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ELITE 8 2012: Charlie Lai Overachieves in the Name of the Customer

Charlie Lai, CIO and EVP of Fairwinds Credit Union, is always prepared to go the extra mile in the name of customer convenience, whether he is converting core systems or thinking about the institution's next mobile app.

Charlie Lai, CIO and EVP of Fairwinds Credit Union, characterizes his IT team as overachievers. Each August, Lai and his 20 IT staffers sit down and plan the Orlando, Fla.-based credit union's initiatives for the next year. By the end of these planning sessions, he says, they've typically designated about 100 projects.

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Lai acknowledges that's a tall order for an institution of Fairwinds' size -- the credit union, a state-chartered community institution open to local county residents, has $1.6 billion in assets. "Our technology plan would probably scare a lot of people," he says. But his team accomplishes so much, Lai adds, because of hardwork and a can-do attitude, and he credits a big part of that attitude to Fairwinds' conversion to Open Solutions' core banking platform.

According to Lai, moving from a proprietary core solution to the open system in 2006 allowed Fairwinds to do more with technology than it ever had before, enabling the credit union to build custom applications to meet its specific needs. And Glastonbuty, Conn.-based Open Solutions' use of open APIs and common technologies such as Oracle databases allowed Fairwinds to easily integrate those new applications, he adds.

For Lai, who managed the conversion, and his IT staff, having access to these new technology capabilities has been like being a kid in a candy store, he says, reiterating that there is so much more they can accomplish. Previously, for example, the credit union could offer only one type of checking account; after switching to the Open Solutions core platform, the credit union can offer more than 10 variations. Before the conversion, "The answer for new requests was typically, 'No, we can't do that,'" Lai recalls. "With our plan to convert, we strategically had a dramatic mind-shift away from that. Suddenly, no project was too big for us."

Through the Eyes of Members

Still, Lai acknowledges, it takes incredibly hard work by everyone on the Fairwinds IT team to complete all of the projects they set out for themselves, and he credits staffers' willingness to work so hard to their dedication to serving the credit union's members. In fact, Lai says his role as CIO is all about being a facilitator of solutions for "making our members lives easier." And that begins with understanding the needs of the members, he says.

"A lot of what we talk about in IT is not just technical concepts, but thinking through the eyes of our members," adds Lai, who has more than 26 years of experience at Fairwinds in various roles to help him understand the needs of those members. He started as a teller and worked his way up. "If I were to have joined [IT] without having spent time in any of those other roles, it might be a challenge for me to relate to our members," Lai remarks.

Even as a CIO, Lai notes, he still gets exposure to the front lines. The credit union often has competitions among its "crew members" -- Fairwinds formerly was known as Navy Orlando Federal Credit Union and was affiliated with the Orlando Naval Training Center until the base closed, hence the nautical theme -- to reach certain goals. The department that wins the competition typically goes out for a fun day (say, at nearby Universal Studios) and the executive team fills in for that department for the day. "I've actually worked the teller line before as the CIO," Lai relates.

But that firsthand understanding of what is happening on the front lines, Lai says, has helped him and the technology organization create some of their most innovative solutions since entering the candy store that the Open Solutions core platform has provided them. He offers the credit union's new account origination application as a prime example. About two years ago, Lai recalls, Fairwinds recognized that its process for opening new accounts had become bloated -- the workflow for the teller opening the account was clogged with requests for demographic information for marketing purposes, compliance information and risk-scoring functions.

Lai says an experienced teller could complete the process in 20 to 25 minutes; but it could take a new teller more than 40 minutes. "The thing that really resonated with us was, 'Hey, that's our member sitting on the other side of the desk. That's their lunch hour,'" Lai says. "We were doing a disservice to our members."

According to Lai, the Fairwinds technology organization set out to create an application that would cut the account origination process to less than five minutes. After coming up with a concept for a compressed workflow, he reports, the IT team built a new custom application that resulted in an average time for opening a new account of just three and a half minutes. The new application features enhancements to functions for booking and funding a new account, as well as interfaces to third-party risk systems that pull information with just a few quick keystrokes. And most of the customers' personal information is pulled automatically by scanning their driver's licenses. Fairwinds launched the application in its branches in July 2011, and Lai says it has freed tellers to actually talk with customers and ask about their needs.

Jonathan Camhi has been an associate editor with Bank Systems & Technology since 2012. He previously worked as a freelance journalist in New York City covering politics, health and immigration, and has a master's degree from the City University of New York's Graduate School ... View Full Bio

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