A Career Focused on Culture and Values
Benson Porter talks about some of his favorite moments and hopes for the future as he prepares for retirement from his role as BECU's CEO and President.
Advocating for members' financial well-being, growing the business, cultivating the culture and leading the credit union through change were all responsibilities Benson Porter was prepared for. But there's a bit of celebrity status that comes with being CEO that caught him by surprise.
On a flight to Spokane, another passenger, a BECU member, learned Porter was the new CEO and asked for his autograph — on the member's BECU debit card.
That was his first week on the job, and although Porter has never been comfortable with his celebrity status, he has enjoyed representing BECU and has been humbled by the connection members say they feel with their credit union.
After 30 years in the financial services industry and 10 years at BECU's helm, Porter will retire at the end of 2022, a date that feels like it's rapidly approaching.
"It's a surreal feeling," Porter said. "You spend the bulk of your life moving toward retirement. It's hard to believe when it's actually here."
Porter, who is known among colleagues for delivering his thoughts about business and strategy at a quick clip, took an uncharacteristic pause to reflect on the highlights and challenges of his work, and his hopes for the future of BECU and the credit union industry.
Driving Sustainable Growth
During Porter's tenure, BECU grew from 800,000 members and $11 billion in assets in 2012 to more than 1.28 million members and $30.2 billion in assets last year.
Porter credits some of that growth to market conditions. He also believes BECU's members-first model helped the credit union grow by identifying and responding to needs in the community. One example is the move to start serving small-business members.
"We heard from small-business members that they wanted to separate their accounts — business from personal — so we made the decision to enter business banking and commercial lending during a recession in response to their needs," Porter said.
That segment has now grown into substantial business for the credit union, which now serves more than 68,600 business members — ranging from a variety of small businesses to real estate developers serving local communities.
"The practice of responding to a signal from the market about a need goes back to the beginning of BECU," he said.
In 1935, a group of Boeing employees pitched in to make the credit union's first loan to a fellow coworker to buy tools. Now, BECU is the largest community-based credit union in the country.
A Culture Rooted in Values
In some of Porter's past roles, he watched how rapid growth and acquisitions could erode the culture as organizations tried to bring teams from different businesses together.
Porter credits his predecessor, Gary Oakland, with laying the foundation and developing BECU's strong, healthy culture. It was important for Porter to create a framework and structure that could help maintain it.
"It was clear that members were the glue for why the organization exists," Porter said. "I thought it was important that we have a language to talk about what the culture is so we could measure ourselves against our ideal."
Rather than deciding what that language should be, Porter turned to employees to define a set of values that describe the shared vision of what BECU is about.
"The values are reflective of who we are as an organization and who we want to be, and they are based on our people," Porter said. The values also helped inform the decision to create a member code of conduct.
He believes taking risks is worthwhile, but it's important to be crystal clear about what an organization's values are. That clarity gives employees and members confidence in the organization and the direction it's going.
"The worst thing an organization can do is say one thing and do another," he said. "Don't take culture for granted. You can have it, and you can lose it. It's important to put some intentionality into something this important."
Porter has seen multiple sides of the financial services industry — regulatory, for-profit, not-for-profit, consumer and commercial.
One of the biggest changes he's seen on the credit union side has been the pace of growth, which is impressive, considering the limitations credit unions have on how they can generate revenue. They're also limited in how they can grow geographically by having to apply for individual state charters.
"We can't go out and raise money like a shareholder-based business," he said. "Our growth has to be self-sustaining. The growth rate is slower because we're not taking on the same risk. We have to grow as an outcome of giving members great service and a good deal."
While he's pleased with BECU's growth, he wouldn't equate being pleased with being satisfied.
"As an industry, we have not fulfilled our potential yet," he said. "We know not-for-profit credit unions are a great model for members, but why don't we have greater market share as an industry? I don't think we should be satisfied until we serve far more members."
Expanding Reach, Being Inclusive
In addition to expanding BECU's reach geographically and increasing its market share generally, Porter believes it is imperative to expand its service to communities of color and among more diverse cultural groups.
The success of a recent Spanish-language pilot program at BECU's neighborhood financial centers validates the need for culturally relevant products and services.
“If, for example, you speak a language other than English and you can't get service in that language, that doesn't feel right,” he said. “We need to ‘do the right thing' as we serve our communities."
"Do the Right Thing" is one of BECU's values.
Insights for BECU's Next CEO
As he prepares to leave BECU's top spot, Porter is thoughtful about what advice he can offer his successor and other leaders.
In his experience, one of the hazards of advancing in leadership roles is that employees seem less likely to share hard truths, which can set leaders up to make decisions in a vacuum.
"You have to be intentional about trying to get a fair view of what's going on in the organization," he said. "Innovation and solutions often don't come from the corner office. The answers are most often found within the organization. Tap into the employees' knowledge and experience. They are close to the members and likely have great insights into how we can do better."
Although he's comfortable being spontaneous and leading through uncertain times, he emphasized the importance of sharing your vision, being clear about the direction you're headed and grounding your leadership in your organization's purpose.
"I'm comfortable with ambiguity, but as CEO, your team depends on you for clarity," he said.
Porter is a planner, but he's keeping his retirement plans open. He's particularly excited about spending more time on two wheels, riding his road and mountain bikes, and his motorcycle on a long-planned trip to Alaska. He's also thinking about continuing to learn — maybe learning to cook or fly a plane.
One thing is for certain: He'll continue to look for opportunities to give back.
After taking some time to recharge, Porter plans to start his search for opportunities to share his experience and expertise to benefit others.