Photo: Robert Miller is the CEO of the Vermont State Employees Credit Union (VSECU). Photo: Randolph T. Holhut. VBM went to press with this story on March 26,2020.
by Joyce Marcel, Vermont Business Magazine For Vermont, Robert Miller wears his heart on his sleeve for all the world to see.
Miller has twice left the lucrative world of high finance to return to Vermont for jobs that pay less but offer a lot more socially responsible fun. This last time, he says, is really the last. This time he's here for good.
Miller is the CEO of the Vermont State Employees Credit Union (VSECU). He is something of a golden boy at the climax of a gilded career.
Right out of college he became a trainee at Citibank; by the time he was 23, he was running bank branches in the greater New York City area. At 29, he was the commissioner of the Vermont Department of Economic Development under Howard Dean.
Then he led Dwight Asset Management's fixed income business development efforts targeting the pension, foundation and endowment markets.
By the time he was in his 40s, he was the head of global business development for Conning, a Connecticut-based global investment management firm; he was considered one of the top young men in his field.
But for a man like Miller, whose heartstrings are roped by rubber to Vermont, each time the state has exerted its magic pull, he's cheerfully taken a pay cut and returned.
When Miller left Conning for VSECU in 2014, he inherited an organization that had recently finished an enormous expansion under its recently retired CEO.
Within a few weeks on the job, Miller had begun upending the credit union's culture, moving it away from a hierarchical, top-down management system.
“Ask employees, 'What's the most important thing that Rob has done as CEO?'” Miller joked. “They probably tell you, 'We don't have to pay for our coffee and we get to wear jeans.' I'm not sure that's the most important thing I've done, but I get credit for it nonetheless.”
At 52, Miller looks like he stepped out of an Abercrombie & Fitch catalog.
Photo: Robert Miller during his interview for this article. Photo: Randolph T. Holhut.
He's handsome, affable, soft-spoken and blond. He has a wry sense of humor and an easy way of carrying himself. He looks as if he's made for silk ties and bespoke suits.
“I have to dust them off when I take them out of the closet now,” he jokes. He was wearing a striped suit jacket, a crisp casual shirt open at the neck, sneakers and jeans when we met for an interview at VSECU's Burlington branch (before the COVID-19 crisis hit home in February).
Once the credit union's management structure had begun changing, Miller went about adding more social responsibility components to an already socially-responsible credit union.
Under his leadership, VSECU has earned praise for its environmental focus, its involvement with the Vermont Food Bank, its solar funding, its willingness to become the banker for the medicinal marijuana industry, and now, for seemingly cornering the banking market on hemp.
Besides taking over at VSECU, Miller has jumped onto the boards of like-minded nonprofits such as the Energy Action Network and the Vermont Council on Rural Development. He recently joined the advisory board for the Sustainable Business MBA program at the University of Vermont's Grossman School of Business. He also serves on the boards of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Vermont and Union Mutual Insurance Company.
“Rob is a Vermont treasure, the way he uses the power of his financial institution to fashion ever more ways to serve the needs of the people,” said Duane Paterson, co-founder and co-president of the solar company SunCommon. “He’s the opposite of a stodgy banker by constantly imagining and pushing his team to innovate. Like the Green loan program we developed together that's helped thousands of folks in our proud little state go solar. He’s showing that business can be a force for good. I just love that guy.”
Paterson is referring to VSECU's VGreen loan program, which provides financing for any project or purchase that improves energy efficiency for home or transportation.
“Indeed, we’ve partnered with VSECU from the beginning as our go-to consumer finance provider,” Paterson said. “Literally thousands of our customers financed solar with the credit union.”
VSECU takes advantage of what Miller sees as a different banking climate in Vermont.
“We don't have some of the larger national banks play as large of a role in Vermont as they do elsewhere,” he said. “We don't have Bank of America. We don't have CitiBank. We don't have Wells Fargo. The largest we have is TD and Peoples. The Vermont banking community is much more dominated by credit unions and local community banks. I think that's a good thing, because we are much more focused on serving the needs of our local communities than we are in, you know, profit and growth. Those are important, but we get there by serving the needs of our local community.”
As of March 2020, Vermont has 19 credit unions headquartered here, providing banking services from more than 50 branch office locations. Vermont credit unions have a total of 390,125 members with over $4.74 Billion assets, according to Credit Unions Online, (https://www.creditunionsonline.com/vermont-credit-unions.html) The largest one is New England Federal Credit Union. VSECU is the second-largest.
VSECU was founded in 1947 by seven state employees; it is open to everyone who lives or works in Vermont. It has nine branches, $840 million in assets, about 200 employees and just under 70,000 member-owners. Roughly one in 10 Vermonters are members.
People are sometimes confused by the difference between credit unions and banks. The main difference is that credit unions are member-owned financial cooperatives; the members themselves, not outside investors, hold the shares.
“We're regulated by the Department of Financial Regulation, like state-chartered banks are,” Miller explained. “There are differences in terms of what we can do versus what banks can do. So, for example, we're limited in the amount of commercial lending that we can do. We're limited to the percentage of our assets size, whereas banks don't have those same limitations. We're limited by our field of membership. Whether it's geographic or whether that's part of an employer group, you have to sort of be eligible for membership. And within Vermont, you know, if you live or work in the state of Vermont, you can be a member of the VSECU, which makes us a credit union for everyone.”
As a nonprofit, VSECU and other credit unions are tax-exempt; banks pay tax on deposits depending on where they operate. Sometimes it's a corporate income tax; sometimes it's a deposit tax.
“As a member-owned cooperative, that net income is returned to the member in the form of rates and fees, lower fees, higher rates on savings and lower rates on loans,” Miller said. “I think it's not generally less cost, because we still have all the cost of regulation that banks have. Cybersecurity is a growing cost that we're responsible for. And we're always making investments in technology and the business to meet the needs of our members. So we're under as much pressure as anyone else to make ends meet, so to speak, and to provide the appropriate services for our members. We just don't have a profit motive since we are tax-exempt.”
Historically, credit unions came out of the same DIY movement that gave us food co-ops. Originally started in Europe, each credit union was created to solve a particular local problem, which is why each credit union appears to be a world unto itself.
What kind of local problems are we talking about? For example, when people couldn't get the credit they needed from banks. Or when there were no easily reachable banks. Or when, in our digital age, there is no available cell service.
When you compare banks to credit unions it's form versus function, says Yvonne Garand, the senior vice president of marketing and business development at VSECU.
“Both credit unions and banks function in similar ways,” Garand said. “In the financial services world, both offer the same financial services, from basic checking accounts to auto loans to mortgages. What makes us different is our form. Banks are for-profit businesses that exist to serve a customer base and reward their external shareholders. We exist to serve our customer base. And our customers are the members. They own the credit union, do their banking at the credit union, and our profit goes back to member-owners instead of going outside to external shareholders. We still operate out of that same mantra: people helping people. We're a group of people — our membership — and we pool their financial resources together to help benefit each individual member.”
According to Miller's boss, Norm McElvany, who serves as the chair of the VSECU Board of Directors, the only problem with Miller is that he has too many new ideas — and they're all good ones.
“We've got a pretty good guy, and we're pretty happy with him,” McElvany said. “He's intelligent, friendly, persuasive, a big thinker and he has a vision. It doesn't mean we don't disagree, but that's our job. He has more ideas than we can act on. All credit union board of directors are volunteers. We only meet once a month. We're moving fast, and we have a lot of opportunities. The problem is finding the resources, human and financial, to undertake many of them.”
One of Miller's early mentors was Frank Cioffi, who has been the executive director of the Greater Burlington Industrial Corp. for over 20 years.
“Rob is one of the most special people I've come to know,” Cioffi said. “I feel really fortunate to get to know him and work with him and call him a friend.”
Cioffi was playing a leading role in Governor Dean's Department of Economic Development when he met Miller.
“My cousin called me and said, 'You have a young guy on your team you don't know yet, but get to know him because he's really bright,'” Cioffi said. “We had him lead our financial services initiative, including managing the captive insurance program. He had to deal with all the regulatory initiatives that surrounded captive insurance and coordinate them and do the marketing and work with the captive organizations. You name it and he was doing it all.”
When Cioffi became commissioner of the department, he asked Miller to be his deputy.
“He basically ran our department,” Cioffi said. “He did our strategic planning and our market development. He created ThinkVermont.com when technology was just coming on. Email was proliferating, and Rob saw where the technology was going. He brought the state into the electronic world to utilize technology to market itself. He also led the effort to develop a new strategic economic plan for Vermont. We're still using the foundation of it.”
It was Cioffi who suggested that Dean appoint Miller to replace him as commissioner when he left for GBIC.
“Rob did that for three years, and then John Dwight hired Rob for Dwight Financial Services,” Cioffi said. “Then he was hired by Conning, where he did absolutely phenomenal work in business development and expansion for institutional accounts. He was probably one of six people in the country doing the work he did: very specialized investment management. He is extremely brilliant. He's also the most capable and genuine people person I've met. The most caring and compassionate person. He's got the best social skills of anyone I know, and those are really important. He can relate to people. You need people to help you accomplish the goals you set in your mission, and I don't know anyone who has worked with Rob Miller who doesn't want to work with him again.”
The theme tends to repeat itself.
For example, Miller's boss at Conning, CEO and Chairman of the Board Woody Bradford, also said, “The people who worked for him loved working for him.”
Conning, which is located in Hartford, CT, is a global company specializing in managing money for insurance companies. This is money — big money — from premiums, being held in a pool until a payout is needed.
“This takes a very sophisticated approach,” Bradford said. “In order to be successful, you need unique skills tailored to unique needs. We go out and approach new insurance companies and say, 'We want to manage your money. We can do it better than the company you use now.' There are marketing aspects, selling aspects. Rob was very good at that.”
Miller made sure the “right stuff got done right,” Bradford said.
“When I first came here 10 years ago, he was a sales executive focused on our life insurance clients,” Bradford said. “I quickly discovered that he was good with clients and prospects, but he also had a knack for interacting with people. It was a really nice balance of being thoughtful about details while remaining strategic. So after a time, I promoted Rob into the head of business development. He was involved in managing sales in various jurisdictions around the world. He's a pleasure to be around. He gets involved with causes, family, people's lives. He's a thoughtful, caring leader. I always thought Rob had great potential to run a business. I had hoped it would be one I was associated with. But I figured that if we were going to lose Rob, it would be because he felt a pullback to Vermont. He always had a passion for Vermont. He talked about it all the time.”
Like a lot of people who love Vermont, Miller was not born here. An only child, he was born in Greenville, Ohio, a small farm town on the border with Indiana.
“And I grew up in and around Dayton, Ohio, and until I was about a teenager,” Miller said. “Then we moved to Kansas City, Denver, and Maine, where I graduated high school.”
Miller's parents divorced when he was young and his mother remarried. His stepfather was in retail, which is why the family moved so often.
“So it was just moving to different jobs at different locations in retail,” Miller said. “He worked for Macy's at one point, and other retail outlets. He's now an entrepreneur in Florida. They started an organic cold-pressed juice and raw foods business in Florida and they're doing quite well. Southern Florida is a great market for it.”
Miller's mother is a nurse, “and she's been involved in various business issues with my stepfather,” he said.
Growing up, Miller had the usual summer jobs.
“You know, miscellaneous jobs,” Miller said. “Nothing to prepare me for what I did later in life. Other than interacting with people and having some responsibility.”
He remembers learning about money from his stepfather.
“I guess I was having difficulty with fractions when I was maybe in the fourth or fifth grade,” he said. “And I do have a distinct memory of him literally tearing up dollar bills into quarters. And I learned what fractions were, using torn up dollar bills. Not that we had a lot of money. I'm not sure why we were doing that. But that is one distinct memory of my childhood.”
Learning was highly valued at home, he said.
“It was less about teaching me about money and finance or anything along those lines, and more about being dedicated to learning in school,” Miller said. “They were very focused on me being the best I could at school, achieving the grades that I was capable of achieving. So that was more the influence — particularly my mother.”
His introduction to Vermont came when he entered the University of Vermont; he studied political science and economics.
“Actually, when I arrived at UVM I wanted to go into the foreign service,” he said. “I wanted to be a diplomat. As my time at UVM evolved, I became more interested in the creative side of business, specifically advertising, and wanted to go into advertising when I graduated.”
He graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in political science and a minor in economics.
“I was fortunate,” Miller said. “My mother basically worked to pay for my college.”
Intro To Banking
As school was winding down, Miller began interviewing with New York City advertising companies. Then his fate changed.
“I was introduced to a gentleman who was recruiting for Citibank at UVM,” Miller said. “He was able to convince me that the same kind of environment I was looking for in an advertising company was available to me at Citibank. I wanted something creative and innovative, but more, I really wanted the constant-change dynamic environment. And that was true at Citibank, and especially for the program that I entered.”
Miller became a management trainee in a program that traditionally put trainees in positions for which they are not necessarily prepared.
“They like to see how you do,” Miller said. “And if you do well enough, they'll put you in the next position that you may or may not be ready for. So I was managing branches in Yonkers and White Plains when I was 23 years old. I remember that I had someone working for me who started in that bank before I was born. It makes for interesting management challenges. But that worked out quite well.”
All the trainees in that program had similar experiences, Miller said.
“You do sort of get moved into a bit of the fast lane because they have higher expectations based on the investment they made in you in training and development,” he said. “I'd like to think that I did well and perhaps got some of those opportunities as a result.”
Miller spent five years working in Citibank's retail branch network. Then he moved to Chicago and worked for the Citibank National Marketing Group, developing brochures, branch posters and direct mail pieces for advertising for the marketing and promotion of banking products. Sounds like he made it into advertising after all.
“I was what they refer to as a product manager for their national marketing group, which means that I coordinated a lot of the in-branch marketing programs for many of our products for branches throughout the country. At the time they had about 2,000 branches throughout the country.”
What kind of products? Miller said that he was responsible for “everything with FDIC after it.”
“They were what I like to refer to as the 'boring products,'” he said. “Things like checking, savings, certificates of deposit. It sounds like a lot, and it is. But Citibank was organized as different banks throughout the country. So, you know, Maine may have had one bank, maybe organized as a federal savings bank, whereas in New York it was a national association of banks. You typically worked with your counterparts in the local market and then distributed those products to support the market from there.”
It was in the middle of his very fast-track, high-level banking career that Miller first heard the siren call of Vermont; he answered it.
“Bottom line, we wanted to live here,” Miller said. “You know, not unlike a lot of other people. My fiancée at the time, who's now my wife, always had this idea that we could come back to Vermont and live in Vermont and enjoy the quality of life that Vermont offers. My wife is from Essex Junction, so it would have been an opportunity for her to be closer to some of her family. Sort of by chance, I came across an opportunity to come back and work for the Vermont Department of Economic Development.”
Miller had been keeping his ear to the pipeline all along.
“I was talking to friends of mine in Vermont, and became aware of the opportunity,” he said. “It sounded different. It sounded interesting. The role was essentially developing and promoting financial services businesses in Vermont. I took the job.”
One of his biggest responsibilities was promoting and developing Vermont's lucrative captive insurance industry.
“It wasn't just advertising and promotion, but also policy development,” Miller said. “I was interacting with businesses throughout the state of Vermont, trying to understand what their needs are and challenges are and how state government can organize itself to be a force of creating jobs and economic opportunity. So we moved back to Vermont.”
The job came with a pay cut.
“I think the reality was it actually paid me less than my starting job at Citibank when I was just out of college,” Miller said.
Looking back, Miller said, he can see a pattern evolving: “It seems like every time I've changed employers, I've changed careers. I'm adventurous. I'm curious like that. When you think about it, it worked out well.”
Two years later, Cioffi took over the department and made Miller his deputy commissioner.
“And after a year, Frank left and became president of GBIC, which he is still today,” Miller said. “And I was asked to become commissioner of economic development at the ripe old age of 29. I know; it's almost embarrassing.”
It's hard not to ask why Miller moved so quickly up the corporate ladder. Was it because he was handsome? Tall? White? Blond? Smart? All of the above? He didn't mind answering the question.
“I think, at the end of the day, I've made a positive impression on people,” Miller said. “I happened to be in the right time and the right place and people trusted new roles to me. But I'm not going to suggest that being white doesn't come with its privileges, as well. And while I don't think that was explicitly the reason that I was able to move into those roles, I don't want to be naive and assume that it didn't have anything to do with it, either. Now, of course, we live in Vermont. And that's not a particularly diverse state. But that doesn't mean that we can't be more diverse.”
One of the things Miller is most proud of during his term as commissioner was his contribution to a technical corrections bill for Act 60.
“In that bill were a series of business incentives designed to encourage economic growth,” Miller said. “They've subsequently evolved and changed and are now referred to as the Vermont Employment Growth Incentive, or VEGI. What I'm particularly proud of, as it relates to that, is the creation of an economic cost-benefit model that's still used today to evaluate those incentives. They evaluate both the cost and the benefits of economic growth. It's not all just positive. Families get new jobs. They move to Vermont. They have kids. They're in the school system. They drive on our roads. The cost-benefit model was designed to really understand the net economic impact of providing these incentives to businesses to grow. It was designed to ensure that they were truly incentives for incremental growth.”
It was while working for the state that Miller first embraced the idea that you can do good while doing well.
“It was that sense of fulfillment, that you're working for a larger purpose than just your own career,” he said. “And after I left the state, I would drive up and down Shelburne Road on my way to my new job. And I remember always looking on the right-hand side, which was where an expanded IDX was located at the time. And I was always thinking to myself, 'You know, I was not responsible for that by any stretch of the imagination. But I played a role in helping to allow IDX to make an investment decision in Vermont and create new jobs for Vermonters. And that had an impact on those people's lives.' So that's what really got me motivated when I was at the department, doing whatever I could to help businesses create jobs and economic opportunity.”
Miller left state government because he and his wife, Karyn Bovia Miller, wanted to start a family. They have two daughters.
“One thing I knew is that those state positions aren't permanent,” Miller said. “I had no idea that Howard Dean was going to run for president a few years later. But I knew that I caught him closer to the end of his tenure as governor as opposed to the beginning. And frankly, I needed to get myself sort of back into the private sector and into a more permanent role, if for no other reason than being married and expecting a family. And it turns out that within nine months of me leaving, my wife had our first child.”
Back To Finance
Miller was recruited by Burlington's Dwight Asset Management. Dwight was one of Vermont's few powerhouse independent financial-sector businesses — before it was later absorbed by The Goldman Sachs Group, Inc.
“Dwight manages investments for defined contribution plans like 401K plans,” Miller said. “You usually have an option that's called a 'stable value fund,' which is usually the most conservative option. It's meant to be a liquid alternative to a money market fund, with a slightly higher interest rate. Dwight Asset Management was one of the largest managers of those funds in the world, and it was right out of Burlington. I was hired by Dwight to help them market to other new markets and serve the defined benefit world as well as other institutional markets of the investment business.”
Miller worked for Dwight for seven years.
“We were living in Vermont but I was traveling quite a bit because this is a personal business,” Miller said. “You have to do it face-to-face. I spent a lot of time on airplanes and at airports. I would meet with institutions, pension plans, pension fund consultants. I was essentially developing relationships with them so they would hire us to manage their money.”
Dwight managed fixed-income assets, or bonds; it did not manage equities or stocks.
“But still, that portion of their money that was invested in bonds, I was responsible for trying to get them to hire us to manage those assets,” Miller said. “I was basically a salesman for the company.”
But Miller never viewed himself as a salesman, per se.
“I always felt like my responsibility was to get to know the prospective client and understand what their needs were,” Miller said. “My primary responsibility was to clearly communicate what we could do to help them. We were being hired to manage, on average, accounts that were several hundred million dollars. To think that I could individually sell a sophisticated client like that, I just never, never viewed it that way. I saw it as a communications responsibility, listening and communication. I think that's why I was successful, because I spent more time listening than I did selling.”
One pool of funds he was servicing came from insurance companies.
“All those premiums that you and I pay to an insurance company, they invest them until — or if — they pay them out as claims,” Miller said. “Dwight did fairly well in terms of attracting new clients in a fairly short period of time. It got national attention. And Conning was one of the world's largest managers of insurance assets. So they called me and asked me whether I'd be interested in joining them. I said no.”
Miller said no for eight months; then he said yes.
“They finally made an offer that I just couldn't say no to,” Miller said. “We weren't really particularly interested in leaving Vermont and I wasn't interested in leaving Dwight. I loved working for Dwight. But it was the right thing at that time for our family. My kids at the time were five and three.”
Miller was part of a cohort of young men being trained for leadership at Conning.
“It just made a lot of sense,” he said. “And so we moved to the greater Hartford area and I went to work for Conning. That was in February of 2007. So a year later, there was this minor thing, this little thing called the financial crisis. That was a challenging environment for Dwight. And that's also how they ended up becoming part of Goldman Sachs. And that probably would not have ended particularly well for me, as it didn't for a lot of folks. Dwight reduced the headcount and consolidated a lot of functions into Goldman Sachs in New York. On the flip side of that, Conning really flourished.”
Conning had avoided investing in many of the troubled assets that got investment managers into trouble in 2008.
“Our parent company was a large international insurance company called Swiss Re, or Swiss Reinsurance Co. Ltd.” Miller said. “It had its challenges during the crisis, and as a result, Conning ended up being sold to a private equity company. It turned out to be pretty good for Conning. It allowed us to be with an owner that was investing in our growth, and investing and meeting the needs of our clients. I became part of the executive team at Conning and by the time I left, we had close to $90 billion. That's a lot of money. We had operations in Europe and in Asia and here in North America. And I had responsibility for sales, marketing and business development in all those regions.”
One thing Miller learned, he said, was to keep his ego in check.
“You have to have enough self-awareness to know when ego is getting in your way,” he said. “Then you have to have the ability to pull it back. I had to learn, 'This isn't about the size of your head. This is about your ability to develop relationships with people.' Sometimes ego gets in the way of that. You've got to be a better listener than you are a talker. You have to know that what you think is right is less important than the needs of the person you're talking to.”
Increased responsibility increased Miller's time on airplanes.
“But it was an exciting role,” he said. “We were growing and expanding and I was not only managing people and having responsibility for specific areas, but I was also on the executive team and involved in some of the strategic decisions we were making as well. It was fantastic. The global expansion and the expansion of products and services that we provide to our clients were most exciting.”
Back To Vermont
Connecticut is close, but it's not Vermont.
“My wife and I never left Vermont with the intent that we would never come back,” Miller said.
“Vermont holds a special place in our heart, and we wanted to be here. And while I wasn't looking for a job at that time, you know, we would always be open to opportunities to come back to Vermont.”
Miller was definitely keeping his ear to the pipeline again. According to Cioffi, he applied for a job with the Vermont Student Assistant Corporation (VSAC) when it came open.
“He called me about the job opening at VSAC,” Cioffi said. “He said, 'I'm thinking of applying to be the president of VSAC. I said, 'Why would you leave your great job to come back and do that?' He didn't get the position. Then he called and said VSECU would be hiring a new CEO. I said goodbye and hung up. I thought, 'You'd probably pay more in income taxes than you'd make.' But he said he and Karyn wanted to raise the kids in Vermont. He was really passionate about building a life here. He will make VSECU probably the biggest bank in Vermont before he's done. As a Vermonter, I'm just thrilled to have Rob and Karyn in Vermont. He volunteers in so many organizations that are important to Vermont, and he passionately cares about the state.”
Back in Vermont, VSECU had just finished a huge expansion under its last CEO, Steve Post. By the time Post retired, after 23 years, he had grown VSECU from an $80 million credit union into a statewide one worth $620 million serving 52,000 members.
VSECU had a mission. It was in Vermont. For Miller, this was a double dose of catnip.
“I guess the most pointed way to say why I took the job — and why I left a very, very good job — was for the mission,” Miller said. “One thing that I missed at Conning was the larger connection to doing something that's more meaningful. The social purpose aspect. We did a great job and we took care of our clients, but there wasn't a deeper meaning to what we did. Whereas at VSECU, our mission is to improve the quality of life of our members. And we do that by trying to enhance their well-being in three areas: environmental, social and economic, or financial. That spoke to me.”
VSECU's board chair, McElvany, was on the search committee. He said Miller was “the best candidate we interviewed. He had no credit union background, but he had a financial background. He came to us quite well-referenced. He interviewed well, but we wondered whether someone with no credit union experience could slide into VSCEU. But we hired him and he did very well.”
For Miller, the job at VSECU offered many advantages. It was not unlike, for example, what he had been doing in state government.
“Except this time, I got to do it with — at the time — a $620 million balance sheet, which provided certain advantages,” Miller said. “So it was a combination of returning to Vermont, taking a role that that had more social purpose associated with it, and honestly getting out of an airplane in an airport and spending more time with my family.”
Changing The Culture
It's quite a challenge to change the culture of an organization.
VSECU was at a crossroads when Miller arrived. By virtue of its growth under Post, it had become a big player in the financial field. But at its heart, it was still a small credit union.
“We weren't just a little player anymore,” McElvany said. “The credit union had been a more hierarchical management structure. Then Rob came in. He wanted to push decision-making and responsibility down to the lowest level. Rob's vision was to say, 'I'm here as needed, but you folks run the place and you're the ones nearer to the problems, so you will be the ones to recommend the solutions.' It wasn't universally welcomed, and a few folks left, but the vast majority said, 'Thank you.' It's exhilarating but scary. People have more responsibility. Department heads had to put together, make and defend their own budgets. And this has been very successful. The organization is highly motivated. That's been the most significant thing that happened. It did not happen overnight, but the organization has made terrific progress and Rob deserves the credit.”
According to Miller, one of his earliest ideas was to let the VSECU employees look more like their customers.
“It was an experiment at first,” Miller said. “Because we are a credit union that's owned by our members, we had this novel concept that when you walk into our branches, it should feel like we are one of you. We're part of the community, along with you. And so we experimented with a sort of a smart but casual dress code, which effectively meant you could wear jeans. They couldn't be hole-y jeans, though. They had to be respectable jeans.”
Miller doesn't think customers noticed the difference.
“But the employees loved it,” Miller said. “It didn't have a negative impact on our membership. And at the margins it was positive. If anything, our members were happy for our employees that they've got to wear more comfortable clothes and didn't have to look so sort of uptight. It wasn't who we are. That wasn't our culture.”
The other immediate change concerned coffee.
“Next to my office was a coffee machine,” Miller said. “I would go in and I'd make myself a cup of coffee and I'd leave. But I noticed that all the other coffee machines throughout the organization had a little change thing where you had to drop in your 50 cents or whatever to pay for your cup of coffee. I asked someone one day, 'Is this the only machine where you don't pay for coffee?' And the answer was yes. And I'm like, 'It seems better that we either all pay for coffee or none of us pay for coffee.' And she says, 'Yeah, that would make sense.' So I said, 'OK, let's do that.' She's like, 'Well, which one?' And I said, 'So start with taking away those little jars. I think we can afford to give the staff coffee in the morning.'”
The idea was to build a culture that was real.
“We're not trying to pretend to be anything that we aren't,” Miller said. “We want a culture that is consistent with our members' values. You want to be fair. You want to be equal. You want to be human. Then, and more importantly, you've got to be consistent. You can't reflect a brand and a marketplace that is something different from the environment that you foster in your own operations, because it will catch up with you. It's not genuine. What we've tried to do since I've been there is make sure that the culture that we foster and support internally is consistent with the brand that we promote externally to our members, which makes all the sense in a world when you say it out loud.”
Terence Field, a senior vice president of finance at VSECU, said the credit union has benefitted in a big way from Miller's changes.
“Rob has brought a lot of energy to the credit union,” Field said. “He's brought some new and different perspectives. He's got a very open management style. He engages with his senior management team on a regular basis. He's good about meeting with his employees. Most important is his openness. Historically we've been a typical organization with top-down leadership. Rob has created a culture that is much more receptive to ideas coming from the bottom up. He engages people at all levels of the organization in decision making.”
The downside is that decision-making becomes more difficult.
“Sometimes, when you are getting ideas from staff, they may not understand the big picture,” Field said. “They see it from their viewpoint, and may not see the holistic or universal impact. So, unfortunately, not every great idea can be implemented. During Steve Post's tenure, we expanded our branch network, our field of membership, and we significantly increased our asset base. Rob has been able to take the foundation, the legacy that Steve Post left, and really build upon it. We don't need to add more branches, but we're continuing to grow.”
Garand, the vice president in charge of marketing and business development and the one you hear on the radio ads, agrees.
“Rob reminds us to remain focus on our core business, which is our member-owners, but also to attempt to create a culture to empower the workforce to be innovative and creative thinkers in a way that perhaps traditional bankers don't normally operate,” she said.
Socially Responsible Banking
The next change Miller introduced was even more significant.
“It was the shift toward social responsibility,” McElvany said. “We partnered with Global Alliance for Banking on Values.”
The Global Alliance for Banking on Values, headquartered in the Netherlands, is an independent network of banks and banking cooperatives with a shared mission to use finance to deliver sustainable economic, social and environmental development.
“We were the only credit union in it,” McElvany said. “It was about the triple bottom line, B Corps, things like that.”
For Miller, operating as a values-based financial institution is what defines VSECU and makes it different.
“We believe that, at the end of the day, people buy what you stand for more than what you offer,” Miller said. “Especially when what you offer is not hugely dissimilar from what other people offer. Right? I mean, you can only make a checking account do so many things.”
All cooperatives share these seven values: Voluntary and open membership; Democratic member control; Member economic participation; Autonomy and independence; Education, training, and information; Cooperation among cooperatives; and concern for community. “We internalize those values into our operations,” Miller said.
But there is another set of values: sustainable banking principles.
“These are principles that make sure that we're grounded in our local communities, that we're providing loans that actually impact in a positive way the people, planet and communities that surround us,” Miller said. “That we're using finance to lift people up, not just to make money. That finance is a tool for social empowerment within our communities. And we try to build those elements into what we do and how we operate.”
Here Miller cited the VGreen program.
“It's a great example,” he said. “We provide loans to people to make investments in renewable energy or energy efficiency. Whether it's improving the energy efficiency of their home, maybe replacing windows or putting more insulation in the walls. It could be putting solar panels on the roof. It could be buying an electric vehicle. It could be like buying an electric bike. It provides discounted rates, lower interest rates.”
The reasoning behind VGreen is that making your home more energy efficient may bring savings in the long run.
“When you make an investment in energy efficiency in your home, you're going to save money in your electricity bill,” Miller said. “We're trying to create a loan that allows you to, essentially, have the loan payment not exceed the amount that you save. So if you're saving $100 on your electricity bill, you're replacing it for a period of time with a $100 loan payment. But when you pay off that loan, that's $100 that goes into your pocket. In the meantime, particularly for low-income households, being able to make those investments in energy efficiency in their home actually allows them to turn the thermostat up to acceptable levels.”
That is a good example, Miller said, of sustainable banking.
“We're able to allow people to afford a better quality of life,” Miller said.
A third set of principles guide behavior internally within VSECU.
“They're about being human, being playful, about being real,” Miller said. “We believe that in order to do your best work, you have to have fun. It doesn't mean it's all fun and games, but we try not to take ourselves too seriously. These are the behavioral values that we identify with as people who operate in a community and work in a community. They are really reflective of what I think of as Vermont values. And because we're a Vermont institution, we adopted Vermont values as the values for our company.”
At the federal level, marijuana is considered a dangerous drug; profits from selling it can be confiscated. At the state level, it's a different story. When Vermont made medical marijuana legal, it opened up a can of worms for banks. Most declined to do business with the growers.
Most, but not Miller at VSECU, whose credit union cornered the market.
“We've probably cornered the market on medicinal marijuana because we're one of the few, if not only financial institutions, that have agreed to service that business,” Miller said. “It's another example of how values guide our business. You know, most banks and credit unions have avoided the medical marijuana market for good reason — because there is elevated risk in serving a federally illegal market. The reason we got into that market wasn't because we had a point of view about medical marijuana or even recreational marijuana. But fundamentally, we believe that Vermonters should have access to basic financial services. And if we can do that, in our view, without putting the rest of our membership at risk, we're going to do that.”
How did VSECU avoid putting its membership at risk?
“We worked with our regulators,” Miller said. “We follow the guidance that was provided at the time by the federal government. We've continued to improve and listen to the regulators. And I'm not going to tell you that the path is always smooth. It comes with some bumps up and down. But we've been willing to weather through those bumps, learn and make improvements to how we serve the business.”
There are only five medical marijuana dispensaries in the state, so VSECU was operating in a fairly narrow environment.
“It depends on what's authorized,” Miller said. “Our risk is fairly contained in those five medical marijuana dispensaries. For argument's sake, if all of a sudden there are 80, we probably wouldn't serve all 80 all at once for risk management reasons. That would probably be putting the rest of our membership in more risk than we're comfortable with.”
Now that hemp is legal and starting to bring into the state millions of dollars, VSECU is well-situated to grab a piece of that business, too.
“I think that we're probably getting a larger share of the hemp marketplace that's grown more recently,” Miller said. “I think it's a developing market. It's uneven. Not everyone has the experience. Then, as the market becomes more efficient, it'll be, I think, a little bit more predictable and a little bit more even across the sector and across the market. But we are actively providing loans to hemp-related businesses throughout the state.”
As the state feels its way into completely legalizing marijuana, VSECU will be feeling its way into providing financial services.
“Whatever we do, depending on how rapidly the state expands the market, we'll probably gradually ease into a more expanded role within that market,” Miller said. “We'll play a role. In fairness, we shouldn't be the only institution that serves the needs of that industry. It's not in the state's interest to only have one. We could have a change on our board. It might be a person who is not comfortable serving that industry, who may instruct us to get out.”
The Future Is Now
Miller has become the public face of VSECU and raised its visibility in the state. He is often described as being a “thought leader,” by joining so many different boards, for-profit as well as nonprofit, he's serving as a cross-pollinator for social responsibility.
Take the Energy Action Network, which works to achieve Vermont's commitment to 90 percent renewable energy by 2050, as well as to reduce the state's greenhouse gas emissions. A collective impact network of businesses and nonprofits around the state, President Leigh Seddon says EAN is working toward a renewable energy economy.
“That's where Rob comes in,” Seddon said. “When Rob took over at VSECU, he really showed he was an innovative leader who got the big picture of what finance needs to do. It needs to help with this transition to a renewable energy economy. We asked him if he'd be willing to join our board of directors and he represents the financial sector really well. He's thoughtful and insightful in terms of business. In Rob, I see an entrepreneurial kind of person. He's shown that in programs like the VGreen program. It's innovative, comprehensive and not offered anywhere else in the state. He understands how to bring a new business property to light where others would say, 'That's not an important market.' He looks at it and says, 'It is an important market and we can innovate.' It's a real pleasure to work with someone who has a very important social mission in providing capital for all Vermonters and the new needs that are here. I'm really happy he's on our board.”
Miller serves on the EAN board with Ellen Kahler, who is the executive director of the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund. She has known Miller since he was commissioner of the Vermont Department of Economic Development. When she heard he was back in Vermont, she reached out to him.
“He has an even stronger passion now for helping Vermonters to improve their well-being,” Kahler said. “And being at VSECU, he has many more resources at his discretion. He can provide access to low-interest loans that might, for example, help with the weatherization of people's homes. Rob is a big thinker, but he's also a big do-er. His background in finance and economic development has given him a sense of how the economy works — or doesn't work — for many Vermonters. And because he cares, he's using the resources and the way the bank operates in the community to improve people's lives. Rob is always asking how we can continue to improve the deployment of efficiency and renewable energy in ways that support low-income Vermonters. Doing energy retrofits, putting in solar panels and buying electric vehicles should not just be for the wealthy. We need to make sure that all Vermonters have access to ways to reduce our energy costs.”
Paul Costello is the executive director of the Vermont Council on Rural Development. Miller is on his board.
“I started hearing about Rob from my colleagues in economic development and business who were kind of raving about his creativity,” Costello said. “They said he was a very sharp guy who we should be thinking about for board roles. He'd been Commissioner of Economic Development and he was coming back to Vermont and he was really interested in hometown investment strategies.”
Miller has helped the council think about the future of Vermont's economy in light of climate change, Costello said.
“Vermont has the opportunity to situate itself as an innovator and an entrepreneurial problem-solving state,” Costello said. “When you think of it, per capita, Vermont has a lot of leadership in everything from battery storage, clean energy development, thermal and other entrepreneurial work in the green economy,” Costello said. “Rob recognized this is an important part of Vermont's brand story, and also that there's a huge opportunity for market share in all these new green businesses and technologies. Rob is creative, positive, and far-sighted in terms of looking at the opportunities of tomorrow. I think he is situated to be a green leader in the investment community. He's built a reputation as a socially responsible and green innovative investor. He's just an awesome guy.”
Miller says he is simply using the skills he acquired in the financial sector to better the lives of regular Vermonters.
“There are great opportunities for me to reconnect with parts of my old world, like insurance and investments, which I still find interesting,” Miller said. “I'm not totally devoid of that in my role as CEO, but I don't get as much access to it as I once did. I enjoyed those roles, and this also gives me an opportunity to add value, as a result of my experience, to those particular organizations. It also gives me the experience to see what board governance looks like elsewhere, which helps me advise my board internally. I think makes us stronger internally as well. So there are both personal as well as professional reasons that I get involved in different organizations.”
Joyce Marcel is a journalist in southern Vermont. In 2017 she was named the best business magazine profile writer in the country by the Alliance of Area Business Publications. She is married to Randy Holhut, the photographer who took the photos for this story. He is also the news editor/acting operations manager of The Commons, a weekly newspaper in Brattleboro.