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Dave Roughton, former long-time CEO of SAFE CU and 40-year credit union veteran.
Dave Roughton, former long-time CEO of SAFE CU and 40-year credit union veteran.

Q&A With 40-Year CU Industry Veteran Dave Roughton

In a recently published article, CreditUnions.com featured SAFE CU’s former CEO Dave Roughton (headquartered in Folsom, CA):

A “dumbwaiter” freight elevator and mechanical coin counter were tools of the trade for Dave Roughton when he began his career at SAFE CU ($4.4 billion in assets in Folsom, CA). How times and tools have changed.

Roughton, who retired at the end of December, started at the credit union in 1983 working the cash vault (staff used the dumb waiter to move coins between floors). But for a seven-year absence to earn his MBA and then work for a major accounting firm, Roughton has spent his working life helping guide the financial, technological, and member growth of the Sacramento cooperative.

Roughton became president and chief operating officer of SAFE in 2013. He moved up to president and CEO in 2016 after his longtime mentor, Henry Wirz, retired. Roughton, himself, is succeeded by Faye Nabhani, who has served as executive vice president and chief credit officer since 2016.

Here, Roughton talks about the industry he served for decades, his own career, and the importance of a mentor. He also offers a peek into what life in retirement might look like.

How has the credit union changed during your career?
Dave Roughton: By leveraging technology, we’ve been able to invest in new, member-centric tools that enable us to serve our members in ways they find convenient. Our focus on growing online and mobile access has been critical to generating greater loyalty among our members. I’m proud of having the top-rated mobile app in our very competitive marketplace.

Now, that’s also created challenges. The fintech industry grew out of the internet and technology boom and created a whole new layer of competition that we’d have been foolish not to pay attention to while we charted our own strategic path.

How has your own career changed through the years?
Dave Roughton: After my time in the cash vault I became an assistant vice president, where I got to lead our new cards services programs as we joined emerging networks like STAR and CO-OP. We also replaced our ATMs with new technology — something we’ve kept doing now for years. Then I acted on the desire I always had to move into the financial side of the business.

I decided to pursue an MBA from the University of California-Davis and left SAFE with the promise from Henry that there would be a job for me when I was ready to return. I spent more than seven years with Arthur Andersen here in Sacramento and had the pleasure of SAFE being one of my audit clients.

Working in public accounting transformed my career. It taught me how to be professional, what it meant to be an executive, how financial statements work, how businesses operate, and how strategic decisions can determine whether your business wins or loses.

In 1999, Henry offered me the CFO job. I enjoyed the work I was doing at Arthur Andersen but was at a point where I had to think about whether it was a long-term career. In companies like that, you’re either moving up or moving out. I thrived in that environment but came to the realization that my career passion wasn’t to become a partner in a major public accounting firm.

Where do you think credit unions are headed?
Dave Roughton: I’m optimistic about our future, but it’s getting more and more expensive to run a credit union. The investment in technology to stay relevant to consumers and to protect their data is massive. The advent of the CFPB coming out of the financial crisis adds to the resources needed to manage a mountain of new regulations. In that regard, I’m particularly proud of the California Credit Union League and CUNA for what they’ve done to influence our elected leaders around putting consumers first.

The demands of technology, competition from traditional financial institutions and fintech, and regulatory costs mean the number of credit unions and banks is going to continue to decline. But we also have a great opportunity to drive growth in membership and market share. I’m convinced of that.

The true strength of our industry is our cooperative nature, which lends itself to being innovative on an industry scale in ways that individual credit unions can’t. Because we share ideas and resources, I think the future is incredibly bright for credit unions.

I also believe the roots of our industry, how we serve the underserved, has never been more important given the growing disparity between the haves and have-nots in our nation. Data shows the income gap continues to grow, and our ability as an industry to serve those who are underserved, underbanked, or unbanked remains a critical component of what we have to be as an industry.

Living out our cooperative nature gives us the ability to leverage our not-for-profit status to serve folks who need us most. That will be our strategic advantage in the long run.

What advice do you have for someone assuming a leadership role in the industry today?
Dave Roughton: Always hire people smarter than yourself. Once you start to believe you’re the smartest person in the room, that’s when you get into trouble.

What would you like to be remembered for from your work at SAFE?
Dave Roughton: I’d like to be remembered as a good collaborator, partner, and advocate for our industry, our community, and our workforce. I love the cooperative nature of our industry. That has set a tone for how I’ve led during my career.

What’s next for you?
Dave Roughton: I don’t expect to step away from the business community here, but what I do next needs to be both meaningful and enjoyable. I worked a long time at SAFE and loved my time there. The people I worked with and the leadership we have in place have set a high bar I’m going to hold tightly to as I move into new opportunities into the future.

I’m joining my wife in retirement. She was an art professor for 40-plus years, and we intend to do more traveling with friends and family.

My father-in-law was a concert violinist with the Budapest Symphony in Hungary, and that was always inspiring to me. I’d like to learn to play the violin. Now I have the time to try it and hopefully not torture myself too much.

What are your final words to the credit union industry?
Dave Roughton: I’m a firm believer that it’s not the number of credit unions that matters, it’s the number of members we serve. Member growth secures our industry and strengthens our impact.

Whenever I talked to elected leaders, particularly in DC, I didn’t talk about the number of credit unions, I talked about the number of members we serve. We have only 8% of deposits but we represent more than a one-third of all Americans. Serving the underserved, underbanked, and unbanked remains fundamental to our strength as an industry.

Quick Facts: SAFE CU
SAFE CU (as of Sept. 30, 2022):

  • Headquarters: Folsom, CA
  • Assets: $4.4 billion
  • Members: 242,000
  • Branches: 20
  • Employees: 751
  • Net worth: 8.9 percent
  • Return on assets (ROA): 0.81 percent

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