John Hirabayashi is President and CEO of Community First Credit Union of Florida, serving in that role in 1996. He spent his career in the credit union industry after earning a degree in finance from the University of Colorado at Boulder and an MBA from Virginia Polytechnic Institute. .
Hirabayashi built the Jacksonville-based credit union with assets as of March of a record $2.5 billion, 19 branches and an expanded presence at Downtown headquarters at 701 W. Adams St.
It is the naming rights sponsor of the Jacksonville Ice & Sportsplex, now the Community First Igloo.
Community First has 160,000 members and 355 employees.
Hirabayashi was interviewed for the January edition of First Coast Success on First Coast Connect with Melissa Ross on WJCT 89.9, a Jacksonville Daily Record news partner.
These are edited excerpts.
You have run the Community First Credit Union, formerly the Educational Community Credit Union, for 26 years. What was your strategy?
Our strategy has always been to take care of the members and take care of the employees. We have always emphasized the credit union concept of helping people achieve their financial goals. It’s a very simple premise. We are a member-owned organization. We take care of our members, help improve their financial quality of life.
This only happens if we take care of the employees because they are the ones who take care of our members. It’s a strategy based on the principles of the credit union concept, where people help others and really help build community.
What brought you to Jacksonville?
Work done. I was CEO of a credit union in Berkeley. It was a credit union called Cal State 9 Credit Union that served the University of California, Berkeley employees, and some surrounding areas.
I received a call. They said, would you like to go to Jacksonville, Florida? I had to take out my card. I knew where Orlando and Tampa were. And I saw Jacksonville up there.
They sent me an article – I’m thinking of Money magazine – that said one of the five fastest growing communities was Jacksonville. So take a look.
I was much younger then. It was California. It’s a bit difficult to raise a family there. It is very expensive.
I was at this point looking, do I settle here? Am I spending a lot of money on a house, or maybe looking at a more dynamic opportunity? And it was a great opportunity.
The recruiter said it was a diamond in the rough. There’s a lot going on here, and this credit union is well positioned. I think you could grow this thing.
That’s what brought me here.
The financial sector is competitive. How did you position Community First in the market?
It really is a team effort at Community First. He has always focused on the members and on the local.
Fortunately, we are in a very strong growth market and all our growth has been organic. We’ve had a few small mergers along the way, mostly education credit unions. It made sense to bring them under the fold.
Probably the most important thing that we did, however, is that when I started at the credit union, we had a very restricted field of membership, which said only educators could join, only industry people education.
We found that other people wanted to join.
We said, why don’t we expand the number of people we can serve? We went to our regulator, the Office of Financial Regulation, and they said, sure, what do you want? Where do you want to start?
We had everyone as a community membership field, from the Intracoastal Waterway to the ocean, and they said, well, how would you like to change it? I said, what if we move this Intracoastal to St. Johns? So all of a sudden it attracted a huge number of members.
Then we started adding counties, and then we became the first true community credit union, serving Jacksonville and surrounding areas.
You have been involved in community philanthropy. How do you choose where you spend your time?
I feel lucky that people think I am able to contribute.
This is where I think I can add value. That’s when people came up to me and said, here’s a good opportunity.
I tend to be attracted to education. Right now I’m with JPEF (Jacksonville Public Education Fund) and on their board. They are doing a lot to try to bridge the educational gap between teachers who have the resources and those who don’t, especially in some of these underserved areas.
Jacksonville has changed since you’ve been here and taken on the leadership role at Community First. What do you think has been the biggest change?
I came here in 1996. I remember coming out of Berkeley, with cafes, lots of restaurants. There were like two Starbucks here. So there has been a change.
I think it’s more indicative of a simple change in population. Jacksonville is a place of destination.
I’ve seen tremendous growth in the number of people moving here, and as people move here it brings a lot of change.
Probably the biggest change I’ve seen overall is that downtown St. Johns has been remarkable. When you think about opening 17 years ago, it was a huge transformation. Not just this area, but this whole part of town has really changed a lot.
You are based downtown. You are at the forefront of the evolution of what is happening. What do you think needs to be done for Downtown to reach its potential?
This is a question that comes up often. I could probably give
a textbook answer if i say you need some density. I’ll tell you, a lot has happened. We have been in the LaVilla area since we built our headquarters 20 years ago, in fact in May.
We see more housing and more people living in LaVilla. If you go to Brooklyn, this neighborhood just exploded. There’s a real synergy now when you have what’s going on at LaVilla and more apartments and housing for people.
The next thing that follows is more services.
When you go downtown, I like what I see. You see the Laura Street Trio and we’re starting to have that density. And I think it must be the density. You can’t have a piece here and a piece here a few streets away. People are trying to collect it.
I was kinda wondering about removing the landing stage, but now you have this big property, the gateway to Jacksonville, so the rooms come together.
I think in particular that some of these private company developers are doing the right thing by focusing block by block. How to build this core and make people want to live there, work there, play there?
What do you do for fun?
Jan, my wife and I love to travel. We like to run too. We do a little recreational running to stay in shape.
One of the things I started out with years and years ago, and I’ve just come back in the last 10 years, is that I love flying planes. I got my license almost 40 years ago, so I let it go for a while.
About 10 years ago I said, well, why don’t I go back to that? It was awesome. It changes my mind. When you’re up there in the air, you don’t think of much else than doing what you’re supposed to do, being very focused. I find it very relaxing and its structure is different.
What else would you like to share?
I feel blessed to have had the opportunity to come to Jacksonville. I’m very proud of the organization, very proud of what we’ve accomplished and what we’ve done to help build the community. A $200 million credit union can have some impact on a community of this size.
But when you increase that to $2.5 billion, we can serve a lot more people. There are many more resources that we can provide to the community and jobs, jobs, small businesses that we can help fund.
I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished and how we’ve been able to be part of the fabric of this community and help it grow.