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Jax Daily Record Monday, Mar. 21, 202205:10 AM EST

John Hirabayashi: Proud of helping the community grow

The president and CEO of Community First Credit Union of Florida reflects on his organization’s growth and what lured him to Jacksonville more than 25 years ago.

John Hirabayashi is president and CEO of Community First Credit Union of Florida, taking the position in 1996. He has spent his career in the credit union industry after graduating from the University of Colorado in Boulder with a finance degree and an MBA from Virginia Polytechnic Institute.

Hirabayashi built the Jacksonville-based credit union to assets, as of March, of a record $2.5 billion, 19 branch offices and expanded headquarters presence Downtown 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 been leading Community First Credit Union, which formerly was the Educational Community Credit Union, for 26 years. What has been your strategy?

Our strategy has always been to take care of the members and take care of employees. We’ve  always been focused on that credit union concept of helping people achieve their financial goals. It’s a very simple premise. We’re a member-owned organization. We take care of our members, help improve their quality of financial lives.

That only happens if we take care of the employees because they’re the ones who take care of our members. It’s a strategy grounded in the principles of the credit union concept, which is people helping people and really helping build the community.

What brought you to Jacksonville?

The job did. I was the 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 got a call. They said, would you like to go to Jacksonville, Florida? I had to pull out my map. I knew where Orlando was, and Tampa. And I saw Jacksonville way up there.

They sent me an article – I think Money magazine – that said one of the top five fastest growing communities was Jacksonville. So take a look.

I was a lot younger back then. It was California. It’s kind of hard to raise a family there. It’s very expensive.

I was at that point of looking at, do I settle down here? Do I put out a lot of money for a house, or maybe look at a more vibrant opportunity? And it was a great opportunity.

The recruiter said that this is a diamond in the rough. There is a lot about to happen here, and this credit union is well positioned. I think you could grow this thing.

That was what got me here.

Community First Credit Union of Florida CFO Sam Inman, left, and President and CEO John Hirabayashi. Its headquarters have been in LaVilla Downtown for 20 years. (Photo by Dede Smith)

The financial industry is competitive. How have you positioned Community First in the market?

It’s really a team effort at Community First. It’s always been focusing on the members and focusing local.

We are fortunately in a very fast-growing market and all of our growth has been organic. We’ve had a couple of small mergers along the way, mostly educational credit unions.  It made sense to bring them under the fold.

Probably the biggest thing that we did, though, is when I started at the credit union, we had a very narrow field of membership, which said only educators could join, only people in the educational industry.

We found that other people wanted to join.

We said, why don’t we expand the 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 everybody as a community field of membership from the Intracoastal Waterway to the ocean and they said, well, how would you like to change it? I said, how about if we just move that Intracoastal all the way to St. Johns? So in one fell swoop, that brought in a huge membership.

Then we started to add counties and then we became the first true community credit union, serving Jacksonville and the surrounding areas.

You have been involved in community philanthropy. How do you choose where you spend your time?

I feel fortunate that people think of me as being able to contribute.

It’s where I think I can add value. It’s been when people have come to me and said, here’s a good opportunity.

I do tend to gravitate toward education. Right now, I’m with JPEF (Jacksonville Public Education Fund) and on their board of directors. They are doing a lot to try to close the educational gap between those teachers that have the resources and those that don’t, especially in some of these underserved areas.

Jacksonville has changed in the time that you’ve been here and took the leadership role at Community First. What do you think has been the biggest change?

I got here in 1996. I remember coming out of Berkeley, with coffee shops, lots of restaurants. Here there were, like, two Starbucks. So there’s been change.

I think that’s more indicative of just a change in the population. Jacksonville is a destination place.

I’ve seen a tremendous amount of growth in people moving here, and as people move here, it brings a lot of change.

Probably the biggest change I’ve seen overall is the St. Johns Town Center has been remarkable. When you think about having just opened 17 years ago, that has been a huge transformation. Not just that area, but that entire part of town has really changed a lot.

You are based Downtown. You’re on the front row of the evolution of what’s happening. What do you think needs to be done for Downtown to reach its potential?

This is a question that comes up a lot. I could probably give 

a textbook answer if I say, you need a certain amount of density.  I will tell you, a lot has gone on. We’ve been in the LaVilla area since we built our headquarters 20 years ago, actually in May.

We’re seeing more housing and more people living in LaVilla. If you go across to Brooklyn, that area has just blown up. There’s true synergy now when you have what’s going on in LaVilla and more apartments and places for people to live.

The next thing that follows is more services.

When you go to the Downtown core, I like what I’m seeing. You see the Laura Street Trio and we are starting to get that density. And I think it has to be density. You can’t have a piece here and a piece over here, a few blocks over. People are trying to bring it together.

I was a little questioning about removing the Landing, but now you have this great piece of property, the gateway to Jacksonville, so the pieces are coming together.

I think particularly some of these private enterprise developers are doing the right thing by focusing block by block. How do we build this core and make it so that people want to live, work, play there?

Community First Credit Union of Florida President and CEO John Hirabayashi. (Photo by Dede Smith)

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 actually I got into years and years ago, and I’ve just gotten back to in the last 10 years, is I like to fly airplanes. 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 get back into this? It’s been great. It takes my mind off everything. When you’re up there in the air, you’re not thinking about a lot of other things other than doing what you’re supposed to do, being very focused. I find that very relaxing and it’s structure in a different type of way.

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. There’s a certain amount of impact that a $200 million credit union can have on a community this size.

But when you scale it up to $2.5 billion, there’s a lot more people we can serve. There’s a lot more resources that we can provide to the community and jobs, employment, small businesses that we’re able to help finance.

I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished and how we’ve been able to become a part of the fabric of this community and help it grow.


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