Tech People in the Know: Samaha & Associates Adam Denbo
In what is a recurring feature, Finopotamus will profile interesting and intriguing tech professionals who are positively impacting the credit union industry.
For this issue, we visited with Samaha & Associates Managing Consultant Adam Denbo. Since 1998, the Miami Beach, Fla.-based consulting firm has helped hundreds of credit unions improve respective relationships with vendors, while enhancing their technology and service offerings.
By W.B. King
After learning how to program on an Eagle Computer II 8088 using GW-BASIC from his father, a computer salesman, Adam Denbo began helping his computer science teachers install software and create programs — this was during grade school and junior high. But as he grew older, tech took a back seat.
“My high school and college education did not have a computer focus at all, but I was always strong in mathematics,” said Denbo, who graduated from California State Polytechnic University, Pomona with a Bachelor of Science degree in Business Management and a Marketing Management minor in 1996. He later obtained a Master of Business Administration degree in Internal Finance from the same institution.
“Searching for a career, I thought I wanted to focus in marketing or sales,” he told Finopotamus.
Denbo’s first job out of college was with Union Oil of California (UNOCAL). While he had applied for a marketing role, he was placed in the quality improvement department.
“In that position, I got back into computers and was writing detailed reporting programs for an IBM AS/400 system,” he said. “I later became a process improvement analyst for a large credit union and fell in love with the credit union movement.”
The noted institution was Wescom Credit Union where he spent four years, eventually becoming a supervisor of workflow systems and later manager of computer operations. The following four years, Denbo worked at Orange County’s Credit Union, first as the assistant vice president of technology and later as its chief political officer. The latter position included advocating the benefits of credit unions to members of Congress and the California State Legislature.
Streamlining Tech Operations
Prior to joining Samaha & Associates in 2010, Denbo served as president and CEO of California Agribusiness Credit Union. As a result of these collective posts, he has seen a good deal of change in the tech space — both back office and member-facing.
“Technology departments today are now more focused on applying technology for process improvement versus trying to simply maintain day-to-day operations. Back in the 1990s, the real estate that technology departments would require was quite large,” he continued. “This not only included more cubicles for staff, but raised floor data centers were massive. Today, the required footprint is much smaller.”
Additionally, Denbo said organizations can now do so much more with technology, thus becoming more efficient.
“More companies are deploying SaaS (software as a service) so they do not have to maintain as much equipment. There was a point in which my past technology departments maintained nearly 100 physical servers with a large server for every application,” he explained. “Servers became smaller, yet more powerful. The deployment of virtual servers allows multiple applications to run on one physical box.”
Instead of focusing on minimizing downtime, what Denbo referred to as “caring and feeding” servers, with multiple operators working twenty-four-seven, organizations today are better utilizing respective resources. “This enables the team to truly focus on process improvement, workflow optimization, and deployment of new services.”
The manner in which senior management views tech operations — staffing and services — has also shifted, Denbo shared.
“The technology team is now included in virtually all decisions and thought of as an integral part of strategic planning rather than an afterthought or simply being told what to implement,” he said. “The technology departments of today are represented equally in management and can help direct deployments by explaining the impact on efficiency and can assist in driving service excellence in all delivery channels.”
A Consultant’s View of CU Tech Initiatives
Denbo’ strength as a managing consultant, is informed, in part, by the various posts he held as a credit union executive. He draws on this experience when advising and stewarding Samaha & Associates' valued clients, many of which, he pointed out, are repeat customers.
“We are continuously searching out new technologies and firms come to us to present technology applications that may prove quite useful to financial institutions. We attend both local and national conferences where technology is shown and discussed,” he said. “We also lead and facilitate discussions on best practices and technology overall.”
In Denbo’s view, state and national associations and leagues are “quite helpful” in introducing new technology vendors to the forefront. He also encourages those interested in the evolving credit union tech space to join email listserv discussions “where there are many value-added topical discussions and information sharing.”
Being a consultant, however, is not without its challenges. One example, Denbo shared, is assisting financial institutions in reducing “speed bumps” in the member journey. To this end, he referenced Samaha & Associates President and CEO Sabeh Samaha’s and his member mantra: “We must continue to move at the speed of the member.”
Credit unions members, Denbo adds, are becoming increasingly demanding. As such, he said the Samaha team has become well-versed in anticipating these demands before they are requested. This includes searching, evaluating, selecting, negotiating and implementing new technologies that either directly or indirectly enhances the lives of members.
“The challenge for all of us is to have the technology in place before the members expect it," he said. "Enhancing the member experience is the next phase since we have already mastered member service.”
Expanding on his member service versus member experience stance, Denbo said credit unions are “second to none” when it comes to the former, but need to focus more on the latter.
“The personalized service has been mastered, but the personalized experience is to be desired. Credit unions are not competing with the typical ‘brick and mortar’ banks anymore. It is Amazon, Venmo, Instagram, Netflix, Acorn, and so many other technology and app providers that provide seamless experiences that credit union members come to expect now,” he continued. “Members want an Amazon-level experience with personal insights and just-in-time products and services.”
Fintechs and the Metaverse
The metaverse, a somewhat recent and nebulous concept entering the credit union tech vernacular, is not only on Denbo’s radar but has been a hot topic at recent credit union board strategic planning sessions he’s facilitated.
He noted that the metaverse is “widely considered” the next evolution of the Internet: “Web 2.0 of 3D where augmented reality and virtual reality play key roles.” And while Denbo said this might not come to fruition for another 10 years, it's “exciting to think about and financial services will certainly have a role” in the metaverse.
“In at least one case, the credit union had already begun research on purchasing land in the metaverse to create a virtual presence,” he continued. “The metaverse may very well be the next channel for member service and making that experience seamless for the member wherever and whenever they want to conduct their financial business will be something that credit unions should start to familiarize themselves with.”
Working in the metaverse, as is the case with most virtual banking applications, will require relationships with fintechs. Denbo said there are “good fintechs” and “bad fintechs,” noting that he is seeing far more of the former in today’s market place.
“Fintechs provide a wide array of value added services such as investment services, credit bureau information, budgeting assistance, transaction optimization, streamlined lending offerings, and personalization,” he said. “Pain points exist when fintechs try to directly market to the customers/members rather than sharing in the success.”
The Credit Union Movement: A Way of Life
Credit unions, opposed to other financial institutions, have more demand for real-time software and payment updates, Denbo said. Banks, he noted, "appear to be satisfied with “batch processing.” For credit unions, “batch” is synonymous with words like “old” or “classic.” He believes this difference is “based on the fact that credit unions are owned by the ones who actually utilize the services.”
“Banks, being typically owned by stockholding non-customers, are historically not as demanding when it comes to technology. Investments in technology need to have an immediate monetary ROI for banks, whereas member satisfaction has an important ROI for credit unions,” he continued. “However, larger banks understand that an excellent experience drives demand and hence profitability. In that light, credit unions must always seek a better member experience to earn and retain the business.”
Denbo said he truly embraced the credit union movement — people helping people—in 1998 when entering the space. This also happened to be the year when H.R. 1151(Credit Union Membership Access Act) was passed, amending the Federal Credit Union Act (FCUA) to add multiple common bond credit unions to the current permissible categories of single common bond and community credit unions. The industry, he believes, is growing stronger every year.
“Many may argue that since the number of credit unions has decreased from the highest in the mid-1970s (22,000-plus) to just less than 5,000 today that the industry is becoming smaller. In fact, there are more credit union members with more assets than ever before,” he said. “Although virtually equal, the average person may not know that [as of December 2022] there are actually more federally-insured credit unions (4,942) in the U.S. than there are federally-insured banks (4,796).”
Despite the noted figures, he said as an industry, “We continue to have less than 10% of total wallet share. So, there is certainly plenty of opportunity to share the best kept secret called ‘credit unions.’”
When Denbo is not busy helping Samaha & Associates clients address their technology needs, he might be found fishing or backpacking with his wife and five children somewhere in Southern California. You might also catch him riding his Harley Road King along the Pacific Coast Highway. His support and appreciation for the credit union industry movement, however, is always top of mind — this isn’t just a job for Denbo, but a way of life.
“The comradery and sharing of information between credit unions is something that I believe is unmatched in any industry and makes the movement so powerful,” he said. “Everyone is here to ultimately make the lives of members better.”
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