Walk into People’s Credit Union in Middletown and you might see Ellen Ford, the president and CEO, sitting at a desk with an elderly woman, helping her balance her checkbook.
At most financial institutions, top-level executives would assign a teller to perform this task, but Ford welcomes any opportunity to interact with one of People’s depositors. “It’s something that keeps me connected to our members,” she said. “We’re a community organization, and if you’re an employee here, it’s important that you embrace that.”
That emphasis on personal contact and community service is one of the things that drew Ford to work at People’s, where she started out as a teller three decades ago. She’s quick to point out that a credit union is very different from a bank. People who use a credit union are never called customers; they are members of a nonprofit financial cooperative, and as a group they own the institution. Members also have some voice in how a credit union is run.
“When I first came to work here, it was really just a job,” Ford said. “But as I came to learn what a credit union is and what it does, I realized it was a natural fit for me. I believe I’m giving back to the community. It’s something I learned when I was young. My parents were strong believers in community service.”
That sense of commitment and openness is one reason why Ford has received the award for career achievement for the Providence Business News 2013 Business Women Awards.
“She’s built a culture of trust and respect here,” said Brian Hennessey, People’s executive vice president and chief financial officer. “I’m sure that’s always been important at the credit union, but she’s made a concerted effort to bring that to new level. It filters down to every employee.”
“We have a very positive environment here, and that really stems from Ellen’s leadership,” added Amy Martel, executive vice president and chief operating officer. “We operate on a trust framework and that’s evident all through the structure.”
Ford can boast her leadership has kept the institution on firm ground. People’s has earned a Superior 5-Star rating – the top grade – from Bauer Financial, an agency that analyzes the soundness of credit unions nationwide. That designation means the credit union excels in areas such as capital, asset quality and profitability. People’s has earned that rating for the last 85 consecutive quarters, an achievement that puts the institution in Bauer’s elite group of Sustained Superiority Credit Unions. Only 7 percent of the nation’s credit unions can claim this distinction.
Under Ford, the credit union has won numerous awards, including honorable mention nationally for the Louise Herring Philosophy in Action Award from Credit Union National Association, a major achievement, and a first for a Rhode Island institution in recent memory. The award was given for People’s My CU programs for youth education.
Ford has deep roots in the communities she serves. She grew up in Newport, and has lived in the Ocean State most of her life. She earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration at the University of Rhode Island, and shortly thereafter began her career at People’s, a 90-year-old institution with six branches in the state’s coastal cities and towns.
She worked her way up from teller to chief financial officer before moving into her current position 12 years ago. Her advancement is a significant achievement itself, since the top level in financial services is still largely dominated by men.
“I don’t take a male-versus-female view of things,” Ford said, “but I realize my position offers other women an example of what can be done, and I’m proud of that.”
As CEO, she has made the slogan “Service to Members Above All Else” a staple for the credit union, and she provides employees with a role model for that principle. She’s a hands-on executive whom many members know by name. She also makes a point of knowing every employee. There are roughly 100 working in the six branches. She makes regular visits to all those locations, and takes every new employee to lunch.
Other core values at the institution are: enhance the community, encourage individual employee growth and be a high-trust organization.
Ford promotes that culture with a management style influenced by the late Stephen Covey, the business-and-self-help guru whose bestselling tome “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” has been embraced by many companies and organizations. Every employee at the credit union now goes through the Speed of Trust training class developed by Covey’s sons, both management consultants. It’s been described as a down-to-earth program that emphasizes respect, corporate transparency, accountability and delivering results.
“I’m a big proponent of transparency and clear communication on every issue, good, bad or otherwise,” she said. “As a financial institution it is imperative that we are a trusted partner for our members.”
Ford wants every People’s employee involved with the cities and towns the institution serves. To help the staff reach that goal, the credit union requires every member of the workforce to perform community service. Last year the employees volunteered a total of 2,514 hours to helping Ocean State organizations. People’s employees have been recognized for their efforts at giving back. In recent years they’ve won both the Dora Maxwell Social Responsibility Award and the first-place award for “philosophy in action” from the Credit Union Association of Rhode Island.
“Our employees can find a volunteer project on their own, but we also have a committee that organizes events,” she said. “Our employees recently took part in a beach clean for Save The Bay. We volunteer at Rhode Island Special Olympics, and we take part in a fundraising walk for the Potter League for Animals. Some of our employees run bingo games at the veterans home in Bristol. We have monthly dress-down days to raise money for local nonprofits.”
The CEO is a gung-ho volunteer herself. An alumnus of Community College of Rhode Island, she now serves on the school’s capital campaign committee. She’s on a similar panel for the James L. Mahar Center, a Rhode Island nonprofit that provides opportunities for people with developmental disabilities. She heads the board of directors for the Potter League for Animals, a humane society.
She’s active in professional organizations as well, chairing the Credit Union Association of Rhode Island. “She’s an active leader politically in both Rhode Island and Washington on issues surrounding credit unions and the financial services industry,” Martel said.
When it’s time to relax, Ford can be found gardening, reading or playing golf, a new pursuit for her. She lives in Middletown with her husband, Barry, and their son, Jim. She credits her family with helping her reach her current level of achievement. “The only way I’ve been able to do this job and be successful is with the support of my husband,” she said. •