A humble and passionate leader, Gary Oakland believed that what is best for individual credit union members was best for BECU. By advocating for member-centric services, empowering employees, increasing access to financial services in marginalized communities, and elevating the cooperative model through advocacy, Gary helped grow Washington-based BECU to the fourth largest credit union in the country, with 700,000 members and $10 billion in assets when he retired as CEO in 2012.
After earning a degree in economics from Washington State University in 1975, Gary started his cooperative journey as a teller at Seattle Telco Federal Credit Union. He went on to work for BECU in 1980 where he began his 32-year tenure, first as Director of Finance and then as CEO in 1986.
While Gary led BECU to unprecedented growth, it was his commitment to improving the financial lives of members and serving the needs of communities and other cooperatives that make him a true cooperator. He helped found two low-income-designated credit unions to help ensure people in those communities had access to safe and affordable financial services. He located the funds to keep more than a dozen low-income credit unions afloat during times of hardship and created a credit union service organization that provides mortgage solutions to approximately 600 credit unions.
Gary’s members-first approach to financial services helped define the culture of BECU. Throughout his career, Gary created and identified new and innovative ways to support individual members during strikes and crises. Early on, he understood the importance of financial literacy, creating a Financial Counseling and Education department with financial education programs designed to help members and their families take control of their finances to achieve their financial goals.
Though financial education was a critical component of his members-first approach, Gary deeply appreciated the role that his college education played in his successful career. With an initial $1 million endowment from BECU, the BECU Foundation was created to recognize and support student-members who believed in the power of “people helping people.” Since 1995, the BECU Foundation has recognized over 1,250 student-members with more than $3.3 million in scholarships.
Gary’s commitment to financial education, and education in general, was not limited to BECU’s membership. Gary raised the first $500,000 to fund the PBS syndicated show Biz Kid$ and encouraged a coalition of credit unions to bring $2.6 million to support the program. This Emmy Award-winning television program, and now popular website, teaches financial literacy and entrepreneurship to middle school and high school aged children.
The impact of Gary’s work is felt well beyond BECU and its members and communities. A dedicated and loyal credit union leader, his generosity and selflessness were recognized when he was awarded the Herb Wegner Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2013. He’s been an inspiration to others as he continually and passionately exemplified the most basic and fundamental part of cooperative identity - people helping people.