependency. By learning from early developers, we can improve from a cost standpoint as well as reduce product dependency by providing effective and often superior alternatives.

Take card controls in a mobile app for example, which today we give away for free to our credit unions. Several years ago, they were paying thousands of dollars monthly to other third-party vendors to do things in a completely disassociated app. Being able to bring those things home and put them in our credit unions’ hands, being disruptive on price or disruptive on access is really important for our clients’ future, and thus our own.

After decades in the industry, what has surprised you most, or what’s something that you never expected to happen in the industry?

If I were sitting in the same seat twenty years ago that I am today, I would be surprised at the speed of consolidation, not just of the credit union marketplace, but of vendors. It seems to be moving at hyper-speed at times.

That being said, I’m still wildly optimistic about the future! I’ve never seen greater opportunity for credit unions in the marketplace or for our cooperatives and the cooperative principles that we bring to the marketplace from a deliverable standpoint. Despite the consolidation, credit unions have an even greater opportunity to partner with fellow credit unions, or with CUSOs and emerging vendors. That will be a key success factor for all of us to stay focused on for the future and how we help our institutions be relevant and in business for as long as they wish to be.

What are your thoughts on the future of the credit union industry? How do you think things will change in the next few years?

I think we will continue to see new products and service channels coming into the marketplace. That will be a positive feeder for many of our institutions, as they look to more unique lines such as business services, additional plastics options, analytics teams, et cetera.

As far as our clients are concerned, I see great opportunities for them to continue to grow. CU*Answers—and the entire cuasterisk.com nationwide network—will continue to be a great solution for credit unions that wish to thrive regardless of their size. No matter how big or small, each credit union has a community that needs financial services—our role is in providing those credit unions with the products and services to meet those needs.

We’ve talked a lot about cooperatives and the cooperative principles, mind sharing your unique perspective on cooperatives with us?

For me, when I’m out in a community that’s not familiar with credit unions and cooperatives, I love having the chance to share how exciting it is to be part of an institution that is owned by its members. There’s no private equity firm that we’re reporting back to. It’s the owners that reap the benefits of a successful organization.

The same goes for our cooperative CUSO. A cooperative will only ever be as good as its owners, and we have great ones. It’s our member-owners who participate as volunteer board members. I love the willingness of the CEOs and staff of our partner institutions to come in and speak confidently as the voice of the industry. To share their insights and wishes for CU*Answers. Having that insight to improve the business plan and the balance sheet has always been positive for us. Their influence on software development and where we put our cooperative dollars to work has helped us to become what we are today.

A cooperative will only ever be as good as its owners, and we have great ones.

To that effect, my lesson to credit unions is to never be afraid of wanting more from your members. The more involved they become, and the more they act like owners, not just consumers, the better off you’ll be.

Lastly, is there anything else you would like to share with our readers?

I’d really just like to reiterate how excited I am to have this opportunity. I’m beyond thrilled and overwhelmingly grateful. My family and I have had such a great run the last seventeen years here at CU*Answers. It’s been such a pleasure to be part of the organization; to watch my children grow up around the firm and to be in such a wonderful and exciting place. Coming in as CEO of CU*Answers, I consider myself blessed. I know this is the right place and the right time.

Speaking directly to our owners and clients, I will also promise that you will never have anyone work harder for you. I will continue to drive forward the success of the cooperative, recognizing who I work for every day: our owners. Know that I’m available to talk whenever and wherever you’re interested in having that engagement. This is something very personal to me and I’m just honored to be here. I am looking forward to many great years of success together.

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