CUES Board Chair Richard Romero taps into his personal history to make a difference at his credit union and in the industry.
Richard Romero brings a unique perspective to his role as president/CEO of $1 billion Seattle Credit Union. Romero has built an impressive resume in the financial services industry over the past 35 years, but it is his experience as an immigrant, a person of color, a husband and a father that provides him with the insights he needs to further Seattle CU’s commitment to serving the underserved and the underbanked.
“My lived experience has helped inform our strategy,” says Romero, who leads a staff of 175 employees serving 60,000 members throughout Washington State. “We’ve gone through the process of becoming a CDFI (community development financial institution) and an LID (low-income designation) credit union. It’s important for us to have these qualifications, but because of my background, I can also say to people, ‘I know what it’s like to be a person of color. I know what it’s like to grow up poor. I’ve been through what you’re going through. Let me help.’”
Romero also leverages his lived experience to help the industry. Having served on the CUES board of directors since 2020, he recently began his term as chair with the goal of having a major impact on the development of future industry leaders.
“I view being on the board as service,” Romero says. “I don’t do it for my career. I don’t do it for status. It’s about giving back, helping others, and sharing my knowledge and my skills.”
An Immigrant’s Journey
Romero was born in Lima, Peru. When he was just 4 years old, his family immigrated to the United States and settled in Los Angeles. He started his career as a part-time teller while going to college and worked in various branch positions before ascending to branch administration at a savings bank. “Then a little company called Washington Mutual came in and bought us out,” Romero recalls.
After two years, Romero left Washington Mutual to take his first job in the credit union industry. From 2000 to 2004, he worked at a CU in Chatsworth, California, serving as director of branches and later as VP/member services. Next, he spent nearly eight years at what is now Firefighters First Credit Union (currently $1.9 billion in assets), Los Angeles, moving up the ladder from VP/consumer lending to COO. Concurrent with his time at Firefighters First CU, he earned a bachelor’s degree in organizational leadership from the University of La Vern.
In 2012, Romero made a major change when he moved from L.A. to Seattle with his family (his wife, Brenda, their young daughter and a son on the way) to become CEO at his current credit union. Since he had no previous CEO experience, he viewed his prospects for getting the job as a long shot. “I applied for the job with no expectations, but here I am, 11 years later,” Romero says.
In those 11 years, Romero has overseen a period of strong growth during which asset size has more than doubled. The robust growth began in earnest eight years ago, when Romero led a major initiative to redefine the organization’s mission, vision and overall direction.
“We decided to start focusing on the underbanked and underserved communities,” he says. “So, we undertook a process involving a complete transformation of the credit union, from the board through the front lines.”
The transformation entailed a deep dive into understanding the needs of the people in the community and creating the products that would fit those needs. “With that work came our CDFI certification and our low-income designation,” Romero reports. “We got a lot of support from those credentials during the pandemic, which enabled us to take advantage of funds to fuel our efforts in serving those communities.”
An Inflection Point
Romero considers this redefinition of Seattle CU’s mission as an inflection point. “That’s when my background started to become my biggest influence and I started feeling empowered to make a difference,” he says. “I had spent my entire life assimilating—whether it was culturally or corporately—but as CEO, I realized, ‘My experience is valuable to me, and I think it would be valuable to the community as well.’ Before then, I mostly relied upon my professional experience as an operations expert. Now, my lived experience influences me as much as my professional experience.”
By embracing his lived experience, Romero believes he can be more effective in fulfilling Seattle CU’s redefined mission. “Our mission, stated in simplest terms, is we want to help everyone thrive,” he says. “I firmly believe that if you control someone’s finances, you control their destiny. Our focus is on helping people gain financial control so they can control their own destiny.”
Becoming a CEO influenced Romero’s understanding of his role in helping people accomplish their financial objectives. “I started looking at it as a responsibility,” he says. “As a CEO, I had to become visionary and strategic. I needed to find the value in what I did, and that’s when the connection between my background and what I do for a living became crystalized for me—that and having kids. Both of those things helped me recognize, ‘I don’t want to just run a credit union. I want to run an organization that is focused on doing things that will change people’s lives for the better.’”
As part of Seattle CU’s transformation, Romero focused on achieving greater diversity among the ranks of the board and executive staff. “We’re one of the only large credit unions that has a minority CEO and minority chair, and that helps us have the credibility in these communities that see people like themselves running the organization,” he says. “We take pride in the fact that we have over 50% diversity on our board, and though we face recruiting challenges due to an industry-wide lack of diversity talent, we remain focused on the diversity of our executive team.”
To further emphasize its commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion, Seattle CU formed a DEIP committee. (The “P” stands for “prosperity.”) Consisting of employees nominated and elected from all levels of the organization, the committee is responsible for integrating DEI principles into all aspects of the credit union’s operations to support its mission.
“We compensate these employees for their time, in addition to paying their regular salary, because what they are doing goes above and beyond their normal jobs,” Romero says. “We are continuing to explore different ways to fairly represent our diverse team’s views on DEI as the landscape continues to develop.”
Board Chair Carlos Ruiz fully supports Seattle CU’s commitment to developing internal diversity. In fact, he joined the board in 2017 as part of Romero’s efforts to diversify the board. “I wasn’t looking for a board position,” Ruiz recalls, “but I thought, ‘I’ll go ahead and meet with Richard,’ and he blew me away with his vision for the credit union and his commitment to the community.”
Ruiz, who became board chair in 2019, is impressed by how passionately Romero works on behalf of marginalized communities. “What sets Richard apart is his intentionality and how well he knows the issues that are most important to the community,” Ruiz notes. “He’s an exceptional listener, and I think that’s what has served him so well as a community servant leader and as head of the credit union. He listens to what’s needed and then leverages his extensive experience to help.”
Sharing His Talents
Romero’s leadership skills will make him a great chair for CUES, Ruiz says. “When he told me he would be chairing the CUES board, I could not have been more excited for him—and I also could not be more excited for CUES. It’s tremendous for the organization to get someone with his professional background and lived experience.”
Romero became involved with the CUES board after encouragement from the late John Pembroke, CUES’ president/CEO from 2015 to 2022. “I ran into John at multiple credit union events, and we always saw eye-to-eye,” Romero says. “I wasn’t seeking a board position, but John approached me and said he felt I could make an impact on the direction that CUES needs to go. I remember him saying that I would bring a lot of value to the board.”
Sadly, Pembroke passed away in November 2022, just two years after Romero joined the CUES board. The board undertook an extensive CEO search before naming Heather McKissick, I-CUDE, as Pembroke’s successor in June 2023. As chair and CEO respectively, Romero and McKissick will work closely together.
“It will be a year of managing change for both Heather and me,” Romero says. “There will need to be a great deal of collaboration between us so that we can share vision, ideas, ideals and conversations with the board. Fortunately, the board had a very good strategic planning session earlier this year, and we came away with a clear direction for CUES in the coming year.”
Among the organization’s priorities, CUES will continue transitioning back to in-person conferences and events after the switch to virtual delivery that was required during the pandemic. “I’m proud that the CUES team was able to pivot so quickly and move its curriculum into the digital world,” Romero says. “That was an incredible feat, and quite frankly, it saved the organization.”
Going forward, CUES will offer a mix of in-person and virtual events to meet the individual preferences of CU professionals. “Part of the value of going to CUES events is the networking and the socializing, and you can’t provide that online,” Romero says. “It’s important to offer the in-person option for people who can travel, but I believe there will always be a place for the digital experience. It’s important to continue offering virtual events for people who can’t travel post-pandemic because of everything from budgetary concerns to family reasons. By making more training options available online, we can make them accessible to people who otherwise would not have the opportunity.”
Beyond his involvement in CUES, Romero has served on the board of Inclusiv, a New York-based organization whose mission is to help low- and moderate-income people and communities achieve financial independence through credit unions. Romero is appreciative of the valuable advice he received from Pablo DeFilippi, EVP of Inclusiv, during his time on the board. DeFilippi is among the people who influenced Romero to embrace his personal experience as a means of helping others. “I’ve always looked at Pablo as mentor who inspired me to do this work on behalf of the people in our communities,” Romero says.
Additionally, Romero devotes time to community and civic organizations. He currently serves on the boards of the YWCA Seattle/King/Snohomish and the Seattle Colleges Foundation. Previously he served on the boards of the United Way of King County and the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce.
Romero also gains inspiration from his family, who are the center of his life. He and Brenda have been married for 16 years and are devoted to their children, 14-year-old Sofia and 11-year-old Anthony. Completing the family picture are a pair of Labradors. Much of the Romeros’ lives revolve around the children’s sports activities. When Romero has a quiet moment, he enjoys listening to his extensive vinyl record collection.
This year brought the family even closer together. Romero required a kidney transplant, and Brenda was his donor. “It was the hardest thing either one of us has ever done, but we’re grateful because the operation was a success,” Romero says. “I was able to achieve normal kidney function very quickly.”
Believing in CUES’ Mission
While Seattle CU has come a long way in achieving greater diversity, Romero is acutely aware that the credit union industry has a long way to go before it’s considered diverse. Industry statistics indicate that the typical CU board and executive leadership team are overwhelmingly white, with less than 10% representation from people of color. However, Romero believes that CUES can make a difference by providing access to education and training to a more diverse group of leaders waiting in the wings.
“One of the reasons I’m here is that I believe in CUES’ mission of developing future leaders,” he says. “We want to help credit unions succeed. That’s our overall goal, and the best way we can achieve that is by giving people the opportunity to develop skills so they can become our next generation of leaders.” cues icon
Based in Missouri, Diane Franklin is a longtime contributor to CU Management magazine.