AUX Blog

A Personal Interview with Our Chairman Tessa Bonfante, CEO of Denver Community CU

October 23, 2019

Hello and welcome to our October edition of The Juicy Stuff: An Interview Series with Our Board Members. Each month throughout 2019, I’ve been interviewing one of our board members and publishing it to our blog, right here. The interview is a mix of strategic questions as well as surprise questions to keep things entertaining.

This month, I interviewed our recently-elected Chairman Ms. Tessa Bonfante, CEO of $346M Denver Community CU in Denver, CO. Tessa was elected Chairman in May of 2019 and has been on our board since 2017. She’s been in the credit union movement for decades.

It’s an 80-degree autumn day when I go to visit Tessa’s downtown Denver branch, and it is hopping. It’s hard to find a place to sit down. Kids running everywhere, member service reps hustling about and a lobby full of all walks of life (this is downtown Denver Arts District).

Soft-spoken but widely-admired Tessa sits with me for over an hour to discuss the changing Denver landscape, her membership, and how her own credit union is adapting to a booming city.

How are you feeling six months into your new chairman position? Any surprises?

It’s a pleasure and an honor to serve on the CUSN board and it’s exciting to be part of a collaborative CUSO that is making strategic investments in providing valued solutions to credit unions. Accounting, compliance, HR and IT services are vital to some credit unions and CU Service Network can help with these.

CU Service Network has an awesome management team and staff who have a vast amount of knowledge and dedication to the mission and vision. The CUSN board members are all devoted to the long-term success of CU Service Network and providing credit unions the solutions needed to successfully serve their members.

What are your credit union’s goals for 2020?

We created a strategic plan with focus around growth, brand, and employee satisfaction. We’ve seen results in all these things, and we plan to stay the course. We’re growing and profitable and I feel like we’re running on all cylinders.

Like everyone else, we are always looking for ways to leverage our existing branches and expand our footprint in the communities we serve. We have fairly new locations on West Alameda and in Littleton that we’re working hard to grow.

Our Acoma campus sits in the epicenter of Denver’s Art District, which as you may know is full of creativity, artistry, and cultural development.

There is a vast amount of housing development and dynamic projects happening around us and we feel it’s time to rejuvenate this location once again, so we’re exploring a transformation of our Acoma campus next year. Our corporate office went through a respectable remodel about 10 years ago, but this project would entail our entire campus and facelift that conforms with the creativity happening in this community and appeals to the people living in this area. It’s exciting and we feel a transformation of the Acoma campus will not only provide growth opportunities but benefit the community for years to come.

We’ve also put a laser focus on employee satisfaction over the past couple years, which has been a key to our success and will continue to be in 2020. Colorado’s strong economy has created a competitive employment market which makes it tough to retain good talent. Employees are our biggest asset, so it’s important that they feel valued and have growth opportunities. We try to make our organization a fun place to work and value input from employees on how to make our workplace better. I think it’s safe to say that while we want good talent to stay with us, we know we’ve succeeded when they tell us that they want to stay. A recent employee survey reflected 93% overall employee satisfaction and 87% employee retention, which we feel is respectable given the competitive employment market.

A note: Denver Community CU is a huge supporter of volunteer opportunities. Here are a few photos of Tessa’s staff giving back.

AD: Wow! That is incredible. Let’s move on to your first surprise question.

What is your favorite book and why?

TB: You might be surprised to know I really don’t read a whole lot of novels, but I really enjoy movies.

AD: Your favorite movie?

TB:  One of my favorites is Forrest Gump. It’s just such a heartwarming story that I think was portrayed with valuable life lessons throughout the story–it was also comical. He is so pure in every aspect. The best thing is he is not at all judgmental about anybody around him. He loves everybody as they are, and he always sees the positive side of the people.  He also puts his total self in everything he does, and he eventually achieves success in that.

AD: It’s sad too.

TB: Yes, but more so, it teaches people that at the end of the day, we have to be good people and embrace situations we’re dealt…both good and bad. “Life is like a box of chocolates: You never know what you’re gonna get.”

Tell us about your credit union’s unique dual-CEO structure.

TB: We have a solid financial and cultural foundation, thanks to Carla Hedrick [prior DCCU CEO and long-running CU Service Network Chairman]. Her leadership really paved the way for our structure to materialize.

We have been able to accomplish some amazing things with our Co-CEO structure and the shared leadership has been successful for Denver Community for several reasons. First, both Shane Silvernale and I have a collaborative leadership style developed over the past decade where together we unite our views on the credit union vision and mission and have a similar laser focus on the financial position, member experience, and safety and soundness. We have more agility and oversight, which has enabled a participatory and empowering message to staff at all levels of the organization.

This type of structure has been questioned by some in the industry and my response is simple. It may not be for everyone, but it works for our culture. We have mutual respect and consideration for each other’s specific skills and talents, and we capitalize on them. And, because we still maintain our respective CFO and COO responsibilities, we are effective in tactical application of strategic initiatives, as well as collaborative strategic concepts that best serve the membership.

AD: This is fascinating. How do you make it work?

TB: There are a few things that must be present to make it work. One: Each CEO needs to equally contribute and there needs to be trust and mutual respect. Two: There must be alignment in what the organization is trying to accomplish, and possibly most importantly. Three: Egos must be put aside!

If you’re on the same team trying to accomplish the same goal, two heads are always better than one!

What could you spend all day doing?

TB: Being on a beach, but also traveling the world, just seeing things. I think that comes from being older now and not having the privilege of being able to do things like that when I was younger. I’ve only been out of the country once.

AD: Where would you like to go?

TB: I’ve heard great things about Spain, and I would love to go to Greece, Germany, France… I would love to see it all, and experience new things in different countries. That’s my goal – to travel a lot more.

What changes have surprised you most in the credit union industry throughout the years – something you never expected to happen?

TB: I’ve seen a lot over my tenure in the industry, and credit unions have evolved – but not as fast as the banks. Innovation such as blockchain is something that I don’t think could have been predicted years ago. This type of technology is exciting and can create so many opportunities for credit unions, but it can also severely disrupt the existing banking system the way we know it.

It’s also refreshing to see credit unions purchasing small banks! It goes to show that credit unions are innovative and resourceful. These types of acquisitions are not only a way to grow but can also provide the ability to acquire specialized products, technology and expertise that can help the credit union expand and grow.

There is a new wave of credit union decision makers on the horizon. What advice would you give them?

TB: The young credit union professionals I’ve met have so much passion for the credit union movement and we definitely have some of the best and brightest who are ready to carry the torch for credit unions for years to come.

I think the credit union industry is relying on future credit union decision makers to be creative, courageous, and spirited as we face more competition in the financial industry space. However, what credit unions have always stood for is special and what sets us apart. I would also encourage them to not lose sight of the founding credit union philosophy and always make sure that as you’re growing and evolving the organization, the ultimate achievement is truly helping people improve their lives.    

I would also tell them to find ways to make credit unions unique and exciting!  These days, we often end up not feeling unique and more like a number, so finding ways to make the member experience unique and exciting can be a welcomed differentiator.

AD: Ok, time for your next surprise question.

What’s something that most people love that you find overrated?

TB: What was that show? I’ve actually never watched it.. .Game of Thrones?

AD: You think Game of Thrones is overrated? And did you read Carrie’s [Langgard] article?

TB: Oh my, don’t mention this then! I feel bad now and I will probably have lots of people in our own organization detest me for saying that! It’s just so amazing how many people were infatuated with that show [Laughing]. I just never took an interest in watching fantasy drama like that but know so many people really love that show. Sorry Carrie and any other Game of Thrones fans!

AD: Are you drawn to more non-fiction?

TB: Yeah, some will think I’m boring, but I really like reality TV, history shows and documentary dramas.  I find history so interesting and love military shows like Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers. I can binge watch shows like that!  A&E and the History channels are some of my favorite channels to watch.  Now, I think we should just move on before I get in more trouble.

AD: OK, let’s move onto your last surprise question, at your request.

Name someone you admire greatly.

TB: It’s hard to pick one.  I would definitely say my father, although I could spend a lot of time talking about my admiration for my mother as well.

Who I am today is a testament of his devoted love and upbringing. While we didn’t have much, he never complained, and was a proud man.  He did what he could to provide and give us a good life, but he also made us kids work hard and contribute as a family. I have ultimate respect for him, and he taught me to work hard for what you have, even if it doesn’t add up to a lot. He is a great role model who’s taught me the importance of respect, integrity and courage. I’ll never forget his advice to work hard, treat others as you want to be treated, and always keep God in my life. I still live by his advice!

Tell me your thoughts on the future of credit unions.

TB: There is no doubt that we are in an age of market disruption. I think credit unions will persevere, it may require new ways of thinking, consolidation, collaboration, and pursuit of non-traditional partners. Consumers’ expectations are shaping delivery channels. Consumers expect banking services to be convenient, intuitive, seamless and simple. Credit unions that cannot meet these demands will struggle to survive.

Credit unions must be forward-looking and strive for service excellence among all touch points to remain relevant and competitive. Today, we feel like current digital services such as online banking, mobile banking, remote deposit capture, Apple Pay, P2P, etc. are needed conveniences, but the ballgame changes quickly. Credit unions must have a laser focus on consumer expectations, product innovation, enhanced engagement and value-added services when building strategies for the future. This may require credit unions to collaborate and seek partnerships that can meet these necessities as well as offer new and viable solutions.

A huge thanks to Tessa for taking so much time out of her busy day to meet with me. And feel free to give her grief about not liking Game of Thrones!

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