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Credit Union Times Announces "CEO of the Year: Romero Builds a Legacy in Seattle"

Article By David Baumann of CreditUnionTimes below:

Under Richard Romero’s leadership, Seattle Credit Union has grown astronomically.

But to Romero, the winner of CU Times’ Trailblazer Award for CEO of the Year, it’s not the jump of $112.7 million in assets in 2017 that counts the most. Or even membership growth.

“I’m not really interested in leaving a legacy of growing assets,” he said.

It’s what that tremendous growth will allow his credit union to accomplish in his community that counts the most — and the fact that many of those new members are low-income people.

That growth has allowed Seattle CU to open two branches in low-income areas, relocate another branch, become certified as a Community Development Financial Institution, launch a Citizenship Loan Program with the city of Seattle and intensely focus on Seattle’s Hispanic population.

In addition, Seattle CU was named El Centro de la Raza’s “Supporter of the Year.” Founded in 1972, El Centro de la Raza provides cultural, educational and social support to underserved communities.

The new branches feature an open floorplan and innovative technology — all focused on creating a collaborative approach to banking.

Staff members received intensive brand awareness training and the credit union’s headquarters was moved to a location that features a more open, inclusive floor plan — all intended to help employees work more collaboratively and efficiently.

And the credit union changed its name from Seattle Metropolitan Credit Union to Seattle CU.

It’s all part of an effort to re-brand the 80-year-old credit union by focusing on Seattle’s low-income zip codes and rebranding the financial institution.

“To me, it’s just the fundamental cooperative philosophy,” Romero said, explaining the credit union’s efforts to help the underbanked who might otherwise be victimized by such businesses as payday lenders who charge exorbitant interest rates.

“It’s not an easy task,” he said. “We’re fortunate that we’re a large credit union.”

And being large does have an advantage, Romero said. The credit union is able to offer products and services at a competitive price — something that smaller financial institutions may not be able to offer.

Romero holds a bachelor’s of science in Organizational Management from the University of La Verne in Los Angeles County, Calif.

He worked at K-Mart while in college and began work in the banking industry as a teller at Great Western Bank in Chatsworth, Calif. He served as service quality manager at JP Morgan Chase, then joined the credit union industry as vice president for member services at Telesis Community Credit Union in Chatsworth. He then joined Los Angeles Firemen’s Credit Union as COO in 2004 and was named president/CEO of Seattle CU in February 2012.

He also serves on the boards of the United Way of King County, YWCA of King and Snohomish Counties, Leadership Eastside and the Federation of Community Development Credit Unions.

Romero can identify with the Hispanic community in Seattle. He came to the U.S. from Peru as a four-year-old and recalls “going to kindergarten and not knowing a word of English.” Growing up in a single-parent household, “I was basically on my own,” he said. Those experiences helped Romero understand the needs of the community and helped him gain a rapport with people. And the memory of his mother working at a bank in Peru made him a natural for the banking and credit union industry.

“I have the empathy of what people are going through,” he said. “It allows me to go into communities with the voice of experience. I understand what it’s like to grow up in poverty because I grew up in poverty.”

He said that banks may open branches in low-income areas, but often do not tailor their products to help the underbanked.

“In the underserved, underbanked community, there’s a lot of skepticism, a lack of trust,” he said. “It takes time to build these relationships.”

And so, the credit union offers citizenship loans of up to $4,000. The loans may be used for passport fees (first-time applications, renewals, changes and/or additional services), DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival) fees and TPS (Temporary Protected Status) fees.

The credit union also provides a folder with information for emergency financial planning for immigrant families.

Under Romero’s leadership, Seattle CU has received a Juntos Avanzamos certification. Credit unions that receive that designation are recognized for their service to the Latino Community. The program was developed by the Cornerstone Credit Union League in Texas and is now expanding nationwide.

Seattle CU was the first credit union in the city to receive that designation and the second in the state of Washington.

Romero said that in the current political climate, it’s even more important to help the immigrant community, adding that the credit union had decided to focus on that sector even before Donald Trump was elected president and began cracking down on immigration issues.

Since the election and the subsequent immigration crackdown, many immigrants have gone “underground,” he said, adding that there is a soaring fear of giving too much personal information to anyone.

Still, Romero said his credit union is striving to serve that immigrant community. “The best way to deal with people who are in fear is to educate them,” he said. “It’s our responsibility to make a difference in these people’s lives.”

Romero predicted that the future will be bright for Seattle CU. “We will become a force to reckon with in our area,” he said. “If you focus on doing the right thing, the growth just comes naturally.”

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