On a small conference table in James Nastars’ office sit more than half a dozen individually decorated plastic boxes.
They were boxes put together by staff at Meritrust Credit Union branches inside and outside of Wichita.
One box lid sports a replica of the Colorado state flag. It’s from Meritrust’s Maple Street branch in west Wichita. Another is stuffed with crimson-and-blue crepe paper and items such as plastic tumblers with the University of Kansas Jayhawk logo. That box came from the credit union’s Lawrence branches.
“I found out they (Meritrust employees) are a very creative group,” said Nastars, who last month became chief executive of the largest credit union based in Kansas. “They are very welcoming.”
Nastars, a former Texas credit union executive, has been getting to know his staff, Wichita and Kansas in his first few weeks on the job – weeks that have included a trip to Washington, D.C., and record snowfall in Wichita that prompted him to make his first executive decision: temporarily closing branches.
“One board member said to me, ‘We hire you and the first thing you do is close the credit union,’ ” Nastars said, laughing.
Nastars said he wants to take Meritrust to “the next level.” Also foremost on his mind is preserving a decades-long culture that places employee well-being on the same plane with member service.
Nastars comes to Meritrust from University Federal Credit Union in Austin, where he worked for 17 years and was senior vice president of lending. He also has worked as a budget analyst and supervising auditor for the Texas Juvenile Justice Department, and as an assistant auditor and officer for Extraco Bank, based in Temple, Texas.
He replaces Bob Corwin, who left Meritrust in September to become CEO of Advantis Credit Union in Portland, Ore.
Nastars latched on to a credit-union career path because “there is a tangible difference between credit unions and other financial institutions.”
The difference, he said, is that at credit union board meetings, the talk almost always focuses on members, their customers.
“The discussions tend to be, ‘How can we take care of our membership,’ ” he said. “I can already tell the approach (at Meritrust) is the same.”
Nastars said he also likes the cooperation between credit unions, such as multiple credit unions partnering to operate a branch.
When he interviewed with Meritrust’s five-member board for the job, he said that part of the discussion focused on the importance of employee well-being. Since Nastars arrived, he said it’s pretty clear that Meritrust has 215 engaged employees who like working for the credit union.
“It wasn’t just lip service,” he said of what he heard during his interview. “There is a true commitment to employee well-being. It makes me feel I made a good decision” to take the Meritrust job.
“We have a culture of taking care of our members,” said Marci Johnson, chairman of Meritrust’s board. “They’re not just customers, they’re members. In order to do that you have to take pretty good care of the people who take care of the members. His (Nastars’) background just made us realize he fit with our culture. It just made a huge difference for us.”
Yung Tran, executive vice president at University Federal, said Nastars may not have been “ the top dog” at the $1.5 billion credit union, but he was “a top dog.” Perhaps Nastars most significant contribution to University Federal was when the credit union decided to eliminate its indirect auto lending business and create a direct auto lending program.
“He basically left a strong legacy here as far as building up a very strong direct lending program,” Tran said, who added that by hiring Nastars, “Meritrust scored a big one there.”
Johnson and Nastars talk a lot about taking Meritrust to the “next level” and to its “next phase of growth.”
What that means to Nastars is developing “deeper relationships” with the credit union’s 73,000 members. That means, for instance, getting members who have only a checking or savings account with Meritrust to use its other products and services, such as a mortgage or car loan, as well as using its wealth management services or insurance products.
“If they are faced with something in the financial arena … I want them to think of us first,” he said.
The next phase also includes efforts to make branches in Lawrence and Junction City more a part of the communities they serve as well as to strengthen relationships with the employee groups the credit union serves, such as Spirit AeroSystems and other aircraft-related companies.
He said the next phase of growth isn’t about reaching $1 billion in assets, though “I think it will,” he said. It has $850 million in assets now.
The growth metrics Nastars said he is most concerned with are improving employee engagement and member satisfaction survey scores – and keeping its capital above 9.5 percent of assets. He said the high capital ratio has allowed the credit union to provide and add services in a tough economy.
“Meritrust, despite the recent challenges in the local economy, has done very, very well,” Nastars said.
According to Meritrust’s 2012 financial condition statement filed with the National Credit Union Administration, it had net income of $9.5 million. That was up from $7.3 million in 2011, according to NCUA documents.
Between 2011 and 2012, Meritrust increased its total number of loans by 7,100 to 55,975. In that same period the dollar amount of loans on its books increased by $94 million to $690 million, according to NCUA documents.
Nastars said his intent is to finish out his credit union career at Meritrust. “Hopefully I will be here till I retire,” he said.
And if he can have a legacy at the credit union, he said it would be this: “Meritrust is better for him being CEO.”