A Passion For People

Posted on May 1, 2009 :: Cover Story
Sharon Verbeten
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

Carla Altepeter, CitizensFirst Credit Union CEO

Failure is not a word often associated with Carla Altepeter.

Words like passionate, driven and committed are the usual superlatives used to describe the chief executive officer of CitizensFirst Credit Union.

After all, she did become a CEO by age 32, helped grow the credit union to one of the largest in the area, works tirelessly on behalf of community organizations in Oshkosh and is involved in international mission work to help improve the lives of others around the world.

Earlier this year she was elected chairwoman of the Madison-based Credit Union Executives society, an independent, international group dedicated to the education and development of credit union CEOs worldwide.

Yet, if it was not for a small failure decades ago, none of those things may have happened.

Altepeter was 19, as she recalls, and already working at a small credit union in California. But, she had her eye on something different, and applied at Lockheed for a job in data processing.

“I failed the typing test,” she says with a chuckle as she tells the story. “Of course, they saw that I had credit union experience and said they needed help there. I turned it down, but they forwarded my resume to the credit union anyway and they offered me a job.

“I figured that while I’m trying to figure things out in life, I might as well go make more money.”

From then on, she would be committed to the cause of credit unions. Within a few years, she decided not only to carve out a career in credit unions; she decided she wanted to be a CEO. She would spend much of the 1980s moving up in the industry, working in several credit unions in Southern California. Along the way she went back to school to get her degree and raise her children.

In 1992, CitizensFirst tapped her as its new CEO, and that is where she has been ever since.

“I will do this as long as they let me,” Altepeter says. “My primary job is to keep this organization vibrant and chart the course so that we are a viable solution now and in the future.”

Sound advice
That approach has turned out to be sound advice for Altepeter and CitizensFirst.

During the past 10 years, CitizensFirst has seen its assets grow to more than $340 million from around $140 million. The credit union serves some 31,000 members – about 34 percent of the population in its primary service area – and has physically grown from two locations when Altepeter took over to six branches, including its newest one in Fond du Lac.

“I just really love the credit union movement,” Altepeter says. “I love the idea that we take care of people first, and then we look to make a profit.”

Those who work with her say she is truly committed to those principles. Her focus on people has been critical to the success not only of the credit union, but for many projects in the Oshkosh community as well.

“She brings that energy to everything she does,” says Brenda Haynes, co-founder of Blue Door Marketing and a member of the CitizensFirst Board of Directors since 2003. “Her passion is a great asset for her and a great asset for us.”

For all the success, Altepeter remains grounded to the true mission, Haynes says.

“When we as a board sit around the table and work on strategic planning, she is the one who always brings us back to the community and our members,” she says.

John Bermingham was on the board of directors when Altepeter was selected as CEO. Now the board’s chairman, he marvels at all she has been able to do for both the credit union and the community as a whole. He attributes much of her success to her passion for people.

“She is the kind of person who wants every one of her reports to be able to one day take over her job,” Bermingham says. “She is involved with so many things. She has a great passion to help people, yet she is very grounded in reality.”

Different path
Bermingham also attributes some of Altepeter’s success to her career path.

While Altepeter may have known early on she wanted to become the CEO of a credit union, she never sought the quickest path to the top.

Growing up in the San Fernando Valley area outside of Los Angeles, Altepeter started in the industry right after high school when her mother told her about an opening at the credit union serving employees of Sony. She was one of two employees working in that operation.

From there she went to the Telephone Employees Credit Union, then Lockheed Federal Credit Union, where she worked in a variety of positions leading to management, before moving in 1987 to Rockwell Federal Credit Union as vice president. She began learning the skills of working with a board of directors and strategic planning.

Along the way, she watched and learned from those around her, including the example Bermingham has set as the chairman of the CitizensFirst board of directors. A member of the Credit Union Executives Society since 1993, Altepeter joined the board 10 years later. She observed the leaders who held the CUES top position and learned the skills required to be
successful in that role.

“I have watched the people who do things well and how they do them,” she says. “I want to learn from people who do it right. I even want to learn from people who did it wrong so I know what to avoid.”

Doing it right
The knowledge of knowing the right thing to do will play an important role during the next few years as the nation tries to shake off the economic downturn and spark a recovery.

While banks have been devalued and demonized for their role in the recent financial meltdown, credit unions in general have avoided that spotlight. No doubt, the nature of credit unions has helped to keep many of them away from riskier investments.

“We are pretty conservative in our policies,” Altepeter says. “But we do things different than other institutions because our focus is on members.”

In general, Wisconsin credit unions maintained a capital-to-asset ratio of 10.8 percent, which in actual dollars represents available capital of $1.94 billion. Additionally, credit unions tend to keep and service the loans they make, which has kept them away from mortgage backed securities and other instruments blamed for some of the nation’s financial woes, says Brett A. Thompson, president and CEO of the Wisconsin Credit Union League.

That’s not to say credit unions won’t feel the effects of the recession. While most institutions have maintained their liquidity, the people who make up their members are losing jobs and facing tough times.

“I think it is fair to say that credit unions will be impacted by the general economy,” Thompson says. “I think we will see delinquency rates increase.”

Still, the conservative nature of the institutions and the focus on members will likely mean that credit unions will have the resources to make loans to consumers and businesses. Indeed, they may soon be able to do more.

In 1997, Congress placed a cap of 12.25 percent of assets a credit union could make in loans to businesses. Now, with the credit markets still largely frozen, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-NY, has proposed lifting that cap to pump more equity into the economy.

Thompson estimates lifting the cap could result in $10 billion in new capital for small businesses to tap into throughout the country.

Altepeter says credit unions can help during the recession by doing what they do best: service members. CitizensFirst has launched a new campaign to help its customers pay off their credit cards and save more of their money.

“That’s what is in the best interests of our members,” she says.

Community involvement
For Altepeter, that commitment to service extends well beyond the board room.

CitizensFirst is a supporter of many civic projects and groups in the Oshkosh area. The credit union’s annual report lists 150 groups to which the institution or its employees provided either financial support or volunteer service during the year. Photos from many of the organizations grace the pages of the annual report.

Altepeter sets the example by volunteering with a myriad of community groups.

“When you talk about leaders in a community, she is one you have to have on the list,” says Eileen Connelly-Keesler, president of the Oshkosh Area Community Foundation. “Her fingers are everywhere in the community.”

Altepeter is not content to define community as just the Oshkosh area. Altepeter thinks and acts globally.

Working with St. Raphael’s parish in Oshkosh, Altepeter is a veteran of several overseas missions, where she has done everything from building houses to helping out in a dental clinic serving the poor.

In March, she led a trip to the Dominican Republic, where medical and dental professionals provided care to local people and she worked with a construction crew to rebuild a chapel.

Altepeter can date her interest in international service to work she was doing in the late 1990s.

“I had one of those a-ha moments when I was traveling with the (Credit Union National Association),” she says. “We visited Cape Town, South Africa and then Zimbabwe. I had this moment of clarity that I had to do something to help the poor.”

When she returned from the trip, she approached her church about beginning an international mission. The folks at St. Raphael’s were working with the same idea. She has led teams to Third World countries every year since 1999.

Most of the trips are to South American countries, where the time of travel does not hinder the recruitment of volunteers for the trips.

While building homes and medical clinics certainly helps these communities in need, Altepeter wants to make an even bigger mark. She wants to use the credit union model to help break the cycle of poverty that haunts these communities and the people who live in them.

The financial institutions in many of these countries are neither trustworthy nor accessible to the poor. The credit union model, with its focus on local members, is the perfect vehicle for micro-lending to help budding small-scale entrepreneurs, she says. It also provides a trustworthy place for people to begin saving.

“That will give the people in those rural communities the resources to get themselves out of poverty,” Altepeter says. “Especially if we can get the women employed in their own micro businesses, then they can feed their families and get them an education.”

It’s a mission of the World Council on Credit Unions which she supports.

Call it home
As global as her view has become, Altepeter plans on calling Oshkosh and CitizensFirst her home for a long time to come. It’s not all work, though. She is an avid golfer – by the end of the season she will shoot in the high 40s for nine holes – and enjoys reading about the latest business trends as well as books on spiritual self help.

“You have to work on the inside, too,” Altepeter says.

She says there are still plenty of challenges for her to take on, especially with the economic difficulties that seem to grow by the day. Altepeter says the challenge for her is to figure out how to negotiate the credit union through the difficult times while maintaining service to its members and the community as a whole.

“We can get bigger,” she says. “I knew I wanted to work for a larger credit union. I enjoy the challenges it presents as well as having the resources to deal with them.

“I love this job,” she says.