In 1981, James H. Norris III was a fresh business graduate of the University of Maryland, College Park, ready to tackle any challenge.
At his first job as manager and CEO of Mercy Health Services Employees Federal Credit Union in Baltimore, his business degree came in handy. But he found that running track in high school also paid off.
Norris often had to get the board chairman to sign off on checks. The problem was the physician worked eight floors down from Norris’ office.
“I would run up and down the eight flights of stairs several times a day,” recalled Norris, 54, now president and CEO of Montgomery County Employees Federal Credit Union in Germantown. “I didn’t like to wait for elevators.”
Back then, it could take a day for members to obtain their funds, he said. Now they can access them instantaneously online.
“The technological advances are probably the biggest change that I’ve seen through the years,” said Norris, 30-plus-year veteran of the industry.
In the 1980s, ATMs at credit unions were popular and many feared they would replace conventional branches, Norris said. That has not happened as much as some thought, and he doesn’t think technology will replace human beings in the industry as much as some forecast.
Montgomery County Employees credit union opened its 20,000-square-foot Germantown headquarters in 2008 with many technological upgrades while still maintaining its Rockville branch. When Norris took over as CEO in 2010, the credit union had 26 employees, about the same as now, although assets have grown about 20 percent to $91 million. The institution continues to roll out new technology for its roughly 14,000 members, such as an app for the iPad.
“People go online more now, but they will still have questions, and we have employees here to answer them,” he said. “We have a small call center operation here.”
The state-of-the-art teller stations at the Germantown branch, which features a spacious, modern lobby and an upgraded drive-through system, have more bells and whistles and still require workers to operate them.
Norris has long been working on technological advances at the credit unions where he worked. During a nine-year stint as vice president of delivery systems at the National Institutes of Health Federal Credit Union in Rockville that ended in 2006, Norris worked to provide members with online banking and tested an early version of mobile banking, said Lindsay Alexander, a former CEO there. She retired in 2008 after more than 30 years in the industry, including almost two decades as head of the NIH institution.
“He was always leading edge, always looking for ways to give members access to a lot of avenues,” said Alexander, who came out of retirement to be interim CEO of Constellation Federal Credit Union in Reston, Va., and also is an executive coach. “He is very energetic and works hard to make things better for members.”
Alexander taught Norris a lot, he said, particularly about management and ethics.
The son of a state employee, Norris was born at the Baltimore hospital whose credit union he later led. His six siblings also were born at Mercy.
He remains a big booster of University of Maryland athletics, with autographed memorabilia from athletes and coaches there among the favorite items in his office.
Norris has worked for large institutions, such as the State Employees Credit Union of Maryland, a Linthicum institution that has 231,000 members and $2.6 billion in assets, plus medium and small ones. He’s been president and CEO of the AFL-CIO Employees Federal Credit Union, where he made sure all business was conducted with union organizations and enjoyed the political scene in Washington, D.C.
Norris is heavily involved in the Maryland and District of Columbia Credit Union Association, having been president of both the Suburban Maryland and Baltimore chapters. He is vice president of the Suburban Maryland chapter. He has lobbied on several issues of importance in Congress, such as debit card interchange rules, and plans to attend the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce’s state legislative reception in Annapolis on Feb. 4.
A key federal issue is increasing the percentage of a credit union’s total assets that it can lend to business members from 12.25 percent to 27.5 percent. “A lot of small businesses have trouble getting loans from banks,” Norris said. “Credit unions can help more in that area and generate a lot of jobs.”
Norris’ “leadership, high-energy, experience and commitment to the credit union industry provides an invaluable perspective” to the organization, said John Bratsakis, president and CEO of the Maryland and District of Columbia Credit Union Association.
Credit unions are nonprofits owned by members, with any surplus returned to members and operated by mostly volunteer boards, said Norris, whose wife, Kathleen, also works in the industry. Most banks are for-profit enterprises owned by outside stockholders and controlled by paid boards, he noted.
“Credit union members really have a voice in how the credit union is run,” Norris said.
Moreover, credit unions can offer customers fewer and lower fees and better rates than many banks can, he said.
“We can compete with what some of the biggest banks in the country offer,” Norris said.
Auto loans are still the single biggest segment in the loan portfolio, although credit cards, home equity and mortgage loans and business lines of credit are growing, he said.
“We don’t lend directly to businesses but do participatory loans where a group of credit unions provide loans to businesses,” said Norris, who expects to offer direct loans to businesses in the near future.
It’s important for credit unions to market their products, he said. He has conducted promotions such as offering a specially made cupcake from Georgetown Cupcake to prospective members.
He hopes to see Montgomery County Employees Federal Credit Union, which caters to county, school district and Montgomery College employees, as well as their relatives and those of the nonprofit Arc of Montgomery County, reach the $100 million asset level by the end of the year. In the last five years, assets have risen about 40 percent, with the new office having a lot to do with that growth, Norris said.
The institution ranked seventh in the nation for credit card loan growth for the one-year period ending June 30 at 53 percent in the Callahan Credit Union Directory.
“We’re also excited about some additional opportunities we will be providing for our members, as we roll out our rewards program and other new services in the coming year,” Norris said.
“A lot of people don’t know about what we have to offer.”