In a recent cover story, “The Most Powerful Women in Credit Unions 2023,” American Banker noted that four of the top 10 credit unions in the country are run by women, double what there were in 2022.
These numbers get even more interesting because Tampa-based Suncoast Credit Union, the largest such institution in Florida, landed two executives – Chief Financial Officer Julie Renderos and Chief Growth Officer Darlene Johnson – on this year’s “Most Powerful” list.
Johnson, who’ll soon celebrate her 34th year with Suncoast, said the recognition surprised her. “In a lot of cases, the focus tends to be more on the highest position, CEO,” she explained. “And although Julie and I are both EVPs and at a very large credit union, there are a lot of female CEOs out there that I’m sure are making a significant impact to the movement as well.
“So it did surprise me. I was honored just to be nominated, to be part of the conversation.”
She began in member services – Suncoast Credit Union has over one million members – and over the years has held a variety of positions, including loan underwriting manager, consumer loan manager, vice president of loan originations, vice president of member solutions and senior vice president of member experiences. Suncoast made her CGO in 2021.
“They focus a lot on diversity,” Johnson said, “in terms of how we’re able to continue to develop future leaders and ensure that we have the next set of leaders coming through. Which I do a lot of, in my role, I’ve had the opportunity to create a couple of leadership development programs internally that we continue to utilize, as we’re developing those folks that are coming up through the ranks.”
Johnson loves her community, and she’s proud of Suncoast Credit Union. “Part of my role is the strategy and operational functions of our 78 branches,” she said, adding with pride: “We just opened three more in Orlando.”
Her years of experience, Johnson believes, have served her well. “I was in a leadership position in 2008 when the great recession hit, and I kind of led the team that created the workout solutions that prevented over 4,500 foreclosures for our members,” she explained. “As well as thousands of other budget workouts and modifications and so forth.”
Past experiences, she understands, will help you navigate the future. “And although we’re not quite – thank goodness – going to hit the levels of the great recession, we are seeing some impacts to the economy, obviously, with the rapidly rising interest rates that happened over the last 12 months. I was able to talk a little bit about how that great recession experience kind of prepared me, and it helps me be better informed on how we should go forward.
“And one of those ways is to continue to serve the community and lend through it, which was a hard lesson to learn.”
Credit unions, because they’re nonprofits and are technically co-owned by the “members” themselves, are different from banks, which need to make profits. Loan terms, for example, are generally less severe at credit unions.
Suncoast will turn 90 years old in 2024, Johnson pointed out. “We’ve always had a deep focus on serving our members, serving kind of the middle class, serving them with good products at low to no fees and good rates. That’s been a constant for us. We’ve always had a strong value and giving back to the communities. That hasn’t really changed.
“I think what has changed is as we’ve grown in size, we’ve stayed so true to that core value. That’s just given us the ability to do more.”
As Chief Growth Officer, her job is to find ways to keep refining the definition of “serving the members.” Of honoring and re-celebrating the core value.
She’s enthusiastically exploring new fintech models. “I would not function well in an organization that requires me to think inside the box all the time, or have very stringent guidelines that I had to live within,” Johnson said.
“Right now, financial wellness is very important and in the forefront for me. And it’s not just someone having $400 in their savings account for an emergency, it’s about how our members feel about their financial status.
“So I am very focused on looking for tools and products that we can implement into the organization that can really help people learn better behaviors on how to manage money.
“And again, it’s not just the management of it, but it’s feeling good about it.”
Catalyst reporter Mark Parker contributed to this story.