When Robert D. Ramirez joined what was then the Davis-Monthan Federal Credit Union as a 30-year-old accountant in 1985, he had never before worked at a financial institution.
Undaunted, the Nogales, Arizona, native and University of Arizona grad quickly found himself in the executive suite, driving what is now Vantage West Credit Union to new heights as one of Arizona’s biggest and highest-rated credit unions.
Now, Ramirez will soon step down from his job as president and CEO of Vantage West, to stay close to family and seek new challenges.
The credit union — which has grown in asset size from $507 million in 2000 when Ramirez was named president and CEO to $1.9 billion — announced recently that the institution’s board will conduct a nationwide search for a new chief executive.
Though the timing of the corner-office change at Vantage West is unclear, the 64-year-old Ramirez said the time is right for him to step away.
Ramirez says he and his wife, Katharine, are planning a move to stay near his daughter, Gabriella, who will soon graduate from college in Colorado and is looking at attending grad school at the University of Texas at Austin or Texas A&M in College Station.
But Ramirez isn’t planning to retire completely, and he’s already considering some options.
“I’m retiring from Vantage West, but I’m not retiring from the industry,” he said.
Vantage West board chairman Eugene Santarelli said Ramirez has been key to Vantage West’s success.
“Bob has been an instrumental leader of the organization, one where we continue to focus on member service and making an impact on our community,” said Santarelli, a retired Air Force lieutenant general. “We look forward to partnering with him to continue the outstanding outcomes of the past year while we work to identify his successor.”
Much like Vantage West’s recent history, Ramirez’s personal story is one of opportunity and initiative.
After getting his accounting degree from the UA in 1976, Ramirez worked as an accountant for Capin Mercantile, a pioneering retail operation in Nogales where his father worked for 40 years.
He later got a job as accounting manager for Sundt Products, a subsidiary of Arizona construction giant Sundt Corp., and when he passed his certified public accountant test, he asked his boss for added responsibility and a pay raise.
“He said, ‘go back to school and become an engineer,’ so I said, it’s time to leave,” he recalled.
Ramirez answered a want ad for a controller at Davis-Monthan Federal Credit Union but was told he made too much money and was overqualified.
“I remember saying, ‘I’m willing to take a step back to move two steps forward,’ or something corny like that, and ‘I’m willing to take a cut in pay, of about $5,000,’ I recall, to come over,” he said.
The credit union hired him as an executive vice president and controller based on those two concessions, but when he showed up for work one the first day — in a new suit from Dillard’s — the credit union’s chief financial officer was a half-hour late for their first meeting.
“He comes in, and I’ll never forget, he had a bunch of keys and (dropped them) and said, ‘Bob, good luck to you, I just resigned,’ ” he recalled.
Ramirez served as acting CFO for six months, supervising a staff of 10 and a financial system that had descended into “an absolute mess.”
Not long afterward, bank examiners downgraded the credit union’s rating, Ramirez said, recalling how the CEO at the time was “pretty upset.”
Ramirez said he promised to restore the credit union’s top rating within a few months and the CEO said he’d double Ramirez’s salary and make him permanent CFO if he could do it.
Ramirez succeeded and was made CFO.
In 1999, Ramirez said “those keys fell from the sky again,” when the credit union’s CEO at the time announced he was retiring.
While serving as acting CEO, Ramirez engineered the acquisition of Saguaro Credit Union, a Tucson-based credit union for University of Arizona employees, faculty and students that had failed due to bad loans and was in conservatorship under the National Credit Union Association.
DM Federal had about $250 million in assets at the time, but it won a bid for Saguaro and its $125 million in assets against competing bids from the state’s biggest credit unions, Ramirez said.
He recalled how his board of directors was leery, but he staked his job on his ability to absorb Saguaro’s red ink and turn the operation around within 18 months.
“It was the best thing that could have happened to DM Federal Credit Union — it was the trajectory that got us growing,” he said.
Ramirez didn’t get the top job right away, but 11 months later, CEO Stan Turner announced his departure and Ramirez was named as his replacement.
Since then, Ramirez has presided over a period of rapid growth for the credit union, even in the sizable wake of the Great Recession.
The institution, founded in 1955 as Davis-Monthan AFB Federal Credit Union to serve the base community, was shortened in the 1990s to DM Federal Credit Union to attract more non-Air Force members.
In 2006, DM Federal switched from a federal charter to a state charter, allowing the credit union to sign up members geographically, based on where they live, work or go to school, compared with federal rules that restrict membership to specific groups.
Shortly thereafter, the name Vantage West Credit Union was adopted, and the credit union set about on a growth path, opening branches in San Manuel and Kearney in Pinal County before copper prices took a dive and forced their closure.
But in 2008 the Great Recession hit, and though Vantage West never dove into high-risk subprime mortgages, its main portfolio of auto loans suffered losses as members lost their jobs and couldn’t pay.
Facing a $10 million annual loss for 2008 after loan-loss reserves, Ramirez told his board he had a plan to grow the credit union back to profitability.
“I told them we’re going to go against the trend, we’re going to hire more people, open more stores, increase benefits and really take care of our members,” he recalled.
He made a pact with his staff that there would be no layoffs and benefits would be increased if they could help him pull off a turnaround.
“I gave my team a promise for a promise — if you promise to take care of our members, they’ll take care of us in good times and in bad times,” said Ramirez.
Ramirez prompted the credit union’s board to approve a “post-recession lending” program in which members who had charged-off loans because they lost their jobs could qualify for new loans.
More growth followed as Vantage West acquired the Phoenix-based First Edition Community Credit Union in Phoenix in 2010.
In 2014, Vantage West acquired the 2,000-member Tombstone Federal Credit Union. The credit union also opened dozens of automatic-teller locations at Target and CVS stores in Tucson and the Phoenix area.
Last year, Vantage West was named Credit Union of the Year by the Mountain West Credit Union Association, which cited its financial strength, innovation and community involvement.
Ramirez was also appointed to serve on the Twelfth District Community Depository Institutions Advisory Council for the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, providing a voice for local credit unions.
Since 2008, Vantage West has maintained its five-star “superior” rating from Florida-based rating firm Bauer Financial, with more than ample capital reserves and a low percentage of bad loans.
Vantage West currently has 16 branches and employs more than 450 workers to serve over 150,000 members.
The credit union has ambitious plans for expansion, with plans to add two branches each year in Maricopa County for the next five years, Ramirez said.