Q&A with John Rhea

April 23, 2014 

John Rhea

Q&A with John Rhea

City of Residence: Macon

Occupation: President and CEO, Robins Federal Credit Union

QUESTION: Robins Federal Credit Union has had a birthday.

ANSWER: We’re celebrating our 60th -- a big milestone for our credit union and members. We’re having promotions and celebrations all month, from things like giving away a 60-inch TV at each location to shred days. We’re proud we’ve been around for 60 years. Not a lot of financial institutions can say that.

QUESTION: How did RFCU start?

ANSWER: A group of 13 employees at Robins Air Force Base formed it in 1954. Originally, it was strictly for civilian base employees and their families.

QUESTION: It’s gone beyond that now?

ANSWER: Over the years we’ve added employee groups and in 2000 changed to a community charter and serve 16 Middle Georgia counties.

QUESTION: Do you imagine founders had any idea where it was headed?

ANSWER: I’m sure they must have thought on a smaller scale, but we’ve learned that to remain viable we have to grow to prosper and continue to serve members.

QUESTION: About the growth, compare early days to now.

ANSWER: We started with those 13 founding members in a small room on the base. Now we have 155,000 members and 19 branch offices.

QUESTION: Employees?

ANSWER: Then it was manned by volunteers serving part-time hours. Now we have 375 employees, and you can go to an ATM anytime.

QUESTION: And assets?

ANSWER: Total assets now are $1.9 billion. It’s interesting we’ve about doubled in size in the past seven years in pretty much every area but predominantly in assets.

QUESTION: That’s a lot of growth and change.

ANSWER: A lot of change, especially when you look at things like ATM machines, debit cards and online services. We forget debit cards have only been around for 15 years. We’ll have over 30 million debit and credit card transactions this year.

QUESTION: A lot of people will remember that first ATM machine on Watson Boulevard and how they were happy to drive across town to get to it.

ANSWER: And now we have 36.

QUESTION: Touch on differences between a bank and a credit union.

ANSWER: Mainly, credit unions are not-for-profit financial cooperatives owned by members, not stockholders. That’s key. Every member is an owner and has a vote for our volunteer, unpaid board of directors. We don’t answer to stockholders or pay dividends to owners. Members are owners.

QUESTION: You use the phrase “not for profit but for service.” Explain that, because you have to make money.

ANSWER: Right, if we don’t we can’t keep up with members’ needs like technology needs, new branches and new ATMs, for example. From that standpoint, we’re no different from any business.

QUESTION: What’s the biggest crisis RFCU has overcome?

ANSWER: Other than normal business and economic cycles, there hasn’t been any single crisis. When the economic crisis struck in 2008 we actually grew. Banks were going under, but we prospered with our more conservative business model.

QUESTION: What’s the biggest thing you’re facing now?

ANSWER: A tremendous increase in (regulatory) compliance burdens that increase costs and change ways of doing business. Of course, we always have one eye on fraud, especially with increased electronic services. We had to reissue 11,000 cards to members because of the recent Target issue, through no fault of our own.

The last concern is always Robins Air Force Base and making sure we’re doing everything possible to support the base. We’re big supporters of the base and the 21st Century Partnership. We can’t take Robins for granted even though we might feel nothing will change. We’re in an unusual time and change can come fast.

QUESTION: What’s on tap for years ahead?

ANSWER: The ideals that have worked for us in the past should carry us on. We try to be conservative and efficient. I have to credit our fantastic staff, too. One good thing that has only gotten better over the years is their professionalism, knowledge and commitment to serve. We work hard to give world-class service and grow our dedication to serve members. Plus, I can’t underscore enough the fact that being a local institution we can adjust strategies and change quicker than most institutions. We do that right here.

QUESTION: Practical advances?

ANSWER: One initiative is major upgrades to online and mobile banking. In August, everything will have a new look and feel with greater functionality. Members will be able to do more things like person-to-person and institution-to-institution transfers. There’s a lot coming, but of course it will mean change, too.

Answers may have been edited for length and clarity. Compiled by Michael W. Pannell. Contact him at mwpannell@gmail.com.

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