Women in Business Highlight: Why Cobalt Credit Union CEO Gail DeBoer Believes Market Research is Critical for Growth
Reprinted from Omaha Magazine’s B2B Women in Business Issue (December 2018 / January 2019).
Guiding her company to a banner year and crossing the elusive $1 billion in assets mark isn’t enough for Cobalt Credit Union CEO Gail DeBoer.
After tirelessly championing growth through authenticity and collaboration, DeBoer wants more — more growth, more branches and more members — so she can expand Cobalt’s model of people helping people into more communities, which she believes will bring hope, growth and opportunity to cities and towns across America.
Collaborative Culture Critical to Success
One of only about 40 female CEOs of 3,000 credit unions with over $750 million in assets, DeBoer is seeing the banking industry slowly become more diverse in its leadership. Since being promoted to CEO in 2007, DeBoer has filled about half of open leadership positions during her tenure with women, by focusing not on candidates’ gender, but their qualifications and fit with the collaborative culture she’s been careful to craft.
Culture has been important to DeBoer since she was working as a senior internal auditor for Enron. After meeting then-CEO of Enron, Kenneth Lay, DeBoer had a sense that he and the culture he was bringing to the company couldn’t be trusted.
Following her gut proved to be worth the pay cut she took to leave Enron and become the first internal auditor in Cobalt’s history. Over the next twenty years, DeBoer would see her company grow from five to nearly 30 branches and from $100 million to $1 billion in assets.
3 Important Decisions
While her first step in achieving such success was a decision to leave Enron, three critical moves as CEO helped DeBoer set Cobalt on its current trajectory.
“I felt that investing in training for our employees; opening more branches, specifically in retail locations to make our services more convenient for members; and conducting market research to understand what people thought of us would be critical for our growth,” she says.
DeBoer and her team learned that they were Omaha’s best-kept secret — members trusted them completely but non-members didn’t even consider them. “Most people still thought you had to be in the military to join our credit union, which isn’t true,” she says. “We had to overcome that perception.”
DeBoer’s Growth Strategy Starts with Her Team
More research and plenty of honest, internal discussions led DeBoer, board members and her team to conclude that a new charter along with a name change were the ingredients necessary for growth.
“You need a team who trusts you and people who are willing to share what’s on their mind without fear of retribution for dissent,” she says. “At the end of the day, my team knew I had the final decision on proposing our charter and name change to the board, but everyone had input into that decision so it really was a rich, collaborative process.”
After leading her company to a historic precipice, DeBoer’s intuition and the collaborative culture she has created should propel Cobalt to yet higher levels of success.