NACUSO Spotlight on Trellance CEO Tom Davis

trellance logoWe are very excited to be spotlighting a big supporter of the CUSO movement, Tom Davis who is the CEO of the newly formed Trellance. We are just returning from the Governmental Affairs Conference where we got to see their amazing new brand in action.

What’s your current position and can you give me a brief overview of what it is you do in your work?

I went to a CUES class not too long ago and was introduced to the concept of servant leadership, which is something that resonated with me.  I end my meetings with my team with the question, “Have I given you everything you need to be successful?” I listen to our team, and I want to give them whatever they need to be successful not only at Trellance, but also in their professional careers. You can call me a CEO if you want, but I believe it is my role to paint a picture of our vision so everyone at Trellance can live that vision. I firmly believe that when our team improves, Trellance improves.

What would you say most motivates you to do what you do? What are you most excited or passionate about?

Everything in life. I’m always on one-hundred percent and I try to bring optimism with my energy. In a lot of ways what’s gone on in our industry lately has been shrouded in pessimism — the security breaches, increased regulations, the rate of mergers and the shrinking number of credit unions and so on. What I like to do is to find the optimism in our world and then exploit it. For example, technology is my hobby.  I have a “smart home” which is sometimes smarter than me. Some folks in our industry are anxious about the risk associated with technology. I like to turn that anxiety into fun. I love to teach and I know sometimes I can blow people’s minds, but my only goal is to lessen the anxiety so we can see the positives, increase our knowledge and confidence and hopefully have some fun along the way.

I want to hear the story of how you came to work with credit unions. What attracted you to work for Trellance/CSCU? 

I was working in software consulting 20 years ago and Bob Hackney, our former president, had this dream of creating a dashboard where credit unions could log in and see aggregated reports on their card portfolio – it was revolutionary back then.  He had a report from our processing partner and it was a simplistic executive report. He asked me to turn it into an internet facing, slick looking dashboard. So I did that as a software consultant for CSCU. I hadn’t worked in the credit union space before that time. Then 4 years later he had an opening to lead the IT and Finance departments.  I had education and experience in both fields and I was on the team that wrote our web application, so I took the position and began my career in the credit union space. What has kept me here is something that I haven’t seen in a lot of industries. What I love about credit unions was the feeling of family. That’s why I am still here, it feels like you are a part of their family.

Clockwise: Tom with his wife Becky, Max, with his son Nick and Abby

Now if we can go even further back, where did you grow up and what was it like living there? Where did you go to school?

I am one of those folks from the Midwest, specifically a suburb of St. Louis, Missouri called Kirkwood. I lived in the same house until I went off to college. We lived in one of those neighborhoods where it was safe to play outside and I had a huge extended family – my mom was one of 13 kids and my dad was one of 3 so there were lots of aunts and uncles and cousins around all the time. When you think about it, credit union values are a lot like Midwest Values. The cooperative spirit is what I was taught early on.  For example, when something is broken, you jump in.  You grab a wrench, not a phone.  If you do grab a phone, you call family or friends, not a service tech.  I still believe that today, and I still love helping people solve problems.

Who were your mentors along the way? People who deeply influenced who you are, what you believe in and what you’re committed to in your work and life? Tell me about them.

When I think of the word mentor the one person that comes to mind is my Uncle Pat who, unfortunately, is no longer with us. To put it simply, he had a good heart. He was always there for people and he sacrificed a lot and enjoyed being there for others. I realized in my 30’s as I was out in the world just how much he had influenced who I was. I made a point of telling him just how much he meant to me and I’m so glad I did it while he was still alive. There have been other people in my life that have been great mentors to me but it really began with my Uncle Pat.

Finally, can you share something interesting about you that would surprise our readers? It can be anything, a hobby, an adventure, sports, the most embarrassing thing that’s ever happened to you, 

 It’s surprising that when you think of someone that is all into tech, you would never guess that my other big hobby is gardening. In fact, almost every night when I get home I go out in the garden with my wife and we walk around and cut fresh flowers and bring them into the house. It’s my way of just winding down from the crazy pace of work and trying to be present with my family. It’s my transition time and I try to be a good husband and good father and share quality time with them.  We had a cold snap this winter that destroyed some of my flowers and some family from Michigan were coming to stay with us. I had to run out and buy some fresh flowers to plant in the yard. My wife laughed when she saw them and asked, “How do you find the time?” Well my family was visiting sunny Florida in the dead of winter so it had to look like we had nothing but sunshine! 

PART TWO: The Business Story

Tell me the story of how your CUSO/Company was created – the early days. Tell me about some of the memorable characters in the history, some that brought your story color, drama, comedy, conflict?

CSCU started in 1989 and at the time credit unions were mostly processing with what is now Financial Information Services (FIS) – under a master service agreement. Credit unions could become a member of CSCU and sign a CU service agreement and then get all of the benefits of processing that CSCU negotiated on their behalf. We were essentially an aggregator. Interesting fact, from 1989 – 1999 we had no employees. CSCU was nothing more than a corporate charter – it had a board and a master agreement and was basically run by one employee who worked at what is now FIS.  Ten years later Bob Hackney came on board as the first CSCU employee and began adding value to the processing relationship CU’s had with what was Certegy at the time – he added marketing, portfolio analytics, consulting, and we’ve also done some things with brand relationships. Those were the early days. An interesting fact is that PSCU began with CSCU credit unions that wanted to process with what is now FDR.  In some ways PSCU and CSCU are from the same mother.

What have been the greatest successes in your opinion?

With CSCU – I think it’s what we were able to do with the aggregation model. We were also a VISA and Mastercard sponsor. If CSCU and PSCU did not exist then most of the payments products available today would have only been available to the larger credit unions. So, our aggregation models helped with pricing. In the last 15 years it’s been around advocacy and educating credit unions from a marketing and consulting perspective. Specifically, what it takes to have a successful payments system. I am very proud of our thought leadership team as well.

PART THREE: Reflections and Lessons

If you could start your CUSO/Company all over again, would you do anything differently? Why and what would you do?

In some ways we are going through that right now – we divested our processing business at the end of last year, which is where we started in 1989. Back then, there were 20-30 thousand CUs in the U.S. Lots of smaller and mid-size credit unions that really needed the scale benefits from aggregation. As they merged and became larger our aggregation value offering was diminishing. We made a big decision to move away from the aggregation business and focus our efforts on solving new problems that exist today in the credit union space.

Bob Hackney, after 19 years at CSCU did a great job of positioning us to start Trellance and be ready for the future. The board chose me to be the CEO and I appreciate their trust. I think our credit unions need independent and unbiased advocacy.  CUs need a voice they can trust in the third-party provider space specifically.  We are owned by our member credit unions and we are going to be advocates for our member credit unions with services like vendor management and managed services.  We have to bring experts to the credit union community. You can get an expert from a big firm like Andersen or Deloitte, but they are expensive and not in the credit union family.  When that expert works for Trellance that expert works for you. The staff of Trellance has the quality and the DNA our credit unions expect.  Our credit unions can consider the staff of Trellance as an extension of their team.

Finally, when you think of the future for credit unions, what gives you hope and what makes you concerned?

 When you think how large banks operate, they build these expensive systems to solve problems and bring value to their customers.  They need to recoup their investment from these larger infrastructure anchors.  When the markets change around them, it can hinder their nimbleness. Credit unions on the other hand, are not as bound to their platforms.  I know “conversion” is a bad word in our space, but imagine the added weight of the financial burden that our banks have to contend with when they need to convert.  As new technology platforms become available, credit unions are better positioned to be able to take advantage of the benefits afforded with these new platforms.  This gives me hope.

My concern is with collaboration.  Mergers, changing fields of memberships, and other industry trends are making it more difficult for credit unions to collaborate.  My hope lies in the CUSO model. The CUSO model can provide the collaborative voice of the credit union movement. Our credit unions will need collaboration that CUSOs provide to gain the scale necessary to keep pace with the big banks. I hope that Trellance can be a big part of that.