What does it take to revitalize a company? Decisiveness? Grit? Vision? Just ask the longtime employees at Orion Federal Credit Union who participated in its transformation under the leadership of CEO Daniel Weickenand and you’ll learn it’s all that and more.
Weickenand has built his career on turning around troubled institutions, helping credit unions overcome poor management decisions.
“All leaders should have vision,” says the 53-year-old executive. “You have to move forward. In the credit union world, if you’re not growing, you’re not going anywhere.”
During his seven-year tenure, Orion has grown to be the largest credit union in West Tennessee, with more than 62,000 members and $700 million in assets. Weickenand, who sits on the board of directors of the National Association of Federal Credit Unions, places Orion among the top 5 percent of credit unions nationally.
Their prospects weren’t always so rosy. Weickenand, formerly chief financial officer for FedEx Employees Credit Association, was recommended for the position in 2010 after a year-long search. With more than 20 years of credit union management experience, a deep accounting background, and extensive knowledge of the Memphis market, he was well qualified for the job.
But on joining Orion (then the Memphis Area Teachers Credit Union), Weickenand found a deeply distressed company with an equally dispirited staff. At the time, Orion’s membership hovered at 49,000, but overbuilding and poor lending practices had left the financial cooperative reeling. Regulators had even intervened in recent years, trying to right the ship that was clearly sinking.
“I knew it would be a challenge,” he says. “But I didn’t know how big a challenge until I got here.” Reviewing their books brought the financial picture into sharper focus. “Nothing looked good. Nothing.”
“They had $480 million in assets and the average age of their customer was close to 60; that’s dangerous for a financial institution because [people at that age] don’t borrow and that’s how we make money. There was no executive staff. They’d lost $25 million in two years. There was significant capital rolling out the door.”
To Weickenand, it was an opportunity.
Since credit unions are not-for-profit lending institutions whose members are shareholders, he insisted they become more community focused. That commitment is reflected in their tag line: “A better Memphis means a better Orion.” But rebuilding would have to come first.
Then 46, Weickenand realized he had to make some tough decisions quickly. First, he interviewed every staff member — roughly 100 employees — to learn what they needed to work smarter. “Within five minutes, I could tell who would stay and who would be going.” He moved some employees into key positions that would grow their talent and focused on fostering collaboration among departments. He streamlined the credit union’s lending practices and made accountability the new watchword.
“There were nights when I didn’t sleep much that first year,” he admits. “It’s a lot of responsibility when people are putting their trust in you.”
In year two, the regulators finally began to ease their grip, “because they were confident I would fail,” he says wryly.
Weickenand began to whittle down delinquency loan cycles and opted to rebrand the company, a move he hoped would enable them to shed their beleaguered image. “I thought, we can spend eight to 10 years rebuilding our reputation or we can spend two to three years defining who we are by the actions we take,” he says.
Since the credit union had expanded its customer base beyond the teachers who launched it more than 60 years ago, he wanted a name that reflected their openness to the entire community. The company gained a new lease on life as Orion, a word Weickenand plucked from the dictionary.
He then took another major risk. He converted the company’s decrepit core banking system to a new one, a decision his board and executive staff supported but one he likens to an organ transplant.
“You either come out healthier or they’re kicking dirt on you,” he says. Though he personally knew the programmer, “We were only the company’s fifth client. Everyone in the industry was watching.”
His gamble paid off. The company gradually turned the financial corner while green-lighting an operating system that is now used by lending institutions nationally. He passed along savings to their membership by offering products like a 3 percent interest rate on checking accounts.
“You have to take risks, to listen, to say what you’ll do and then do it,” he says of leadership. “You have to treat people with dignity and stand for something larger than yourself.”
To that end, Weickenand has committed Orion to investing in Memphis, by supporting more than 100 nonprofits and giving more than $2 million to fund community initiatives. He encourages volunteerism, allowing employees time on the clock to serve at one of a number of schools Orion partners with, and promotes attendance on nonprofit boards. Weickenand says he wants to be deliberate in living up to the company’s ethos: “Orion operates with courage, integrity, honesty, and commitment to our employees, customers, and community.”