For and By the Members

By Diane Franklin

9 minutes

CUES Director member Ron Seaman (left) and CUES President/CEO Chuck Fagan (right) were on hand to celebrate Williams’ award. Seaman is chair of SAFE Credit Union, Folsom, Calif., and last year’s honoree.Having served on the board of directors for Fort Knox Federal Credit Union for 25-plus years, Howard Williams, CCD, could point to a number of accomplishments that have helped propel the institution’s growth from $100 million in assets in 1988 to its current size of $1.1 billion.

He could talk about his involvement in the recruitment and hiring of two CEOs. He could tout his leadership role in developing an exemplary volunteer and management succession model. He could also describe changes in the board’s governance that have allowed the credit union to achieve its full growth potential.

What Williams finds most rewarding, however, is how this credit union, with administrative offices in Radcliff, Ky., near the Fort Knox U.S. Army post, has shown such strong dedication to helping its members achieve their financial goals—whether it’s purchasing a car, buying a home, saving for a child’s college education or planning for retirement.

“I’m a firm believer in both the philosophy and the practice of ‘people helping people’ that is at the core of the credit union movement,” Williams says. “To me, that also means that as a cooperative, credit unions should be governed by their members and for the benefit of their members. This requires informed, engaged and devoted volunteer leaders who set policy, as well as highly skilled and professional staffs to execute those policies.”

Fort Knox FCU’s current board has such a high regard for Williams’ stellar work that it has named him the CU’s first-ever director emeritus. Williams’ contributions to Fort Knox FCU and the credit union movement have gained him another designation of note: 2014 CUES Distinguished Director, an honor he received in December at Directors Conference.

Fort Knox FCU President/CEO Ray Springsteen observes that the honor is a well-deserved recognition of Williams’ many years of devoted service. He has high words of praise for Williams’ passion for the credit union, exemplified by the people helping people philosophy that Williams embodies so well.

“Throughout his tenure on the board of directors, Howard consistently worked for the betterment of the credit union so that it could improve the financial quality of its members’ lives,” says Springsteen, a CUES member. “His individual efforts and leadership were instrumental in guiding Fort Knox Federal Credit Union to its current position as one of the strongest and most financially stable credit unions in the country. That strength is translated daily into more and better financial services for our 80,000 members.”

A 26-Year Military Career

Williams holds a bachelor’s degree in business administration from McKendree University and an MBA from Embry Riddle Aeronautical University. His involvement on Fort Knox FCU’s board of directors is a major facet of an impressive career that encompasses more than 50 years of management and leadership experience in the public and private sectors.

Born and raised in what he calls the “small cowboy town” of Harrisville, Utah, Williams was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1962. His initial two-year commitment led to a military career that spanned more than 26 years with a diversity of tours and assignments that took him to Vietnam, Germany, South Korea and several states. These assignments also allowed him visit various countries including Austria, France, Italy, Switzerland, Belgium, and The Netherlands.

“Understanding the cultural differences and how people lived was very educational for me and my family,” Williams says. “We came to appreciate the real value of being an American that we learned to never take for granted.”

Williams’ military career included two assignments with the Pentagon, which is where he had his first encounter with CUs in 1967. “I became a credit union member with Pentagon Federal Credit Union and remain a member to this day. That was when I became a loyal proponent of credit unions, particularly for military personnel.”

After retiring from the military in 1988, Williams held several high-level positions for U.S. Cavalry Inc., High Speed Access Corp. and Charter Communications, until his private-sector retirement in 2009. Notably, Williams was selected to participate in the Joint United States Commerce Department and Direct Marketing Association Trade Mission to Japan in 1992.

Williams’ interest in being on Fort Knox FCU’s board of directors began in 1988, just a few months after he returned from a tour of duty in South Korea. At the time, the credit union’s board consisted entirely of civil service employees. Williams was concerned that the interests of soldiers, especially those in the lower and middle ranks, were not being represented.

During the open nomination period for the board, he decided to throw his hat into the ring. Not only did he win a position on the board, he was also the highest vote-getter. “I then became the only military soldier on the board and began immediately to be the advocate for soldiers,” he reports.

For a long time, Williams was also the only director with public sector experience, which he saw as a real plus in offering a unique perspective and skill set.

Credit Union Achievements

During his 25 years on the CU’s board, Williams participated twice in what he considers the most important job of a credit union board: hiring a president/CEO. The first instance occurred in 1991, when the board hired Bill Rissel. Rissel stayed in that role for 23 years, retiring in June 2014. During Williams’ term as chairman, the board took on the important task of finding Rissel’s successor, selecting Springsteen, who was hired as executive vice president and promoted from within.

Also during Williams’ chairmanship, the board tackled volunteer and management succession planning. “We developed a plan, refined it and saw it to successful fruition,” he says.

The key to this plan is to have the newly designated president/CEO on board for a six-month transition period with the incumbent. This allowed the designee to learn how to run the credit union under the watchful eye of the retiring president/CEO. In Fort Knox FCU’s case, the process ensured a smooth transition of leadership from Rissel to Springsteen without the credit union missing a beat.

As an important component of volunteer succession planning, Williams became a strong advocate for the credit union’s volunteer recruitment ad hoc committee and associate board member positions as a means of identifying future volunteers for the credit union.

“My retirement from the board actually was a planned event and helped create a director vacancy to begin the implementation of the board’s volunteer succession plan,” Williams explains.

Another key accomplishment during Williams’ tenure was a change in governance policy, adopted in 2009 as a means of more effectively administering a CU that had grown to $1 billion in assets. The new governance structure underscores the idea that the president/CEO runs the organization, while the board has a strategic role that still fulfills its fiduciary responsibilities.

“This was a highly involved process,” Williams concedes. “However, the result is the effective, efficient and financially solid credit union we have now.”

‘People Helping People’

Williams has been proud to see the people helping people philosophy guide many of the actions undertaken by the credit union. During his chairmanship, he was honored to accept on Fort Knox FCU’s behalf the 2011 Army Credit Union of the Year Award at the Defense Credit Union Council annual conference in 2012. This award was given in recognition of the CU’s assistance and support to thousands of soldiers, Department of Defense civilian workers and their families who came to Fort Knox as a part of the Army’s base realignment and closure process.

“To have our efforts recognized by the Department of Army is a tribute to the dedication and professionalism of our staff, executives and volunteer leadership,” he says.

Williams’ position on the board has allowed him to see firsthand not only how the credit union helps its members but also how it has helped others in communities all across the country.

“I remember vividly how Fort Knox Federal immediately sent teams of employees to assist after the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City,” he recalls. “The federal credit union in that building was destroyed in the blast. Both credit unions used the same computer system, so Fort Knox Federal Credit Union sent staff volunteers to help members in Oklahoma City retrieve and rebuild their account data.”

Fort Knox FCU also stepped in when Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, extending $1 million in interest-free loans to Gulf Coast Community Federal Credit Union in Mississippi to help restore the CU’s liquidity so members could access their money.

“Both of these are true examples of ‘people helping people,’ especially in a time of crisis,” Williams observes.

Beyond his role at Fort Knox FCU, Williams has been active in the CU movement by serving as a charter board member on the Kentucky Credit Union League educational youth development committee, helping to develop a training program to prepare young leaders to assume potential leadership positions.

Nationally, Williams and his board were charter members of CUES’ Center for Credit Union Board Excellence, developed to provide a professional resource for building and deepening director competency on such subjects as strategizing, finance, governance, advocacy and board/CEO relations.

Over the years, Williams has taken the opportunity to attend educational conferences to stay linked with other volunteers and professionals who share his support of the credit union movement. As part of that effort to stay educated, he became a graduate of CUES’ Directors Leadership Institute at the London Business School (now CUES Governance Leadership Institute at the University of Toronto, and earned his Certified Credit (Union) Director—or CCD—designation.

“Bottom line, board members must understand their role and how fiduciary responsibilities apply to specific functions in their credit unions,” he says.

A Passion for Volunteerism

Williams’ passion for volunteerism extends beyond the CU sector. During his military career, he was active in community organizations both stateside and overseas, including serving as a school board member for the Fort Knox Community Schools. In his post-military life, Williams and his wife, Mary, support a number of community organizations, including Helping Hand of HOPE and the local Rotary Club.

A man of deep faith, Williams serves as a deacon in his church. Additionally, he has been an adjunct professor with various colleges and universities, including Central Texas College, Sullivan University, McKendree University, Western Kentucky University and Elizabethtown Community & Technical College.

Married for 49 years, Williams is grateful for Mary’s support in all his endeavors. “She is my prime rib and apple pie,” he says, adding that they are blessed to have two wonderful daughters, Angela and Sheree, and four grandchildren.

Williams admits to being “a bit stunned” when told he was named 2014 CUES Distinguished Director.

“Without false modesty, I know there are other volunteers in the movement who are also worthy of this award,” he says. “I am humbled that the Fort Knox Federal Credit Union Board thought that much of me to recommend me for this high honor.”

Diane Franklin is a freelance writer in Missouri.

pictured at top of article: CUES Director member Ron Seaman (left) and CUES President/CEO Chuck Fagan (right) were on hand to celebrate Williams’ award. Seaman is chair of SAFE Credit Union, Folsom, Calif., and last year’s honoree.

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