Jeff Benson, SVP/CIO at Bellwether Community Credit Union, understands the pivotal role strategy and collaboration play in his organization and the industry at large. Benson serves on several local Boards of Directors and committees for non-profit organizations and is committed to community and industry service.
Benson joined Bellwether Credit Union in 1999. He has 25 plus years of experience in the banking industry, including Customer Service, Treasury, Operations, Consumer Lending, Cash Management, eCommerce, and Information Technology. A firm believer in collaboration and the credit union mantra of “people helping people,” Benson thinks everyone is an expert in their jobs and lives; they just need a little guidance and then to be let go to accomplish their goals.
A fan of nonfiction war books, Benson finds himself fascinated by not only the strategy he observes in war stories but also the way in which soldiers work together for the greater good. He believes partnerships and collaboration, along with innovation, are critical keys to progress, both now and in the future.
NEACH recently spoke with Jeff about the state of the industry and the importance of collaborative partnerships in driving innovation.
NEACH: What does it mean to you personally and professionally to serve on NEACH’s Board of Directors? What is your primary role?
I serve as a director at large on the NEACH Board of Directors. Right now, there’s so much change going on in payments. To have an opportunity to influence NEACH and its role in payments really means something to me. Our CEO at Bellwether has always encouraged us to get involved with the things we care about, and NEACH is one of those things. They’re good people, and I want to try and help out. We need to work with everybody—banks and credit unions—to make sure the FinTechs don’t just steamroll over us.
NEACH: Where do you predict the industry will be in five years? How can financial institutions prepare in a rapidly accelerating financial services environment?
I think the real-time nature of delivery is only going to become more important as the younger generations—and it’s not just the Millennials and people who adopt technology; we’re getting beyond Millennials now—increase as our customer base. The need for instant gratification has only grown. The goal for me would be that every payment would be in real time. If people could see their payments in real time, it would give them much more flexibility on how and when and where to manage their financial lives. Financial institutions can prepare for what lies ahead by not only partnering together as an industry but also inviting in those entrepreneurs and innovators. Don’t make it a challenge for them and us. We need to band together and look outward toward our customers and members and what they need and help provide that together.
NEACH: Why is it important for an organization to have a payments strategy in place in this environment? What does this mean practically for financial institutions today?
I think my emphasis on real-time payments and the ability to make payments via any channel is what the expectation is. The cool factor is gone. Payments are commoditized now. From a financial standpoint internally, the payment income stream is extremely valuable for us. The more competitors, especially the non-traditional financial entities, the more they strip away, the more pressure they put on FIs to find other ways to make income. Nobody likes fees, but that’s what everyone lives on. That’s the greatest danger—if we don’t participate, we will be passed by.
NEACH: What business topics keep you up at night?
Cybersecurity. For my job, I attend conferences and seminars, and every time I go to one, I don’t sleep for three days. Fraud is another big issue with the topics we’ve been discussing. The conversation is: How do we remain relevant in our market?
NEACH: In addition to serving on the Board, how do you participate with NEACH?
I try to participate at any level that I can, not only as a client but also as a board member. I send staff to NEACH events. In fact, we have someone at almost all of their events. Since we take advantage of many of NEACH’s products and services—and I'm always pleased with them—I sell NEACH. They have a new CEO in Sean, and so when I talk to Sean, I like to see where he is coming from. Apart from being on the board and participating in the meetings and discussions, which I think is probably the most important thing I do, I try to be visible at events so people understand that the board members believe in what’s going on at NEACH. I find that when I go to events at other organizations or trade associations, and there aren’t any board members there, I think, Don’t you guys believe in your own cause?
NEACH: What do you see as NEACH's most significant contribution to the industry? How vital is NEACH to the industry as a whole?
They're obviously our regional clearinghouse, which is an absolute need. However, I also think they do an outstanding job participating at the national level, having a voice in the rules and the way that the payment system works. I believe that when NEACH gets in these consortiums with the FinTechs and with the government, they do a very good job of advocating on behalf of our needs. If NEACH’s number one strength is servicing our needs, number two has to be advocating for our needs at every level.
NEACH: Complete this sentence: Without NEACH, I (or my organization) would be _________.
Without NEACH, we would be less effective at managing our business. ACH is such a dramatic part of our business, plus NEACH does risk assessments and audits. It would change the way we do business, in a negative way.
NEACH: What books are you currently reading?
When I do read, I read a lot of World War II and Vietnam-type nonfiction. When new books come out about Iraq, I read those, too. I am genuinely fascinated by what humanity has been able to get through under the most horrendous, tragic circumstances. To read those books gives me hope that we can still make sacrifices because it seems like in today’s society, it’s “all about me.” Unfortunately, when we do have to send men and women into war, or in any country anywhere for that matter, it’s a sad day. However, I marvel at the heroes and their courage.
You know, I read a book, The Boys of Pointe du Hoc: Ronald Reagon, D-Day, and the U.S. Army 2nd Ranger Battalion, which spoke about the guys who scaled the wall in Normandy before anybody came on the beach to take out the pillboxes on top. Eighty percent of those guys never made it to the top, and they saw their comrades falling as they were going up. How do you keep going up in a situation like that?
NEACH: Who has been your biggest role model and why?
My father. I think because of the way he raised me with respect for others. There was a phrase he used to say, “When you leave this house, you represent our family.” I’ve always taken that to heart. It’s such a powerful thing. It’s not just about you—that’s really what the message is—it’s about us. So I use that at work. When I'm out somewhere, I'm aware that I'm representing something other than just myself, something greater than myself. I have a lot of contacts, many friends, and people know I work at Bellwether. So my actions go beyond Jeff Benson. It would reflect poorly on our organization if I did not represent myself well. It’s thinking of the greater good. There’s more to this world than just me.