Wagering on Success

By Romi Carrell Wittman

Vantage West Credit Union CEO Robert D. Ramirez began his credit union career on a wager of sorts. He bet his boss he could turn around the company in three months. And he did.

The story begins in 1985. Ramirez, who was working for a local construction firm, had recently passed the CPA exam and was looking for more responsibility and a bump in salary. When he approached management about his wishes, his bosses told him to get an engineering degree.

Ramirez didn’t relish the thought of going back to school to earn another degree, so he looked for other opportunities. DM Federal Credit Union – DMFCU – was hiring.

Ramirez was hired as the assistant controller. It was a pay cut, but, as Ramirez said, “sometimes you have to take a step backward to move forward.”

He held that position for 30 minutes.

On his first day, Ramirez waited for his new boss, the CFO, to show up. When he finally arrived, he dropped his set of keys on the table and announced to Ramirez, “I’ve resigned. Good luck.”

And with that, Ramirez became acting CFO.

Fast forward six months. DMFCU was still looking for its next CFO when a group of federal examiners came in for their annual exam of the credit union. It did not go well. DMFCU received a less than desirable rating.

“I told the CEO, ‘Give me three months and I’ll get you an exceptional rating,’ ” Ramirez recalled. “And he told me if I did, he’d double my salary and make me the CFO.”

Ramirez delivered and so did his boss. He held the CFO position for 14 years, eventually working his way up to CEO. DMFCU eventually became Vantage West Credit Union.

Today Vantage West is Southern Arizona’s largest credit union, with 15 branches in Arizona, 118,000 members and $1.1 billion in assets.

This story reveals a lot about Ramirez – his drive, his dedication to work and his ability to roll with the punches. What it doesn’t reveal is Ramirez’ humor, his dedication to his family or his commitment to the community.

Ramirez, 58, has been CEO of Vantage West Credit Union for 13 years and he says he’s having a blast. That much is evident by the awards he and the credit union have received.

In the most recent honor, a panel of employee benefits experts named Vantage West as one of the 2012 winners of The Principal 10 Best Companies for Employee Financial Security in the nation, through Principal Financial Group.

Like other credit unions, Vantage West experienced tough times in 2008. Instead of cutting benefits, Ramirez said he focused on growing revenues by taking care of employees.

“My goal was to enhance the member value proposition by keeping employees motivated and well compensated with salary and benefits,” he has said. “I told employees, ‘If you take care of members, I will take care of you. I won’t touch your salaries and benefits.’ They kept their promise, and I kept mine. We were profitable by 2009, and we’ve been profitable ever since.”

Vantage West also won a workplace excellence award in 2006, and Ramirez was named the Eller College Associate of the Year in 2005. He was named the 2009 Business Man of the Year by Tucson Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and 2010 Father of Year by Father’s Day Council Tucson in recognition of his work to raise funds to fight type 1 diabetes.

“My mother died from complications of diabetes,” he said. “We (her children) didn’t even know she had it because she kept it a secret.”

Ramirez said many members of his family have the disease, and finding a cure is something of a mission for him.

Dr. Fayez K. Ghishan, head of the University of Arizona Department of Pediatrics and director of Steele Children’s Research Center said, “Bob has generously lent his time and talents to raise awareness of type 1 diabetes and the Steele Center. We are lucky to have Bob in our community, and I am proud to count him as a friend.”

Mike Varney, president of the Tucson Metro Chamber, said of Ramirez, “he has a tremendously high level of issue awareness in our community. He is engaged and energetic. He wants to help build a better Tucson.”

Said Lea Marquez Peterson, president of Tucson Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, “The Tucson region is blessed to have a business leader like Bob Ramirez.”

Born and raised in Nogales, Ramirez said his parents taught him to give back. It’s a philosophy he has built into the culture of Vantage West.

“Financial literacy is really our big focus,” he said. He points to the financial crisis of 2008 as evidence that many people are not financially literate.

“People didn’t have the foundation, the education, and they got themselves in a bad situation,” he said, referring to the sub-prime mortgage crisis in which people were qualified for mortgages they could not afford.

Ramirez focuses on helping members become financially literate in order to generate “good profits” for the credit union as opposed to “bad profits.”

Good profits come from financial products that benefit both the credit union and the member. For example, interest income earned on a first mortgage loan generates good profit because it helps both the credit union and the member, as opposed to a late fee on a mortgage that generates bad profit because it is at the expense of the member.

Vantage West also gives to numerous charities across Southern Arizona. It’s a tradition that started in the midst of the 2008 financial crisis. Vantage West lost more than $10 million that year, but remained financially viable. Ramirez and the board of directors made the decision to cut the annual employee appreciation party, and instead donate half of the money that would have been spent on the party to 10 local charities.

The annual party has since been reinstated, but the annual giving has also continued.

Vantage West is also at the cutting edge of technology. The company is looking at opening a teller-less branch at First and Wetmore in the near future. Members will be able to do their banking at kiosks, a move that will lower costs and offer more convenience.

“Technology helps us to lower costs which enables us to lower costs to our members,” Ramirez explained. “We want to leverage technology so we can help our members.”

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