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Lora Benrud: 'back to basics' means respect & care for staff, members

Posted: May 30, 2018

When Lora Benrud was just a kid growing up in rural Menomonie, her parents took her and her three siblings to Menomonie Farmers Credit Union so they could enjoy the chocolate milk that dispensed in the lobby.

Little did she know that 34 years later, she’d be that credit union’s CEO (now known as WESTconsin Credit Union), and represent credit unions in Asset Group D ($500M+ in assets) on the League Board of Directors.

“That’s where I had my first savings and checking account, and I have never opened one anywhere else,” she said.

But it was her gym-teacher father who set her on the path of a finance career, sitting her down at the table as he balanced the books for some side businesses her parents owned. Lora thought at the time that she’d follow in his footsteps and become a high school math teacher and coach.

She enrolled at Mount Senario College in Ladysmith (now closed) and dove into math courses. At the time, she played volleyball, basketball, and fast-pitch softball – the latter of which her dad coached her in during high school. She decided to major in business administration and minor in math and computer science.

“Our entire college had very few computers – I got through myself using just an electric typewriter,” she laughs.  She gained additional experience working for a business teacher who ran an accounting business. “A pizza place brought their financials to us every week in a pizza bag and I helped do them. You know those cool graphics and charts that Excel does for you? I created those by hand,” she muses.

The year she began work at the credit union – 1984, after graduation – it had just 54 employees, $54 million in assets and six offices. And it, too, conducted most of its transactions on paper. In less than a year she was full-time.

“I worked extra hours in our branch offices, mostly doing teller work. I also monitored checks – clearing and returns – and helping members with accounts. Back then, our overdraft fee was $4,” she remembers. She also then supervised the non-lending employees in the main office.

After taking her first course in organizational leadership at UW-Stout - while still working full-time - she decided to pursue her master’s in management technology. The experience inspired her to broaden her vision, so she took electives in HR – a move which helped her become the credit union’s first HR employee.

While in the HR role, she was responsible for all non-lending products and services. She helped hire and train staff for all the branches and even launched the credit union’s debit card and online banking programs. In the early nineties, the credit union changed its name to WESTconsin to recognize its presence across the west central portion of the state (it had merged with five small credit unions prior to Lora’s employment). 

Lora recalls going to many meetings on financial risk issues – including on how loans were priced – but never, to this day, closed a loan herself – an unusual path for an aspiring leader in a lending institution.

“While I never got involved in credit risk, I learned risk from the big picture side – the balance sheet impact of loan loss and other aspects of Enterprise Risk Management (ERM),” she says. 

Lora says it’s great that today’s credit union young professionals (YPs) can get exposure to key management concepts from The League’s free YP Boot Camps. She also recommends CUNA Management School – and taking advantage of Foundation scholarships for it.

Lora recalls taking a technical college course that taught about credit unions, but what she says clinched the “CU Difference” in her mind was a visit to the credit union from her former college professor who came in with $300 in overdraft fees.

“I helped him balance his checkbook, and here I am, a 23-year-old former student, thinking he should have a good handle on his finances.  It made me realize what credit unions are for – to help all members right where they’re at – and everyone, no matter who they are, has some way they can improve their finances,” she said.

With ongoing coaching – largely from former WESTconsin CEO Greg Lentz – she moved up to Chief Financial Officer. She served in that role for 15 years and took the top job from Greg when he retired in 2014. The next year, Lora oversaw a merger with Valley Credit Union. Today WESTconsin has 390 employees, 15 full-service branches, over $1.1 billion in assets and more than 90,000 members.

Lora says WESTconsin still does what it always has – hire only caring people who want to make a difference in others’ lives. Financial counseling is a way of life at credit unions, she says, so she urges credit unions to take advantage of opportunities to formalize that skill set, such as The League’s Enhanced FiCEP training.

“Our mission is to help members achieve financial success,” she notes, adding that this means different things to different people. “For some, it’s to pay bills on time, put food on the table and send their kids to school. For others it may be a shiny new boat. But we hear member stories all the time about how we made a real difference in their lives. It’s up to our employees to find out how we can do that.”

Part of the challenge, she says, is in learning  to use member data to identify their needs and how to engage members personally  so they know you care and that they can count on you – “getting back to basics,” as Lora puts it. Employees want these opportunities to be personally effective, she says.

In fact, 100% of WESTconsin’s employees have participated in all three of the employee engagement surveys that WESTconsin has conducted since early 2017 – a process that helps the organization grow by learning what employees see, know, and want to get out of their roles.

Lora has cleared the way for staff to get more involved in chapter meetings – now all employees are urged to attend them, not just the board or management. The credit union is also looking at new ways to involve staff in advocacy, a role that previously fell to just one person. A WESTconsin YP recently served as an advisor to The League Board.

“I think the longer-term employees have stayed on because of a work environment that supported their vision of a career – provided an opportunity for them to have an impact,” Lora said. “What I want to do is model to all a genuine care and respect for them as individuals– that’s what I saw Greg do as CEO, as well as his predecessor. How you communicate sends a powerful message, “she emphasized.

She said the recent explosion in compliance costs and increasing cybersecurity risks weigh on all employees, who ultimately play a role in both. But resources like The League’s Compliance Specialist program – which helps expedite compliance tasks through shared staffing – can offer relief, she says.

She applauds Activists’ achievements gaining visibility for credit unions’ mission and purpose, for advancing policy to stop the costly problems of data breach, and passing recent legislation which, in part, will offer prize-linked savings accounts to Wisconsin’s 3 million members.

Lora also encourages credit union professionals to apply for participation in WILD, the new name for the Wisconsin Innovation Group – a nine-month collaboration among credit union professionals to identify new ways to meet members’ needs. The goal is to share Wisconsin-specific solutions that can energize and inform other credit unions.

Ask her what she’s proud of and she talks about community involvement, student-run branches in the local high schools and a middle school, support for Junior Achievement and other organizations, reality fairs and her credit union’s continued focus on financial wellness, among other initiatives.

Besides her role on the League board, Lora meets twice a year with the Federal Reserve Board in Washington, D.C., as chair of the 9th District of the National Community Depository Institutions Advisory Council. She also serves on local boards including for the local food pantry, economic development organization and American Red Cross.

When Lora wants to unwind, she and her husband – now empty-nesters – enjoy spending time at the lake. She also enjoys walking, biking and doing puzzles, like a daily Sudoku and crossword. Her four kids and seven grandkids are a source of great pride. “I never became a math teacher, but maybe someday when those little ones are in high school I’ll be their substitute,” she chuckles.

Source: Wisconsin Credit Union League | www.theleague.coop

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