Published February 16, 1999
Volume 7, Number 2

John Wagner is Reinventing His Business Every Day

For many people, thinking of the financial services industry brings to mind large, faceless organizations where money comes first. 

John WagnerThat's not the case for John Wagner, president and CEO of EBTEL Federal Credit Union. To him and to much of the credit union industry financial services is about "people helping people." 

"Early in my career, that was always the attraction: sitting down with someone and looking at their situation and mutually designing a strategic plan for their finances," he says. While his duties are different now, it's a philosophy that resonates through his goals and leadership. 

Wagner was born and raised in Iowa and graduated from the University of South Dakota with a degree in business and public relations. His first job took him to Germany, where he worked with American government and military personnel in filling their financial and insurance needs. 

After six years overseas, he returned to the U.S. in 1978, where he headed up Geico Financial Services' California operations from an office in San Diego. 

After a total of 12 years in a large corporate environment, he longed for a more entrepreneurial environment. 

"My best option at that point was to move back to Iowa, so I purchased the family business a retail grocery, of all things," he says. 

Despite the fact that he quickly learned that the business wasn't to his liking, Wagner reports that it was a great experience. 

"I learned the true value of the employee base, and the contributions that your employees could make to your success," he says. 

He returned to the financial services industry in 1986, working in a savings and loan and later as CEO of a credit union in Dallas. 

"Typically at that point, a lot of credit unions still had a very narrow focus," he notes. "A lot of the management came from within and did not bring in talent from outside the industry, so they became very myopic in how they looked at things." 

Wagner re-tooled the organization, incorporating a variety of new ideas in a very short time, creating a successful makeover that caught the attention of other credit unions nationwide. 

He came to EBTEL at a time when the credit union needed a turnaround. 

"Business decisions were made that had caused a lot of financial drain on our capital," he says, "plus there was a lot of outdated thinking in terms of technology and employee usage." 

Wagner worked to create a more progressive organization, not just in terms of technology but also in employee attitudes. 

Many of the changes have been dictated by EBTEL's members, who are surveyed frequently and also contribute to the company's direction by participating in a technology committee that provides input on technical issues. 

Managing technology is the most challenging day-to-day issue that Wagner faces. 

"You can't bring in technology for the sake of technology; you have to manage it based on the needs and desires of your customers, or in our case, our membership base," he says. "You want to be just slightly ahead of their needs because once they realize their needs, they'll get it somewhere else if you can't provide it.

That, for me, is the new professional challenge: managing all the technologies to the benefit of our membership." 

The emphasis on members is important throughout the industry. As not-for-profit organizations, credit unions put profits back into products and services rather than paying dividends to investors. 

The philosophy of assisting members or, as Wagner puts it, "people helping people" is the focus of EBTEL's corporate culture, and one of nine values that Wagner uses to define the company for his employees. 

"Trust, respect, communication, teamwork we not only identified the core issues but defined what they represent," he says. 

Stating these core values helps define the organization and also aids in hiring. 

"We feel it's a good way to minimize the miss-hits of hiring," he says. "If you can get people in the door that are going to be happiest in your culture, that's a very important ingredient in your success."

It also saves on a critical resource: time. 

"What we're finding is that the new commodity is time," Wagner notes. "If we can bring in someone to improve our culture and develop their skills at the same time, we reduce the learning curve to where they're a productive asset for EBTEL and consistent to what we represent in a shorter period of time." 

Of course, there's another way to see what the organization represents. Just watch John Wagner. 

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