For many young residents growing up in a sleepy suburb, success in the business world is best achieved after flying the coop, so to speak, leaving for college and working their way up in the world.
But for longtime local Rich Harris, achievement was earned just down the street from where he grew up.
As Caltech Employees Federal Credit Union president and CEO, Harris has led the La Cañada Flintridge-based entity for 34 years to unprecedented growth and has earned a seat at the table in helping to shape banking industry advocacy at the national level with top U.S. government officials.
“The city of La Cañada Flintridge has been home to CEFCU for more than 25 years. We are proud to be an active and rooted business with strong ties to the community, its affiliate organizations and leadership,” said Harris. “Our unique business model is structured and positioned to deliver real tangible value to its member/owners. Whether it’s value in the form of lower fees, better loan rates, higher dividends or a combination of all of these benefits, [the model] results in outstanding financial value for our members.”
Under Harris’ leadership, the credit union has grown from $92 million to nearly $2 billion in assets and more than 37,000 member accounts, and four office locations, including CEFCU’s headquarters at 500 Foothill Blvd. and a separate real estate loan center, a branch office at Jet Propulsion Laboratory and another at Caltech in Pasadena.
Harris has represented the credit union industry on a national level as a board member and chairman of the National Association of Federally-Insured Credit Unions, serving nine years, and was elected three times by the credit union industry members of NAFCU in the western United States. In that capacity, Harris met on separate occasions with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, and President Donald Trump in the Roosevelt Room at the White House to help advocate for financial services reform.
“I’ve have a lot of great opportunities, including helping to advocate for regulation that was helpful to credit unions and the consumers,” said Harris, noting that going to the White House was definitely a career highlight.
Although he had spent years in becoming well-versed in public speaking, leading public auctions and speaking to thousands of bankers at a time, Harris recalled that he felt suddenly speechless in front of the president of the United States: “It was a wonderful experience, but, boy oh boy, I can say I was very nervous sitting in the Roosevelt Room, talking about regulation for credit unions at the national level.”
Yet despite his dealings in Washington, some might know Harris best as the boy next door.
The LCF native’s parents opened a heating and air-conditioning business on Foothill Boulevard in the 1950s, and he grew up in the foothills community, graduating from La Cañada High School in 1970. After graduating from Cal State Los Angeles with a major in business administration (he later took graduate courses at Stanford and Harvard), Harris returned with his wife, Debbie, and together they bought their first home here and raised three children — Micah, Rachel and Joe, all of whom graduated from LCHS.
“There’s no doubt: I love this community and I had a wonderful experience growing up here, attending schools and playing sports locally; I wanted my family to experience being from here. It’s wonderful tucked up here in our little valley and it’s a great place to raise your family,” said Harris, who has volunteered countless hours through community and civic engagement over the years.
Among those efforts, Harris volunteered at the La Cañada Flintridge Community Center, the Crescenta Valley Sheriff’s Support Group, Verdugo Hills Hospital Foundation and National Alopecia Areata Foundation. He was especially active as a longtime board member at the hospital foundation, serving as chairman from 2006-08. Due in great part to those efforts, he was named 2006 La Cañadan of the Year.
LCF resident Houry Aposhian, a longtime member of CEFCU and a current USC-VHH board member, praised Harris for his “guidance, common sense and practical approach to problem solving.
“Rich’s thoughtful deliberation helped the board to navigate through important strategic and successful negotiations under his leadership. He’s a loyal steward of our foundation’s mission, values and programs, and his leadership and support was invaluable to the success of our community outreach and fundraising campaigns.”
For his part, Harris said he loved helping serve Verdugo Hills Hospital (prior to the purchase by Keck Medicine of USC): “We met so many wonderful people and it was a big highlight of my life and of my wife’s as well, since our time there was over 18 years.”
Houry, who also is president and CEO of the local lender Pacific Horizon Bancorp, added that she has admired Harris’ leadership at CEFCU.
“I commend Rich’s astute leadership and strategic foresight in managing an organization like CEFCU that has grown in assets in the last 10 years under tight regulatory and compliance rules and regulations.”
To that end, Harris said part of his success lies in the foundation of the credit union, which serves an exclusive field of members and is open to the California Institute of Technology community and its affiliate organizations. This includes eligible employees, registered volunteers and students of Caltech, NASA’s JPL, the Huntington Library, Polytechnic School, Child Educational Center and members of other Caltech- and JPL-based clubs and organizations.
But lately, Harris has shouldered his fair share of pandemic stress, as well.
“There’s no question it’s been a challenge and we’ve had to make a lot of very, very big decisions that I thought I’d never have to make, but we’re still doing OK,” said Harris, sitting down via Zoom to discuss his tenure. “Our institution is rock solid and very sound financially — operationally is where the challenges have come in, but we’re working our way through that. When this all evolved in March it hit full steam and changed our lives, as it changed everyone’s life.”
At the height of the pandemic, the credit union was operating with a staff reduction of about 22%, he noted, due largely to schools being shut down and employees needing to take time off to provide child care. CEFCU also shut down its lobbies to any in-person member activity to ward off exposure to the virus.
“We’re living one day at a time, just like everybody else. It is absolutely a crazy time — my working career spans almost 50 years and I will say the last five to six months have been the most challenging of my entire career,” Harris said, though he emphasized that financial markets — for now — have held steady.
“We’re optimistic, we’re positive and we’re doing OK. … We’ve survived and worked through many, many of these cycles over here at the credit union, and we’ll continue to do that well into the future.”
Harris also praised his staff, which he considers to be the backbone of the business, as well as CEFCU ‘s loyal members.
“I’m extremely grateful to my employees, my staff, my team — they are just as passionate as I am about serving the financial needs of our members. Our mission is to the consumer, and we are driven to help our members get to the other side of this pandemic,” he said.