BY KIM ADKINS
On May 1, 2019, Dion Williams became Piedmont Advantage Credit Union’s (PACU) President and CEO. Within ten months on the job, COVID-19 is declared a pandemic, a national emergency ensues, and statewide stay-at-home orders spread across the nation. Advancing the Credit Union’s strategic priorities could have stalled. Instead, according to Williams, they accelerated primarily due to the culture of PACU and resiliency of its employees.
“It’s the tough times that test an organization’s culture and values; and the commitment of our employees shown to members, our operations, and each other has been nothing short of extraordinary,” Williams said.
Williams stresses that this culture stems from credit unions, in general, having a shared purpose of “People Helping People.”
“This purpose acts as the North Star that helps to show us where we need to go and why, even though the how is specific to each credit union,” he said, and added, “There is no doubt that the pandemic accelerated our strategic priorities, primarily due to the fact these priorities reinforced this underlining purpose.”
When Williams took the leadership helm at PACU, he set out to create an infrastructure where employees were positioned to simply serve its members. This meant offering new technologies for self-service transactions, so employees had the time to problem-solve.
According to Williams, the irony of the infrastructure was that it existed on the drawing board before the pandemic and served a remarkable purpose during the pandemic. The rationale was that changing consumer behaviors bring with them an expectation of more technology and automation to accompany the service experience. Thus, contactless payments for debit and credit cards, digital wallet options, and upgraded ATM’s satisfied the expectations of an evolving consumer base, while also providing safer service delivery options during the pandemic.
Carolinas Credit Union League President and CEO Dan Schline, who has known Williams for 24 years and was aware of Williams’ infrastructure plans, agrees with Williams’ overall credit union sentiments. “While the pandemic threw all financial institutions for a loop, because of the ‘People Helping People’ philosophy within the credit union industry, the immediate needs of employees and members intuitively came first,” Schline said.
“When the needs of employees and members are the priority, long-term institutional goals aren’t sacrificed. They actually become amplified,” Schline added.
During the pandemic, Schline and Williams communicated regularly. Schline shared he saw first-hand that Williams took care of his employees first, safeguarding their well-being by providing remote work opportunities where possible, and limiting branch access to the public; and when PACU members needed help paying bills, PACU responded with loan forbearance and fee waivers.
“What impressed me most was PACU’s ability to offer Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans to small business owners in its service regions. At the time, PACU didn’t offer business-lending solutions, but managed to create a new line of business in a few weeks, so that it could offer PPP loans to area businesses in desperate need of these federal funds to pay their employees,” Schline said.
“Dion recognized the importance of offering business services and reacted deliberately and purposely to help his executive team make it happen. Dion’s can-do attitude is inspiring,” Schline admitted. “Through all of this, PACU maintained its long-term focus of modernizing delivery channels.”
Pictured with Williams (left to right) are PACU’s CU@Work Executive Jobana Semones, Lending Processor Michelle Johnson-Epps and E-Commerce Manager Daniel Scruggs.
In preparing for this executive spotlight, Williams took the time to reflect on this past year. He learned that organizations that truly operate with a servant’s heart pivot faster and capitalize on the opportunities inherent in any crisis. Yet, Williams emphasized that communication is a critical element of leading a team through any crisis.
“Communications must be frequent and transparent, truly say something, and provide reassurance. Any message communicated must be in harmony with the actions taken. Thus, stakeholders hear the message, see the actions, and gain confidence in the plan and its execution,” he said.
Williams has held numerous leadership positions, with the most recent, prior to PACU, as Chief Executive at Del-One Federal Credit Union in Dover, Delaware. As a leader, he uses the four guiding principles of problem-solving, innovation, planning, and connectivity to help him position institutions for future growth. He credits these principles as part of PACU’s success during this past year. Williams elaborates briefly on these principles below.
- Problem-solving. I encourage my leadership team to focus on finding solutions to emerging issues and on making progress on important priorities that may have been difficult to address in business-as-usual conditions.
We ask ourselves how something can be accomplished. It is really easy to talk oneself into inaction. Businesses that survive and even thrive are the ones that push the envelope, ask the hard questions, and are not afraid to fail. We have to be prepared to adapt to the unexpected. The outcome may not be what we first expected, but if we are adaptable and forward-thinking, the outcomes can be even better. When the PPP loans were introduced, PACU had no business-lending program in place. Fast-forward a few short weeks, and nearly $1.5 million in loans to over 50 small businesses had been originated. That’s the epitome of recognizing a need and not being afraid to take a chance to meet it.
- Innovation. Having to solve compounded problems in a short time period accelerated innovation, embracing experimentation with new ideas and cross-functional collaboration, and a breaking down of hierarchies to tap into ideas from across levels. Innovation, traditionally seen as driven internally by people coming together physically for ideation, is also getting redefined in a virtual world with a focus on finding creative ways to respond to the external challenges and opportunities. Greater adoption of technology is driving the realization that many activities traditionally seen to be needing significant investment can be done with less.
Financial services is a people business. It always has been and always will be. We build infrastructure such that the technology and innovation are present for those who want or need self-service. Yet, we utilize our human capital to build relationships and deliver a consultative approach to their interactions with members. In the end, it is multiple-service delivery-channels with a well-trained staff, committed to high service standards.
- Planning. Contrary to the discourse about today being only about survival, I ask my leadership team to stress the importance of spending time on planning ahead. The days of the five-year plan may be gone, with every strategy having the potential to get disrupted. Using data and observing trends, we can develop strategies to anticipate multiple scenarios. With a fast-changing external environment, ‘plan, experiment, evaluate and improve’ is our future business model.
For example, the strategic planning session in 2019 was prior to the pandemic and focused on business model philosophy. It was less of a long-term strategic outlook and more of a philosophical discussion of where the credit union is headed. Clear themes from this session were a commitment to the service experience for members, building infrastructure to serve members regardless of generation or geography, and forming a foundation to address needs that are unique to the communities we serve. The progress from the 2019 session to the 2020 session led to a more strategically focused and longer-term outlook.
- Connectivity. In light of the greater dependence on technology for virtual working, a lot has been said about the changes in the modes of communication recently. At PACU, we believe there have been even bigger changes to the very nature of engagement with our colleagues. Walking the tightrope between managing the expectations and motivation of employees and creating a sense of community when people are physically distant is important.
For example, there was never any thought to halting training during the pandemic. Rather, the question was, how do we make this happen? How do we stay connected? PACU holds two all-staff training days during the year, Employee Engagement Day (October) and Simply Service Day (February). Both events continued during the pandemic, as segments were pre-recorded and aired to staff during “watch parties,” consisting of smaller groups such that consistent messaging was received and smaller group discussions could be held. In addition, a new intranet was launched. This was planned prior to COVID; however, the timing was fortuitous to enhance connectivity when there were limits on in-person interactions.
Final Thoughts from Dan Schline of Carolinas Credit Union League
When I first started in credit unions in 1997, Dion Williams and I had offices in the same building. We were certainly thrilled when Dion returned to North Carolina in 2019 as President and CEO of Piedmont Advantage Credit Union.
Dion brings great purpose and passion to his work at Piedmont Advantage. In just his first year at the credit union, we saw that purpose-driven leadership style manifest itself in the creation of the PACU Foundation and the “Simply Service” delivery model. As a leader, Dion is very deliberate in making sure he and his team are focused on taking care of their members and their communities. This reflects well on the entire credit union community in North Carolina. When we tell the story of credit unions to lawmakers and elected officials, Piedmont Advantage has much to share and much of which to be proud.
The ability of leaders like Dion to stay focused and execute during challenging times makes all the difference. I’m excited to see where Dion takes Piedmont Advantage next!
About Piedmont Advantage Credit Union
Headquartered in Winston-Salem and founded in 1949 within the airline industry, Piedmont Advantage Credit Union (PACU) now serves member-owners who reside, work, worship, or attend school in one of the 13 counties it serves in North Carolina or who are employed by one of its many employer companies. These 13 counties are Bladen, Brunswick, Columbus, Cumberland, Davie, Duplin, Forsyth, Guilford, Iredell, Mecklenburg, New Hanover, Pender, and Rockingham. A nonprofit cooperative financial institution, PACU has ten branches throughout its service regions and employs a workforce of over 120.