In each “On Leadership” column, Allen Lima Leadership Executive Director Matt Childers talks with a regional business leader. This week, he profiles Phil Buell, CEO and president of Superior Credit Union.
Matt: Was banking always the path for you?
Phil: My high school basketball coach Ralph Ruffer (Fairview, Ohio) was a great influence and mentor. I wanted to be a basketball coach and a math/science teacher. As I was going to Defiance College, I had a summer job with an electrical co-op, and as I thought if I was going to take all this math and science maybe I should be an engineer. I then decided to enroll at the University of Toledo and study electrical engineering. I took one quarter of engineering, and it was not a good match (laughter). In the meantime, I took an economics course, and I could understand it, and I actually liked it! I ended up getting my degree in economics, and my first job was with American General in finance, and that is how my career started.
Matt: You remained in the Defiance with American General. Tell us about that experience.
Phil: I was with American General for a couple of years, and it was a great educational experience. I had a great guy named Don Phillips who broke me in, and I had a couple of coworkers at Superior who I worked for then. Those early connections that you make with people, you never know when they may come back around.
Matt: When you think back to those earlier days in banking, what has changed the most?
Phil: Regulation. I knew Mike Oxley (former U.S. congressman) fairly well. The legislation that they passed, Sarbanes Oxley, It didn’t me much to me at the time but was in relation to Enron and auditing. I never knew what an impact it would have, not just on credit unions and finance, but all industries. We used to spend about 75% of our time working with our members and the business piece, and 25% or less on regulation and auditing. That has totally flipped. It is now 75% on regulation and navigating through land mines.
Matt: How many employees do you have working with you at Superior? And how many when you started in 2003?
Phil: We have 250 currently, and when I started in 2003 we had a little less than 50. We had three offices then and now 24 offices today.
Matt: Why was expansion important for you as the leader and for Superior Credit Union?
Phil: This may be a management philosophy, but whatever industry you are in, your expenses are going to go up. You are going to pay your employees more, you are going to pay higher benefits, you are going to pay your vendors more. The only way to outrun it on the expenses is to outrun it on the income side. The only way to generate income is to grow.
Matt: Who was instrumental at Superior for you early on?
Phi: Bruce Campbell was a great mentor. He always had good strong growth numbers at Superior. He took Superior from $4 million to $120 million when he retired. We have then gone from $120 million to $1.2 billion in the last 15 years. All that growth has allowed us to sustain income, pay our employees more, pay our members more, provide a lot more products and services. In any business, you really have to figure out how to grow and how to sustain it.
Matt: What is the leadership philosophy with your growth and geographic footprint?
Phil: It gets a little more difficult the bigger you get. When we were smaller, it was very easy for me to visit all the branches once every couple of weeks. Today it is once a quarter. In most cases, it is not me going in and telling, “I need you to do this and that,” I am asking what they need from me and how I can help get them the resources they need.
Matt: Let’s go deeper on that.
Phil: I am a big fan of delegation. You have to have people you can delegate to, and you have to have employees that assume that responsibility. We have a very good team that does that, and I believe they appreciate this. One doesn’t always want to be told what to do. They want to make decisions. Our employees make really good decisions.
Matt: How do you hire your leaders in the company?
Phil: Many come from our entry-level positions. I really like to identify those individuals and bring them through the system. I would reference (chief operating officer) Melanie Weldy as an example. She hired in as a teller. She is very bright, smart, worked hard in every position and worked her way through internal auditing, accounting manager, CFO and now COO. She excelled in every single spot.
Matt: What is your advice for young people going into the workforce?
Phil: I think the key is just roll up your sleeves and get in and learn as much as you can. I go back to my American General days. I started out at 7 bucks an hour out of college. You worked long days, and I was able to pay my rent and car payment. The education I got from those first jobs and taking on additional responsibility and doing what I was asked to do was key. I will always ask young people, “Have you put yourself in a position to earn a promotion?”