VyStar Credit Union is the 13th largest credit union in the United States and Joel Swanson is its chief member experience officer. “We’re taking necessary risks to grow and be different than I think most other credit unions and a lot of banks as well,” he said on the podcast “Banking on Digital Growth.”

There’s a well-known saying: No risk, no reward. It’s an ethos that VyStar’s Joel Swanson sees as part and parcel with the financial institution’s future. “Risk is something we have to do to stay relevant and to compete,” he said.

Risk is viewed as a four-letter word by some people and avoided at all costs. It’s common for an organization to have concerns that result in reservations regarding changes. However, risk is a necessary part of moving a business forward. It’s something all successful companies and financial institutions have faced.

Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon, is reported to have once said, “I knew that if I failed, I wouldn’t regret that, but I knew the one thing I might regret is not trying.” Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg agrees. At a Stanford University conference, he stated, “The biggest risk is not taking any risk.”

VyStar, guided by highly experienced, business-minded leaders like Joel Swanson, embraces the opportunity to explore new options and ways to serve its members better. “The other ones feel like, ‘What if it goes wrong?’ That’s the fear. Right? What if it goes wrong? And I know what I’m doing now and what that world is, and that’s safer, and that’s just human nature. That feels safer. Whereas we’re more of the frame of mind across our board, our whole management team of, ‘This is a necessity,’” said Swanson.

Joel Swanson: From Chief Digital Officer to Chief Member Experience Officer

When Joel Swanson joined VyStar, he brought over two decades of experience in technology and financial services. He also had over 14 years of experience in the credit union industry at two top-20 credit unions when he was hired as the financial institution’s chief digital officer.

“When I came into that role, I hypothesized and recognized the need for something but didn’t know how to solve it yet,” Swanson said during the podcast. As for the need he identified, Swanson said it was “simplifying technology. Every bank and credit union was doing things the same way. And we all had this Frankenstein, pieced-together software vendors. Everybody had a different version of those, and then within those companies, different products. And everyone thought they’re a unique flower and were trying to put these things together.”

He continued, “I recognize that when you have that kind of a disjointed internal experience, that creates a disjointed external experience. But, for example, every bank or credit union of our size had 27 different experiences [where] a member would interact with us digitally when they came to our website with different accounts and single sign-on.”

To complicate things further, as a result, VyStar employees would have 27 different systems to manage. Joel Swanson said, “The stress of that [meant] they make more mistakes. It’s harder to learn it all. Everything starts to fall apart. And then the IT department takes longer to roll things out because it’s so complicated. You accidentally knock a card down, and the whole thing comes down. So how do we simplify that? My hypothesis was we needed to find a bank in a box. I started going out and asking around, and I was having a really hard time finding it. That’s kind of what was going on in my mind back then.”

VyStar’s Exciting Expansions

The credit union opened in 1952, then called the Jax Navy Federal Credit Union, as a welcoming place for members of the United States military and their families, along with civil service members, to borrow or save money.

It earned the Top 10 Military Friendly Company designation from Viqtory, a data-driven military marketing company. The honor further bolsters the credit union’s ongoing commitment to championing military members, veterans, and their families.

“It is an honor for VyStar to be recognized as an organization that cares deeply about the military community,” said Brian Wolfburg, the credit union’s president and CEO. “From individuals to families to small-business owners, we are committed to providing opportunities to the brave men and women who have served our country. These important designations will help us continue to attract, develop and retain top talent and further support the communities we serve.”

It’s worked hard to be recognized as a credible, trusted credit union in Florida. And now it’s paving a similar path through Georgia. In 2023, it’s expanding into new cities and regions across the Southeast. In January, VyStar finalized a merger with First Coast Federal Credit Union. And in April, it announced a planned merger with 121 Financial Credit Union. Multiple branches are also in the making for Central Florida, including Altamonte Springs and Winter Park, as well as Lake Mary, which opened earlier this year.

Branches of the credit union are popping up in the Peach State. VyStars are coming to the Atlanta metropolitan area in Smyrna, Johns Creek/Suwanee, Marietta, Stockbridge, and Norcross. There’s also a full-service location in the Golden Isles. “The vibrant area serves as a wide range of residents,” stated Chad Meadows, the credit union’s chief operating officer. “We are looking forward to better serving our current members in the region while also welcoming new members looking for convenient options.”

The financial institution prides itself on bettering the communities where its members and employees work and live. For example, not far from VyStar’s headquarters in Jacksonville, it renovated a seven-level parking garage on Forsyth Street to boost the vibrancy of the downtown area. “That energy is enhanced by the building’s first tenant, the Jacksonville Children’s Chorus. The organization has been looking for a permanent home, and the ground floor of the structure on the Main Street side will provide the perfect setting,” stated Meadows.

Joel Swanson agrees. “It’s all cyclical from our members to our employees to our community and that focus. And so that’s why we just kind of boil it down to do good, bank better, because it’s all connected,” he said.

He added that the credit union is “uniquely positioned because our members already have an affinity to us. They trust us, and they like us.” Those are signs of a job well done.

By Manali