Sterling Nielsen, 2019 CUES Outstanding Chief Executive, led his CU through tough times to outstanding performance and growth.
CUES member Sterling Nielsen, CPA, became CEO at Mountain America Credit Union in Sandy, Utah, at what he jokingly calls “the perfectly wrong time.” The date was Nov. 1, 2008, only five weeks after the stock market crash that signaled a tough road ahead for the nation’s financial services industry.
Exacerbating the situation, Mountain America CU had recently acquired a troubled credit union and its portfolio of brokered real estate construction loans that looked even more ill-advised in a tanking economy. A team of national examiners was on-site, voicing displeasure that the CU had taken on such a risky merger.
“The whole thing came to a head literally as I walked in the door as CEO,” says Nielsen, who was recently named the 2019 CUES Outstanding Chief Executive. “But with any challenge comes opportunity. In this case, it was an opportunity to make the necessary changes quickly and put the credit union on a trajectory to be successful for many years to come.”
Working with the examiners, Nielsen and his team were able to get past the problems caused by the troubled merger. With that crisis behind him, Nielsen put forth a bold plan: grow the credit union’s asset size to $10 billion in 10 years. Nielsen proposed this plan in 2010, when the CU had assets of $2.8 billion, so not only was he suggesting that his team could nearly quadruple the organization’s asset size in a decade, but also that they should embark on this path when most financial institutions were still reeling from the economic downturn. Despite these hurdles, today the CU is on track to not only meet but exceed its goal.
From CPA to CU
Nielsen’s successful tenure in the credit union movement is the direct result of interactions with Mountain America CU during his previous career. After earning his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in accounting at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, he took a position at an international CPA firm, Grant Thornton LLP, based in Chicago, where Mountain America CU was a client.
“We had a lot of different clients, including banks and credit unions, but Mountain America was my favorite,” Nielsen reports. “I was very impressed with the whole ‘people-helping-people’ philosophy, and also impressed with the quality of the people working there.”
The Mountain America CU management team was similarly impressed with Nielsen. After two years of doing the credit union’s audits, Nielsen received a call from the then-CFO to ask if he would be interested in applying for the job of controller.
“I jumped at the chance,” Nielsen recalls. “I applied for and got the job. Mountain America turned out to be a great place to work. I was happy to be involved with an organization that worked so hard to make a difference.”
When Nielsen started working at the CU in 1995, it had $400 million in assets but was growing rapidly. After several years, Nielsen moved into the newly created position of executive vice president, overseeing most of the administrative functions, including marketing, human resources, training, sales, information systems and facilities.
“This was a time of great expansion for the credit union,” Nielsen says. “We were out there buying land and building branches, as well as a new corporate office.”
After having compiled an impressive 13-year track record with the credit union, Nielsen was a logical candidate to ascend to the CEO role. The Mountain America CU board of directors selected him from a field of 520 internal and external candidates, and it didn’t take long for Nielsen to exhibit the bold vision that would confirm the board had made the correct call.
In taking on the challenges that coincided with his first year as CEO, Nielsen realized the key to establishing a pathway to growth was staying laser-focused on the members’ needs.
“Because we focused on our members, we saw growth that far exceeded our expectations,” Nielsen says. “When you make a difference in members’ lives—when you save them money and give them hope they didn’t have before—they share that news with everyone they know.”
Setting a Tone
CUES member and Mountain America CU board chair Scott J. Burt, CPA, gives Nielsen credit for setting a tone that led to the success in membership growth. “He has accomplished one of the toughest tasks a new CEO faces,” Burt contends. “He has been able to change the culture of MACU to one where employees truly care about the members and are willing to reach out and help them evaluate their situation and recommend ways to improve their financial well-being, which has led to outstanding net promoter scores for the credit union.”
Nielsen has achieved all of this, Burt adds, while treating people with dignity and respect. “He leads a management team that is loyal to the credit union and to him and willing to run through walls for him.”
Burt sees validation of Nielsen’s leadership in Mountain America CU’s ranking as one of the best places to work in Utah. Several organizations have given the CU this honor, including Credit Union Journal and Utah Business, while marketing and research firm POPULUS® has named Mountain America CU one of the best places to work in Idaho.
An example of how well Nielsen treats his employees was his pledge to keep rank-and-file employees from being hurt financially during the economic downturn. “A lot of companies were hitting their employees pretty hard by suspending raises and 401(k) contributions,” Nielsen recalls. “My thought was that such actions would erode the confidence of our employees and create fear, so what we chose to do instead was ask management to take a pay cut. Our focus then, as it is today, is to treat staff fairly.”
In his interactions with Nielsen, Mountain America CU director and CUES member Charlie Fulks has been struck by how well Nielsen relates to employees with his down-to-earth style, illustrating with this example: “He recently invited me to go to lunch with him. Rather than going to some fancy place for lunch as many executives do, we went to the credit union on-site café. … I was thrilled to see his interactions with the staff. It was clear that he ate there often, that the staff genuinely liked him, and that he was personable and approachable to everyone. With over 2,200 FTEs, that is amazing.”
Formula for Growth
After Nielsen made his $10 billion proposal, the CU ultimately set its goal for 2022, he explains, “because we needed to spend time rebuilding capital. Our capital was down to 6%, so I told our team, ‘Here’s our plan. We’ll rebuild our capital for two years, and then we’ll start growing.’ And that’s exactly what we did.”
Nielsen reports that Mountain America CU is on track to reach its ambitious goal 2½ years ahead of schedule. This September, the CU reached $9.1 billion in assets, and Nielsen projects it will cross the $10 billion mark in the second quarter of 2020.
Mountain America CU’s pathway to $10 billion has mostly occurred through organic growth, though Nielsen also helped guide the CU into new markets through strategic mergers. A merger strategy expanded the CU into Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico in the years before Nielsen became CEO. As CEO, he decided to use a similar merger strategy to establish a presence in Idaho. The approach was extremely successful. After three key mergers, Idaho is now Mountain America CU’s second largest market.
Membership growth at Mountain America CU has been exceptional over the past several years—and it is this growth that continues to propel the CU forward. In the first eight months of 2019, for example, Mountain America added 60,000 net new members. That puts its current numbers at 800,000 members and almost 1 million total accounts, which the CU serves through 95 branch offices in five states.
“Our goal is to be our members’ primary financial institution, so we look at products and services per account to make sure we’re meeting our members’ needs,” Nielsen reports. “My belief is if we’re growing, that’s probably the best indicator if we’re serving the member properly. And I think that’s where we’ve exceeded our expectations.”
Leading a progressive credit union that is growing so rapidly has posed many growth-related challenges, according to Fulks. “Yet Sterling continues to take all the challenges in stride, anticipating and preparing to handle those challenges, all the while keeping our focus on our strategic vision. That has allowed us to continue that momentum and see amazing performance and growth.”
Nielsen contends the secret to his success is in the quality of people he has hired. “I have this crazy faith in our team, because I’ve seen what they can accomplish over and over again. When we come up with a good goal and give them the whole picture behind it to where they understand it and can believe in it, they achieve it.
“It comes down to every employee in every branch working toward the same goal,” Nielsen adds. “We spend a lot of resources on training so that our staff knows how to go about approaching the member. I’m also fortunate to have a great board that has supported me every step of the way.”
Praise From the Board
“Sterling assumed the leadership of MACU at a shaky time and has built it into one of the best-performing credit unions in the country,” says Burt, who was on the board at the time of Nielsen’s selection.
With 30-plus years of experience interacting with CEOs at Mountain America CU and those on the Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals board of trustees, Burt recognizes several reasons why Nielsen is deserving of the CUES Outstanding Chief Executive accolade: “He has an outstanding ability to see the big picture, set vision and direction for the credit union, and communicate it to employees throughout the organization. He has the ability to make the tough decisions in a timely manner. … He has incredible business acumen, always arriving at the best solution.”
Fulks, who currently serves as board secretary, is likewise effusive in praising Nielsen. “I have found him to be the best leader I have personally known,” he says.
Thinking back on the 2008 financial crisis, Fulks appreciates just how well Nielsen helped the CU recover from its financial setbacks.
“The credit union was facing some of the most extreme financial stresses it has ever seen,” says Fulks, who has been a director and the ALM committee chair since 2001. “Sterling approached the issues straight on and helped us as a board understand the value of dealing with the hardest issues as soon as possible. That strategy paid off for us as we recognized potential losses early and took that hit, but then got back to the work of serving our members while many other financial institutions continued to deal with the issues over the next few years.”
Nielsen, meanwhile, is quick to share credit for Mountain America CU’s growth with an amazing staff who worked hard to make it happen. From his very first days at CEO, he knew having a good senior management team would be vital to the credit union’s future success.
While the $10 billion figure may have seemed overly ambitious at the time, Nielsen never had any doubt that his team could achieve it. “The staff did a fantastic job of latching onto it and changing how we approached our member services to put us where we needed to go,” he says. “It wasn’t really about becoming larger. It was about putting in place the things we needed to be successful as a credit union going forward. … ‘How do you hire, how do you train, what type of systems do you put in place, and what type of member services do you provide?’”
By successfully addressing these issues, Mountain America CU has achieved a phenomenal average annual growth rate of 18% over the past several years. As his team continued to perform, Nielsen’s confidence grew that the CU would achieve its asset goal easily.
“The numbers were there,” he says. “Rapid growth of that nature is unusual, but if you focus on serving the member in the best way you can, it’s inevitable that growth will come.”
Community involvement is another priority at Mountain America CU that has thrived under Nielsen’s leadership. The CU’s efforts benefit more than 100 charities, and the organization facilitates employees’ involvement by allowing them to take time off with pay to volunteer.
Much of Mountain America CU’s community giving is done in partnership with local media outlets. An example is the Pay It Forward program, which the CU has undertaken with KUTV News, based in Salt Lake City, to shine a spotlight on individuals, families and organizations that give back to the community. KUTV highlights these individuals in a televised segment, which concludes with a representative from Mountain America CU presenting them with a cash donation that will allow them to further their good works.
In a similar vein, Mountain America has partnered with Salt Lake City television station Fox 13 to create the Dream Team, a group that helps deserving people in the community. “We seek out people who have a need, highlight their story and surprise them by fulfilling that need,” Nielsen reports. In one televised segment, for example, Mountain America CU financed Christmas gifts for a family with 17 adopted children. In another, the CU helped finance the travel expenses so that a football team of underprivileged youths could go to an out-of-town tournament.
Another community effort features a partnership between Mountain America CU and the Utah Jazz basketball team. For this program, called Pass It Along, the credit union presents fan-nominated charities with a $5,000 donation during a Utah Jazz home game.
Mountain America CU is also a generous sponsor of non-profit Hale Centre Theatre in Sandy, Utah. In turn the CU has received the naming rights for the performing arts center where HCT stages its productions. In Idaho, the CU similarly stepped up to become a naming rights sponsor for a new events center in Idaho Falls. “This gave them the cash infusion they needed to get off the ground,” Nielsen says.
Nielsen himself is dedicated to giving back to his community and to his industry. He is involved in the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce, is active in his church and has volunteered for youth organizations, including the Boy Scouts of America. Nielsen also is a devoted family man. He and Stephanie, his wife of nearly 30 years, have five children, ranging in age from 14 to 27.
While Nielsen appreciates the plaudits he has earned for his leadership, he stresses his belief that every leader is only as good as the people around him. That’s why he gives this advice to other leaders: “Hire people who are better than you, then give them the latitude to do their jobs without getting in their way. That’s always been my philosophy—hire great people, and then watch the magic happen.” cues icon
Based in Missouri, Diane Franklin is a longtime contributor to Credit Union Management magazine.