James Higgins
President and CEO, Skyline Financial Credit Union
Age: 34
Industry experience: 8 years

When James Higgins became Skyline Financial Credit Union’s president and CEO a year ago, he decided to use some of the excess liquidity that the credit union had experienced during the pandemic and invest in upgrading Skyline’s technology and infrastructure. Now he is now planning to take the $38.6 million-asset Skyline Financial in a new direction by converting from an employer-sponsored to a community credit union.

Higgins describes himself as having “tripped into” the credit union industry. After starting his career in customer service in another field, Higgins worked for the job site Indeed, where he ended up being recruited to join bank technology provider Fiserv. Connections he made in that position led to a job at Webster Bank. He then worked at FD Community Credit Union before starting as president and CEO of Waterbury-based Skyline Financial Credit Union in May 2021.

Q: What has your first year been like as president and CEO of Skyline?
A: It’s exciting. It was challenging, of course. The challenges were mostly with paper-based systems, things that needed some infrastructure build-outs. The operations overall were solid – just lacking a technological component to it. I’m used to my cabinet drawer being filled with snacks for the day, not actual files. It was like walking backwards in time, in a way, in the beginning. Progressing to a virtually paperless environment, which is still a very long project, has been challenging, of course.

And it’s new. It’s different for the team, especially with the average tenure here being 21 years. But the change in itself is exciting. The team is excited that they’re seeing progression. We’re getting things like online banking and remote deposit. It’s not just, “Yeah, it’s happening at some point.” There are concrete dates and evidence of things launching.

Q: What are your goals for Skyline Financial?
A: Since the beginning, I said our goal is to be the best credit union. It has nothing to do with how big we get; it has nothing to do with how profitable it could be. It means have the best team, have the best services, have the best members. And in order to have all of that, I wanted to make sure that the goal was for my employees to feel comfortable being able to service the member in whatever capacity that member needed to be serviced. That meant a lot of training. It meant going to different credit unions, seeing different processes. It meant being able to harness “this is the way we’ve always done it” to now – my new favorite line – “we are actually reinventing the wheel.”

The membership is loving it. They’re referring more people. We’re increasing products and services that we never even thought could be imaginable before. And now here we are, a year into it, and the transition from where we were just 365 days ago to today – it’s a whole new credit union. It’s wildly great.

Q: How can a small credit union compete against large banks and fintechs?
A: To me, the no-brainer is personable service. No fintech can compete in the way that we can when you can sit down and have a conversation with us. We can also do it virtually now. Whereas a fintech, it’s very difficult to find a phone number to call someone. While online chat is great, and I love it myself, sometimes it’s just easier to have a conversation. That’s really where the small credit unions can compete.

But when you have the ability of a small credit union, you have to invest in your infrastructure. Because while we can pride ourselves on those conversations and what’s happening onsite or virtually, there’s a huge demographic which actually loves doing that chat, and we need to make sure we have that, too.

Q: What are some opportunities that you see for growth with your membership?
A: We are a small employee-group-based credit union. I have just recently submitted our application to do a charter conversion to become a community-charter credit union. That in itself is, I think, our largest opportunity, because you can’t sit in the break room of employers anymore. It’s not a thing. They don’t even work there anymore. They all work remotely. You have our credit union specifically, which has a foundation of the telephone employees, and every morning they would meet at the centralized office at 7 a.m. The credit union was there in the building originally. But flash forward to today in 2022, the credit union, while it’s still located close to the building, it’s not in the building, and if we were to go in the building, there’s no employees in the building. So, it doesn’t make sense to keep doing what we’re doing or what we’ve done in the past. I think that community charter, once we get that approval, is going to help us tremendously from the standpoint of an opportunity for growth because now we can serve our community, not just a piece of our community.

Q: What is the field of membership that you targeted in the application?
A: What I targeted was the New Haven and Litchfield counties of Connecticut.

Q: What will be some strategies for attracting new members?
A: I developed a 24-month overall marketing plan to go with the community charter approval, and encompassed in that 24-month marketing plan includes really becoming involved with organizations which are complementary to the community. So, those that service the community, those that are involved with child abuse prevention, different organizations which help individuals who are survivors of domestic abuse. All of the things that can complement what a credit union’s foundation is really made from. We’re here helping the underserved; those organizations are helping an even smaller piece of that underserved area. If we can leverage that good news that we’ve partnered with these organizations, we’re helping the people that are being helped by other organizations and showing that true community effort, I think that’s really where it’s going to come down to attracting those new members.

Q: What are your thoughts on credit union mergers?
A: At my last credit union, the last project I finished before I left was a credit union merger. What’s interesting about a credit union merger is I think they’re happening too late in the game, where the conversations probably need to have been started a lot sooner. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that there is a sell-out of the organization.

But I think they could be avoided if the credit unions were not as conservative, took on slightly more risk and put together specific marketing plans that are measurable and tangible. You really have to put some goals to it. My credit union is small – there’s eight of us. I have one person who’s making phone calls to our existing membership and checking in with them. There’s no sales call to it. It’s a membership connection. Having those relationships, I think, you can avoid the credit union merger. Some of them you can’t; it’s just too hard. But if they are going to be done, hopefully boards and leaders are looking into it well enough in advance.

Higgins’ Five Favorite Things in Life:

  1. Family time
  2. Civic volunteering
  3. Community advocacy
  4. Great restaurants
  5. Political advocacy