Gary Swindler. All photos by Cooper Carras.

When Gary Swindler took a role that started not long after graduating from college 30 years ago, he had no way of knowing that would be the impetus for a lifelong career and a values-driven way of life.

Two years out of Washington State University, Swindler joined Olympia-based Washington State Employees Credit Union (WSECU) as a senior loan officer in 1989. Already a member of the now-63-year-old credit union with locations throughout the South Sound and beyond, Swindler said he was drawn to the credit union’s service-minded, member-dedicated values.

There, Swindler has risen through the ranks and, in October 2019, was appointed president and CEO.

Swindler said he has tried to master every role he’s undertaken at the credit union. Amid a pandemic, recession, racial tension, and a contentious election season, Swindler has his first year as CEO in the bag, and he’s poised to begin a (hopefully) less tumultuous second year in 2021.

“It certainly has been challenging, but it has been good,” Swindler said, noting the snowball effect WSECU — and the rest of the economy — gained momentum in 2020, starting with a health pandemic that then rolled into an economic recession while highlighting racial inequalities and spurring political division. “Our organization is strong … I think that’s helped carry us through.”

Meanwhile, Swindler has been busy with the tasks that are characteristic of a CEO in his first year at the helm of a credit union.

“It was an interesting year on top of trying to reorganize my whole senior management team and get new messages and strategies out,” Swindler recalled. “(There were) a lot of long nights and days, but we’ve managed it well, and we’re in really good shape.”

We caught up with Swindler recently to find out how WSECU has been weathering COVID, what his priorities are for the future, and what has kept him at the credit union all these years.

As someone who has been with WSECU for your entire career, what company values are most important to you as a leader?

We really do create a culture of trying to serve our members and our employees really well. We’ve aligned ourselves around caregiver brand archetypes. … We really try to have that empathetic ear and that caregiver mentality, knowing that every single individual has different situations … trying to uncover those needs and really be a partner with them and give them good guidance. … That really just fits with who I am at my core and my leadership style.

What have been some of your priorities in your first year as CEO?

It started by reorganizing my senior management team to divvy up pieces of my previous role … (Then) getting engaged with (the board) to understand what their wants and needs (were) … I instituted a three- to five-year strategic plan of some of the big areas that we wanted to grow in. … And then COVID hit.

How did COVID change the trajectory of your year?

The priorities this year were really about stabilizing our staff first and making sure that their health, safety, and well-being were priority No. 1. … And then on the heels of that, we could see the economic impact coming rapidly. It was really about getting what we call our “relief programs” in place. … (We) really had to think differently (about) how we were going to serve our members.

When the pandemic began to affect Washington, WSECU promised there would be no layoffs. Tell us about the decision behind this commitment.

At the end of the day, this is a people business, and we’re a people business. The first thing we wanted to do — and it literally was about the first thing we did — was wanting to give our employees peace of mind so they knew (what to expect). They had family and friends that were being laid off or (receiving) reduced hours, and you could just see the waves of unemployment coming. … We wanted to remove that stressor from their (lives). And so, by saying that literally in week one, that takes a whole lot of pressure off.

You’ve given employees additional time off, called “me time,” since the pandemic started. What is the significance of this?

We also didn’t want (employees) to have to use (their vacation time) to keep them mentally healthy through this, because this is a mental drain and a mental stress on people. … We just wanted to remove another stressor to say, “We have the capacity to make an internal decision to give them two days this month, two days next month, that is just free to them.” It doesn’t touch their vacation.

With a heightened awareness of racial inequality, WSECU for the first time took a stand on social and political issues. What compelled you to do this?

Historically, previous leaders just said, “We’re a financial institution; let’s focus on financial well-being for our members.” And, of course, that’s an easy lane to stay in. I just wanted to remove the political side of this, because I didn’t think it was a political issue. I thought it was a human rights issue. And at the core of what was going on, this was not a lot about aligning with any group or any movement; this was about oppression. And so, if you don’t take a stand on human rights, what do you take a stand on? … I’m really proud of our board and our team because we’ve been — for months in every board meeting — educating ourselves. We’ve been assessing our industry, been assessing our own company, and we’re putting things into action and rebuilding vision statements that make sure that we have racial equity and community social impact more deeply involved. … We were born to serve the underserved. I mean, that’s why credit unions came into existence. And so, I think credit unions of all sizes do that really well. And because of how the rules were created decades ago, there are still systemic obstacles there that we have to look at to make sure that financial inclusion is much more equitable.

How do you see WSECU moving forward to heal your members and employees after the hardships of this year?

(The) unfortunate thing is, we’ve got months more to go, probably … And it’s really a challenge because it nicks away at your culture a little bit because we have such a strong employee culture and brand. And so we’re doing everything we can to promote that. I think it’s just about us as a management team being really flexible to all these physically and mentally impacting situations and events that we’ve seen and experienced.

Alternatively, what does that look like for your members?

In the last seven months, we’ve done over 30,000 what we call “member relief transactions.” We really just tried to say, “This is a time we need to be there for our members.”

How do the communities WSECU serves impact your work?

We have a pretty good geographic footprint across Washington state, from Spokane to Pullman to Ellensburg to Everett, and each of our communities are unique. … We actually give paid time off to our staff to volunteer so they can be paid while working to volunteer for organizations that are in their communities. I think doubling down during times like these is how we can impact those communities. And then (members) also see that we’re part of those communities. So, it’s not just words; it’s actions.

Before becoming CEO, you’d been with WSECU for 30 years. What have been the highlights of your career with the credit union?

Over the years, I’ve been involved in so many significant projects and initiatives, but at the end of the day, it comes down to just relationships. … Once I retire and move on, I will maintain a lot of those relationships. To me, it’s not so much about the things that I did; it’s more about the people in the relationships I had.

What do you hope to accomplish in future years at WSECU?

I’ve got another 10 years before my retirement. One of the things we’re working on is really building diverse bench strength in our organization, our management ranks. So, as myself and the senior team moves on, really creating young, vibrant, diverse leaders that can take this organization to that next level is part of our thinking, because our senior management team is all similar in age. So, we really want to make sure we have a legacy that can carry on.