CEO Profile: Mike Athens, CEO, Rio Grande Credit Union
Mike Athens is the President and CEO of Rio Grande Credit Union (RGCU), headquartered in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Founded in 1953 by Albuquerque City Employees, RGCU has expanded to serve anyone who lives, works, studies, or worships in Bernalillo or Sandoval County.
Mike is a veteran of the credit union industry. He has worked for RGCU for the last 10 years, serving as vice president of operations as well as interim president and CEO. Before, joining RGCU, Mike held the role of VP of Association Services at the Credit Union Association of New Mexico and other leadership positions in the banking world. Under Mike’s leadership, RGCU has grown to serve almost 37,000 members, reaching almost $450 million dollars in assets. It has launched innovative programs and partnerships with community organizations and played a critical role in the response to the pandemic.
After a challenging year, we sat down with Mike Athens for a conversation about RGCU, its community outreach initiatives, his diverse workforce, and the credit union's COVID-19 response.
You have a diverse work experience, including in the banking sector and at the Association level. What motivates you? What do you consider your biggest success?
I started my journey in the credit union movement in 2006 and am grateful for having the opportunity to contribute to building a better community.
I believe my greatest success has been guiding RGCU through the uncertainties of a global pandemic. 2020 brought about many challenges, and our staff and volunteers never wavered in the commitment to keeping us safe and assisting our members through the hardships they have faced.
How have local community organization partnerships shaped RGCU’s outreach initiatives?
We were founded by the City of Albuquerque in 1953 and have never lost that connection. Many of our volunteers currently serve in county and city governments.
Two of our strategic pillars are to serve the underserved and embrace our CO-OP DNA. We revisit these pillars every time we contemplate a new initiative or partnership. Our work in the community includes youth and adult savings initiatives. The youth program has over 500 savers, and our adult program is with a Lutheran church. We recently partnered with a larger credit union in Albuquerque to create a loan program for survivors of domestic violence. The program is administered by a local nonprofit and a CUSO called CUSol of which we are owners.
RGCU is a Juntos, CDFI, and MDI credit union. How has that helped expand access to financial services for Hispanics in Albuquerque and the communities you serve?
This is a case of which came first—the chicken or the egg. We received the designations because of the work we do in our communities, not the other way around.
We have loan and saving programs designed to serve populations of modest means who, in many cases, cannot access services from other financial institutions. We have branches physically located in areas where underserved people live. We have a strong partnership with the Mexican Consulate and actively assist recent immigrants and people with ITINs. We have an in-house financial coaching program designed to help members build a better foundation financially and help break the payday loan cycle for many. It is because of work like this that we received the designations.
However, because we have these designations, we qualify for certain grant money. This year, we applied for dollars made available from COVID relief, which we intend to use to strengthen our community efforts.
Why should credit unions pursue MDI and CDFI designations? What has been the financial impact of these designation on your bottom line and the credit union’s growth?
At $474 million in assets and 36,000 members, we are the third smallest of eleven credit unions in the Albuquerque metro area, which spans four counties totaling 900,000 people.
RGCU exists in a highly competitive market. Several large banks, community banks, and credit unions compete for the same customers. Banks still control 69%. There is a branch of financial institution for every 1,594 households in the area.
Our primary market is niche—a population other institutions don’t serve or serve well. That gives us an advantage. Staying true to our roots of serving members of modest means has allowed us to compete with the larger credit unions and consistently post higher return on asset ratios. Having the designations allow us to apply for grant funding and keep community development issues top of mind, as we work to make our communities better.
The pandemic has disproportionately affected communities of color throughout the country. How has RGCU provided support during the crisis and the recovery process?
RGCU stepped up to protect our staff, members, and community over the past year by being flexible and listening to stakeholders along the way. We rapidly went from a 100% non-remote workforce to 40% non-remote. Lobbies quickly changed to accommodate safe distancing and limited in-person interactions. We kept coronavirus sick-leave mandated in 2020 for our employees in 2021. We're committed to providing a safe workplace for our employees and encourage them to get vaccinated and use leave available to them to do so.
In addition, we provided our members with zero-interest emergency loans, loan extensions, reduced fees, and eliminated all convenience payment fees. Last April, we introduced video banking and worked hard throughout 2020 to enhance our online membership and loan platforms.
Could you speak to the diversity of your team and how you’ve built a culture that embraces the heritage of the Hispanic community that RGCU serves?
It starts with our Board of Directors. All seven of our directors are Hispanic, and four out of the seven are women. I've made it a goal to build gender diversity into the senior staff. Over a two-year period, we went from one woman on a seven-member team to five women on an eight-member team.
We welcome people in our community that have been turned down by other financial institutions. RGCU is one of the few financial institutions that accepts ITINs to open new memberships and extend credit. Along with our commitment to serve the immigrant population in Albuquerque, we have worked hard to staff our branches with multilingual and cultural employees. We pay a $1.00-per-hour pay differential for employees fluent in a language other than English. I believe our workforce reflects our commitment to hire individuals that reflect the make-up of our communities.
What does Juntos Avanzamos mean to RGCU?
The diversity of our community is one of our greatest assets. Receiving the Juntos Avanzamos designation is an honor and signifies our long-term commitment to financial inclusion for our Hispanic and immigrant community members. Historically, Hispanics have represented a largely unbanked population and often pay outrageous fees to cash a check, send money home, or take out a small loan to carry them over to their next paycheck. Through this designation, we let them know we believe everyone deserves access to affordable, convenient, and relevant financial services—and they’ll be treated fairly and with respect when they choose RGCU. We do this all while delivering and fulfilling our mission of making our member’s dreams come true.