What the Pandemic Taught Me about Business: Ben Morales
By. W.B. King
In what will be a recurring feature, Finopotamus will touch base with business leaders to better understand how operations, technology and otherwise, have changed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Serving as CEO of Q-Cash Financial LLC and Chief Technology and Operations Officer at Washington State Employees Credit Union (WSECU), Ben Morales has spent roughly 25 years in the credit union industry. Due to his dual roles, he has a unique perspective on both fintech and credit union operations. And like many of his colleagues, the pandemic has taught him some important lessons.
“When this initially occurred, our immediate response as a credit union was to determine how to make our employees safe and how to continue to serve our members while keeping them safe,” said Morales. The $3-billion Olympia, Wash. – based WSECU supports approximately 700 employees and serves more than 300,000 members. “Like everyone else, we went into incident mode.”
Incident mode included moving all employees offsite and adjusting hours of operation at the credit union’s 21 branch locations. Moving that many people over a nine-day period was “no easy” task, Morales recalled.
“But we had a chance to see our investment in redundancies, infrastructure, technology and communications,” he said. “And we were quickly able to prove those disciplines that we created over many years were successful.”
In total, it would take about three weeks for all WSECU employees to get respective operating systems up and running. When it came to IT operations, there was minimal need for IT employees to report to the corporate office.
“We have had the full support of our IT department offsite, but they come in when necessary. For example, many of our employees needed cameras for their home/work computers,” said Morales. “We are in the process of redeploying monitors with cameras built in. So we needed IT employees to come in and build those and get them back to the staff.”
Less the need to deploy upgraded equipment to employees, WSECU’s investment in automated technologies decreased the impact COVID-19 had on business operations, explained Morales.
“For the most part, we have been a completely virtual organization for many, many years. So a lot of the automation of systems and management were already happening remotely,” said Morales. “Our data center also uses automation, deployment and monitoring tools. We have been very fortunate to leverage the technology we had in place.”
In March, Washington State became the first COVID-19 hot spot in the nation. Morales said once credit union executives determined the pandemic was a “real” threat, WSECU executives took decisive action.
“There was no question about what we had to do. There was no debate,” he said. “We didn’t take a ‘wait and see’ approach. We immediately put teams in place internally to assess the situation and execute a strategy.”
While WSECU’s corporate office will remain closed until September, the credit union’s branches, which until recently were open for members by appointment only, are slowly reopening. Morales said all state-mandated protocols for safety, such as social distancing and wearing masks, are required of employees and members.
It was during the appointment-only months that WSECU executives realized that there was an opportunity to cross-train employees, said Morales.
“Since the branches were open very minimally, we trained those employees to work in the contact center, which they could do from their desk at their branch,” he said. “Now these employees can work remotely at the contact center anytime. This is a functionality resulting from the pandemic that we will leverage overtime as well as other back office operations that seem to have been more impacted during these times than other departments.”
With more employees working remotely, Morales noted that management is noticing certain staff members who excel working at home and others that miss the social aspect of the office. There are others who lack the discipline and focus to work remotely. He added that the efficiency of all employees is being studied, which may lead to certain people being allowed to work from home on a more permanent basis.
“The key point leadership struggles with is how do we keep the culture we built over the last 60 years and maintain the success we have had serving our members,” said Morales. “So our challenge is evolving in this new remote world.”
FinTechs did the Right Thing
Throughout the ongoing pandemic, operating any type of business has come with a host of challenges. This is especially problematic when there are third parties involved. And as is the case in most situations, adversity brings out peoples’ true colors.
“There was a period of time when things got so crazy that nobody could look up, so I was very appreciative of the ‘stand down’ approach of our third party partners. They waited for us to call them,” said Morales. “When we got to the ‘what’s next’ phase, the vendors began to reach out offering a helping hand. This was great because we had issues to deal with and our resources were thin. All of our partners played the right role at the right time.”
During the pandemic, Morales has worn more than one executive hat. As the CEO of QCash Financial, a fintech lending solution provider, he has seen the economic impact of the pandemic on various business operations.
“With QCash, I’m on the other side of the coin trying to sell solutions to credit unions,” said Morales. QCash’s mission, he added, is developing cash management solutions that help members better manage savings, borrowing, spending and planning habits. “We have continually assessed the situation and where credit unions stand now. We know that we are all at the initial point of recovery.”
While the future of the flagging economy is uncertain due to loan deferments, furloughs, high unemployment rates and soon-to-be-ending government subsidies in the form of personal and business bailouts, Morales said that it is only a matter of time before reality will set in.
“Eventually we are going to move to a point of recovery and we have to figure out how we are going to get members to accept the reality they are in,” he said. “Members will have to figure out to live with what they have and how to be sustainable as an individual.”
Since most credit unions are understandably just trying to survive, Morales recognizes this isn’t the time for credit unions to acquire new products. Ironically, he said QCash’s goal of helping members with short term liquidity needs is more relevant now than in times past. To this end, Morales is offering a favorable QCash plan to credit unions.
“We have developed a COVID-19 program for credit unions that we can implement in four to five weeks with no implementation or application fee for 2020,” said Morales. “We want to offer this so credit unions can help their members during this difficult time. We are here to help.”