Spokane Journal of Business

The learning curve for STCU’s Ezra Eckhardt

Incoming CEO starts whirlwind tour of STCU’s expansive footprint

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-—Kevin Blocker
Ezra Eckhardt (left) will assume the helm of Spokane Teachers Credit Union as president and CEO from Tom Johnson on Jan. 1. STCU is the largest credit union based in the Inland Northwest.

Ezra Eckhardt might not be assuming the role of president and CEO of Liberty Lake-based STCU until Jan. 1, but he’s already hit the ground running visiting branches and learning all about the organization he’ll soon lead. 

In an interview just a week after being selected for the position, Eckhardt says he wasn’t feeling too overwhelmed.

“I’ve got a great advantage,” Eckhardt says of being able to absorb all he needs to know before assuming the new role. “The board has prepared an outline for me, and I’m getting acclimated to the organization. There’s a great team of people here.”

Since STCU’s board of directors elected Eckhardt as president and CEO, outgoing president and CEO Tom Johnson has been spearheading a whirlwind tour for his successor. Before it’s over, Eckhardt will have visited all 21 STCU branches here and in North Idaho and will have met with potentially more than 100 of the 650 total employers working for STCU.

Johnson, who will retire from the credit union at the age of 67, took over as president and CEO in 2010. Eckhardt has Johnson’s seven-year tenure to thank in part for the need for such an expansive tour. 

During Johnson’s tenure, the credit union has grown to 170,000 members from 88,000, and the number of employees has increased to 650 from 400. The number of branches has sprouted to 21 from 14, and total assets nearly doubled to $2.6 billion from $1.4 billion.

STCU is the largest credit union headquartered in the Inland Northwest and the third largest, in terms of total assets, in Washington state, behind Boeing Employees Credit Union and Washington State Employees Credit Union, says Dan Hansen, STCU’s media and communications manager.

Founded by educators in 1934, STCU is a member-owned nonprofit cooperative. Member-ship is open to anyone who lives in Washington state or North Idaho.

Eckhardt is a native of Spokane and graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He will become just the fifth person to lead STCU. He was president of Spokane-based Sterling Savings Bank when it was acquired with Umpqua Bank in 2014.

Eckhardt stayed in that position through February 2016 before becoming chief operating officer at Oregon-based Wave Form Systems Inc., a provider of advanced surgical technologies.

As for Johnson, the Illinois native arrived in Spokane in 1989 as vice president of business affairs at Whitworth University. 

Johnson left Whitworth and the STCU board of directors in 2006 to become STCU’s vice president of administration, then became president and CEO four years later.

As he prepares for his departure at year’s end, Johnson says he’s proud of the strides STCU has made during his tenure.

“It’s always great to be a part of an organization that’s growing and thriving,” Johnson says.

Johnson also specifically singled out 2012, the year in which STCU was nationally recognized as one of the best places in the country to work. Fortune magazine ranked STCU the 16th best place to work in its rankings of medium-sized U.S. companies.

“It’s an application process. And once you do that, you’re allowing them (Fortune) access to interview every employee,” Johnson says. “It was an extremely proud moment.”

Fortune praised STCU for a culture of celebration, fun, and commitment to its employees.

Eckhardt, 47, says he’ll continue to do what Johnson has done, “Position ourselves as a resource to the community.”

Both men say STCU’s board of directors want to see the financial institution continue its upward growth. To achieve that, Johnson says he expects the director’s board to continue with its pattern of looking to grow its membership base without having to acquire other institutions.

Johnson also says STCU isn’t looking to be acquired by another financial institution.

“Either one is possible and can’t be ruled out altogether,” Johnson says of acquiring other institutions or being acquired. “But our first look is to grow organically.”

Johnson specifically identified areas throughout North Idaho where STCU can add to its membership base.

During an interview with the Journal in downtown Spokane at STCU’s office in the Hutton Building at 9 S. Washington, in a conference room, Johnson reaches for a bright red, heart-shaped stone sitting on a boardroom table. The hearts are used to serve as a reminder that it’s STCU’s members that come first.

“These red hearts are on the desk of every leader in the organization,” Johnson says. “Through the years, when our boardroom conversations go a little far astray, it’s not uncommon for someone to grab a stone, slide it across the middle of the table and ask, ‘What does this have to do with our members?’’’

Eckhardt says STCU’s strength rests in the fact its employees are happy, which contributes to their institution’s overall motivation.

“It has allowed STCU to create clear goals and objectives,” he says, who contends that that’s led to a happy membership base.

“That’s when they tell friends and neighbors and allows you expand your membership base,” Eckhardt says.

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