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Portrait of BECU CFO Melba Bartels

How to Manage Finances Like a CFO

For BECU CFO Melba Bartels, the challenges of 2020 reinforced the importance of planning ahead and leading with compassion.

What does it mean to be a CFO and what can others learn from your role?

As the chief financial officer for BECU, I'm responsible for managing financial strategy, budget, operations and performance. Because we are a member-owned cooperative, my role is different than it was at the for-profit businesses I supported before joining BECU. Our responsibility is to our members first, not to shareholders and profits. People trust us and depend on us to make sound decisions for their benefit.

Fundamentally, I think the concept of a CFO can be applied to any business or household. You have to understand basic needs and set achievable financial goals, but you also have to remember that you're managing finances to benefit people. If you're really good at your job, you continuously seek to understand who those people are and what matters to them.

Whether you're managing finances for a household, a business, or in my case, BECU, I think the top-level goal should always be to ensure that you can provide value for the people who depend on you.

How is managing finances different during the pandemic?

When times are tough, you have to do things differently. 2020 was a difficult year for a lot of people, so finding opportunities to provide stability and comfort was more important than ever.

The pandemic has forced many of us to focus on what really matters and prioritize those essentials. For example, in the initial stages of the pandemic we saw members scale back or put on hold their debt-payoff strategies and big purchases. Today, we're seeing that strategy shift, with many of our members, and people nationally, saving quite a bit.

The pandemic also underlined the importance of planning ahead because the stronger your financial position is heading into an unexpected crisis, the better you can weather that crisis. It's essential as a CFO to understand just how rainy a rainy day could get and plan for it.

At BECU, the stronger we are as a credit union, the more we can offer our members the programs and products that help them reach their financial goals. It's my job to ensure we have a solid financial foundation through sustainable growth so that we are able to support our members through payment relief assistance, deferred payment options, personal loans, waiving fees and more. I am incredibly proud of how our teams have innovated quickly to provide our members the support and relief they need during this difficult time.

You mentioned sustainable growth. How does a business or household grow sustainably during a pandemic?

I believe the same finance management concepts apply to both businesses and households: Cover the basics first, then think about growth, while investing in people. At a business, that investment in people and systems allows you to provide high-quality service over the long-term.

In a household, basic needs like food, shelter and safety need to be met before you can think about bigger purchases. Good financial management requires long-term strategic thinking about long-term investments — like setting aside money for emergencies or important wealth-growing opportunities such as buying a home — that contribute to long-term growth.

What tips would you offer for managing finances through the pandemic?

  • Communicate — Lack of communication is one of the key reasons for misunderstandings, and misunderstandings lead to conflict. In a business setting, talking about finances is an essential part of a CFO's job. Make conversations about finances a normal part of your household duties. For those living alone, make reviewing your finances a habit to take stock of areas to cut back or make changes to help meet your financial goals. Big decisions should never be a surprise, especially when times are tough. Sometimes good communication means knowing when to ask for help. Learn what resources are available and get assistance when you need it.
  • Maximize revenues, decrease expenses — One of the most practical steps you can take is to assess your financial needs. Then, if you lose your job or have a large, unavoidable expense like a roof repair or a medical bill, you can pivot quickly and reapply funds that you were saving toward a nonessential goal. Our financial educators always suggest including plans to pay yourself back once the crisis has passed.
  • Put people first — Managing finances with people in mind helps you make better decisions that improve your finances and provides greater benefits to people.

What matters most to you in your CFO role?

COVID-19 has affected everyone in new and profound ways. As individuals and as a community, we have faced concerns about personal and financial health. As we head further into 2021, I am confident we are ready to face these financially challenging times together.

As someone who was born and raised in Washington, I care deeply about BECU's role in supporting our communities. Our ability to give back was a big reason why I joined BECU in 2017. As a member-owned organization, we share our profits with our members and communities, and our purpose is connected directly to ensuring we support the financial well-being of both.

I have spent my entire career in the financial services industry, both at for-profit companies and now at a not-for-profit credit union. From my experience, I can say that there is truly a difference when your number one focus is on members instead of shareholders. It is extremely gratifying to work every day to fulfill a purpose I believe in — supporting our members on their journey toward financial health.