Eric Levine came to the credit union movement after the life-changing events of 9/11. A graduate of New York Law School, Levine served as Alternatives’ general counsel for over a decade before being named CEO. The New York Minute recently asked Levine 10 questions about his unorthodox career path, his thoughts on the credit union movement and more.
Can you tell us about your career path and how you got involved with the credit union movement?
I had a great job as an attorney at a diverse general practice firm in New York City. I had a young growing family in Long Island, and unfortunately, was spending over 90 minutes each direction commuting just 26 miles on mass transit. After I watched the Twin Towers crumble from my office window a few blocks away on 9/11, my wife and I started discussing moving upstate for a more family-centered life. Though I didn’t know what a credit union was at the time, I applied to be the first general counsel at Alternatives in Ithaca. They liked me and my legal background even though my experience did not involve financial institutions. They thought I was a good cultural fit (as far as attorneys go), and they figured I could learn the credit union regulations and issues on the job. After more than 12 years, in June 2017, the board asked me to be acting CEO. Sixteen months later, after a national search, the board offered me the CEO position. It was the greatest honor and achievement of my life.
Has your legal background helped your approach as CEO?
It has helped a lot. While in private practice for 12 years, I honed my skills in communication, legal research and analysis. The more I learned, the more I realized I didn’t know. To be successful and meet client needs, I had to keep learning. With this attitude and skillset as general counsel at Alternatives, I got involved in every area of the credit union’s operations, unwittingly laying the groundwork for my future role. Over 13 years, I worked alongside and built relationships with staff, the board and members. That very process of building solid trusted relationships over time developed the foundation and experience necessary to become and be successful as CEO. I have learned that trust, as well as staying inspired to keep learning, goes a long way.
Can you explain the values of Alternatives and how they shape the culture of the credit union?
Alternatives upholds the values of ownership, innovation and collaboration. These values, and the dedicated staff who champion them result in a special, fun and unique culture. Our culture is cooperative and very prideful of the essential work we do for underserved people who are marginalized by the mainstream financial industry. By approaching our work with these values and our mission at the forefront of our collective efforts, we join the fight against poverty, and strive to provide a hand up to build assets and create economic opportunity in our communities. We also empower and rely on our frontline staff to relay member and community needs, so we can innovate solutions to meet those needs.
If I were to add another value, it would be “inclusion,” since we strive to serve every member, no matter their life circumstance or financial position.
Alternatives had over 20 registrants for this year’s Enhanced Financial Counseling Certification Program – yourself included. Why is financial counseling, and FiCEP in particular, so important to your credit union?
Registering 20 of 48 full-time staff in FiCEP will enable Alternatives to provide better service to the members who need it most. We already have two full-time financial counselors on staff who work in-depth with the community at no cost. Our goal is for the rest of our frontline staff to be able to recognize when a member may be in need of financial counseling. With training, our staff will learn how to talk about these issues with members in the moment if time allows, or to recognize when a referral for further counseling may be supportive and appropriate. These opportunities may present themselves in various contexts across the member experience, and FiCEP is uniquely tailored for credit unions to efficiently and simultaneously train many staff who are working in a variety of roles.
Who are your credit union, cooperative or business role models?
I am most inspired by Bill Myers as a credit union role model. Bill was the founding CEO of Alternatives in 1979, and he hired me in 2005, a few years before he moved on to his retirement career. I’ve always been inspired by Bill’s belief in the power of individual action. He lived this belief himself through his own awe-inspiring work of transforming a small cash box into a full-service financial institution and national leader in the Community Development Credit Union world. He also fervently believed in the power of all individual consumers to vote their values with their wallets – to make decisions that drive the economy for the benefit of the community. To this day, Alternatives continues to be informed and inspired by Bill’s vision, activism and ideas.
What do you view as the biggest challenges and opportunities facing credit unions?
The challenge is educating the public about the differences between credit unions and banks. Most people don’t know that credit unions are not-for-profit cooperatives that exist for members and the community, and that they have volunteer boards. In contrast, banks exist mainly to earn shareholder profits for investors. The great opportunity is that with the knowledge of this drastic difference, many more people should want to align their actions and values with credit unions, and perhaps make the conscious choice to withdraw their support and business from the “too big to fail” banking system. With more people understanding credit unions, more people will see them as the better choice.
What are your short-term and long-term goals for Alternatives?
Short-term, Alternatives seeks growth to sustainability – that is, to be able to support our vast community programs without reliance on increasingly scarce and competitive grant funding. After we scale up a bit, our interest and fee income should support all we do, and we will not have to sweat out getting grants to partially support our work in the community, which is extensive and includes: financial and credit counseling; individual development account matched savings for first time homebuyers, business, or education; consumer and financial education classes and workshops; individual counseling and coaching for aspiring and established entrepreneurs; business education classes, workshops, and networking; free volunteer income tax preparation for people of modest means; student credit unions, which teach a savings habit in every elementary school in the Ithaca School District and elsewhere; and loan programs designed for underserved individuals and communities who don’t meet the criteria of the mainstream financial industry.
Long-term, we seek not only to expand our reach and innovation, but to demonstrate a sustainable community development model that may be replicated all over the world. Banking in any community can be conducted as a way to fight poverty and promote community development, including using the operating income from core banking operations to fully support such work.
How do you think your staff would describe your leadership style?
I think I would be described as inclusive. Employees at Alternatives know that I want to get every perspective before making important decisions, informed by staff at all levels of our organization. It is not always the most efficient and decisive method, but I believe it fosters staff engagement and allows people to know their ideas are considered. To be in a position to continuously innovate, Alternatives always needs to hear from our staff closest to our members, and those reaching out in the community – so we can be aware of existing or emerging needs and innovate solutions to meet those needs. I hope people feel that I encourage and welcome participatory communication, where people feel safe to make suggestions, and to question and challenge how we do things.
What are your goals or interests outside of work?
I love music and music history. These days, I’m often listening to music and sometimes messing around with my guitar and bass, after putting them away for many years. I am learning more about a plant-based whole food diet. I enjoy local and federal politics, and supporting progressive policies that respect equality, the environment and an economy that benefits everyone. I also enjoy my family – including my four kids ages 15-22, two Rottweilers and a cat.
Can you tell us about your time as an elected official?
I have been an elected councilperson on the Ithaca Town Board since 2009. I am finishing my third, four-year term. The Town Board is the executive, administrative and legislative policy-making body of the town. Since I work for a credit union, I was nominated long ago to chair the town budget committee. It’s an interesting role, even though I am not really a “numbers guy.” I have always used that fact to my advantage because I need to understand and explain numbers in lay-terms. I have several town board and committee meetings a month, which occur at lunch time or in the evening. It takes time to prepare for meetings and keep current on the many issues we face, so I should list it as one of my biggest hobbies. The short term issues include things such as what infrastructure improvements should be planned over the next few years. Longer term, we have worked on a 20-year comprehensive plan, and a zoning code to promote the types and locations of growth we’d like to see in the town. We don’t want development to happen willy-nilly.
As Alternatives’ CEO, I hope to engage in more conversations with community leaders to educate and bring awareness to the credit union movement.