“How did you do it? How did you – a small, niche credit union – grow into a full-service billion- dollar organization?”
After 30 years at the helm of First Entertainment Credit Union, Charles “Chuck” Bruen has been asked that question quite often. “For me it started back in 1987. First Entertainment had 10,000 members, $30 million in assets, and ten employees. We operated out of the corner of a small branch on the Warner Bros. lot.”
Thanks to the endless challenges and complexity of the financial services industry, it’s very difficult for small credit unions to survive. But through Chuck’s guidance, First Entertainment did just that – growing to more than 70,000 members, over $1.3 billion in assets, and more than 200 employees, making First Entertainment one of the largest credit unions in America. There aren’t many in the credit union industry who can top that.
The road to success hasn’t been that complicated, says Chuck. “One of the reasons we’ve been successful is that from the very start, we decided rather than talk about ourselves, first and foremost, we’d talk about our members. We put our focus on them. We simply had the goal to help other people in the business make the most of their money. And we believed we could do a better job than banks – that is, if we all band together and try.”
For Chuck, and the rest of the team, this wasn’t just a credit union, this was a cause. “We were sick of dealing with banks who refuse to understand that modern people don’t work 9 to 5,” Chuck says adamantly. “Or that in some businesses, like ours, moving from job to job is the norm, and probably means you’re good at what you do. We figured, these bank people don’t even know how to spell ‘hiatus’, much less know what it means. We knew that our colleagues in the business – artists and businesspeople alike – were so busy being good at what they do, well, they could use someone at their back to make sure they got a fair shake, and to make the most of their money. Because it’s a tough business, let’s face it. And what bank does that?”
As far as we’ve seen, few to none.
Leaning forward in his chair, clearly as passionate today as he was decades ago, Chuck brings it home. “Sure, we promote great rates and great service, and believe me, we are competitive. But mostly, we put our hearts into the things that would help our members beyond just banking. We simply kept a laser focus on why we existed in the first place.”
Some who know Chuck attribute his work ethic and member loyalty to his experience in the United States Marine Corps. It might also explain why his staff is so loyal, many of them working with Chuck for many years. “I’m incredibly proud of our team,” says Chuck.
“We have nine vice presidents, each an expert in their area. I’m talking capable and experienced professionals. Each of those folks have been with us at least ten years, and some more than 30 years.” Chuck smiles and says, “This is about as far from a one-man show as it gets. I’ve been surrounded not only by our excellent senior management team, but also a board of directors and supporting committees composed of active, engaged professional entertainment people who volunteer to serve their fellow members. These folks mentored, guided, and supported me through the years.”
He pauses for a moment, thinking, then says, “I never would have felt comfortable retiring without a team this smart and this capable, and I’m so grateful to them.”
But now, that’s the plan. Soon Chuck will be handing over the reins of his baby to a new CEO, and he seems remarkably at ease with it. “Oh, of course,” Chuck says with an enthusiastic smile. “I’ll be leaving on such a high note. We serve a successful and vibrant entertainment industry. When it began to realize that we really were on their side, doors were opened – we were able to reach out to all kinds of entertainment companies to bring them into our family.”
Chuck’s plan is to spend serious time with his lovely wife Donna at their second home in Yosemite, and to travel to see their family, which is spread throughout the country. Son Charles is a doctor in Minnesota, daughter Amanda is an attorney in Portland, and a youngest son Eric is the CEO of Desert Valleys Federal Credit Union in Ridgecrest, CA. With three grandkids, all boys aged 2, 3 and 5, that Yosemite home is going to get a lot more use.
While not one to talk about legacy, Chuck is never shy about talking up First Entertainment. “We’re now one of the most admired credit unions in the country, we’re still growing, and our members love us, and that means we have bigger and better resources to do lots of good.”
“As I look ahead,” Chuck continues, “we’re poised to continue setting the standard for the industry with products and services that rival anyone’s. Our focus on innovation, using technology to make our members’ financial lives easier and more profitable, is only going to accelerate. I can tell you, as exciting as these last decades have been, they’ll pale compared to what we’ve got coming.”
Chuck goes quiet for a moment to let that thought sink in. Then, as always, he returns to the advocacy for which he’s known.
“Most importantly, what’s going to continue to drive our success is the fact that we operate on a core set of values which are deeply embedded in our culture. The values our institution has always stood for. Like amazing, empathetic customer service. Competitive rates. Understanding. Doing what’s right. You see,” Chuck says with a knowing smile, “no matter how much innovation we bring to the credit union, or how competitive our rates are, or how convenient our branches might be, it’s our values which separate us from other financial institutions, and in fact, most other companies. Our values give us a purpose that’s greater than the credit union itself.”
Update: We are happy to announce the appointment of Frank Wasson, our new CEO, as of June 13th, 2016.