Dave Larson, president and CEO of St. Paul-based Affinity Plus Federal Credit Union, is on a mission for the not-for-profit financial cooperative to be "the best place" for customers as well as employees.

This month, Larson is celebrating 10 years as chief executive at Affinity Plus, the state's third-largest credit union with more than $4 billion in assets. He said he strives to engage the credit union's 600 employees — Affinity has been a Star Tribune Top Workplace for the past six consecutive years — and build relationships with its 260,000 members through caring, listening and "running this organization differently."

"I love my coworkers," Larson said. "I love the members. I love working for a board that understands who we are. We know that we're 'not for profit.' We take those three words very seriously."

That's why, Larson said, he and the board cheered upon learning that members saved $10.5 million in the past year. That came after Affinity Plus eliminated fees for insufficient funds and reduced overdraft fees, waiving them for negative balances of fewer than $100.

Affinity Plus, which recorded $30 million in net income in that period, expects membership growth to make up for revenue lost through those fee changes. Membership is up 13% since the beginning to 2022.

"We knew we were going to take a hit," Larson said. "But we also know that over time, we'll get that back and continue to thrive."

Affinity Plus, which has 30 locations, this year opened the first credit union in St. Paul's Midway neighborhood. Members last year approved a merger with the White Earth Reservation Federal Credit Union in Mahnomen, and since then, Affinity Plus has built a new branch there. During pandemic-related shutdowns, Larson championed launching Small Business Administration loans as a new offering. All were part of the institution's efforts aimed at "serving members who are underserved."

Before coming to Affinity Plus in 2002, Larson traveled the country selling software to banks and credit unions. He also volunteers with Special Olympics Minnesota and stepped up his commitment to the organization to honor his mother, who had worked with children with intellectual disabilities before she passed away from cancer in 2007. As board chair of the organization since December 2021, Larson has helped lead efforts to bring the 2026 Special Olympics USA games to Minnesota.

"No matter the event, meeting or competition that I go to with Special Olympics, when I go home, I feel much better than before I went," Larson said.

Here — edited for length and clarity — Larson shares how he built a culture of service at work and in life:

Q: What do you want people to know about Affinity Plus?

A: We're a not-for-profit financial cooperative that's owned by its members. In my 10 years as CEO, the board has not one time said, "You need to drive at more profit." What they tell me is, "You need to run a well-run, financially healthy organization for our members, for our employees and for our communities."

Q: What are you proudest of as CEO?

A: The engagement of our employees. It's just off the charts. I've always believed that if you have happy employees, more often than not, you're going to have happy members. If you have happy members, more often, you're going to have happy employees. That's been a winning combination for us.

Q: What's the key to that engagement?

A: Transparency. Authenticity. I'm not real buttoned up. I talk to our employees about my life, my experiences and challenges. My dad has Alzheimer's. My wife had breast cancer. I've shared some of the challenges with that. I want them to see that I'm human. And I recognize that they, too, have challenges.

Q: How has your leadership approach — which you've described as vulnerable and curious about people as well as transparent and authentic — changed or not through the years?

A: What I emphasized more so during the pandemic was listening. I tell employees at new employee orientation: You can call me anytime you want. You can come in and see me. I want to hear from them on where they think we can get better. I will talk with employees. I will talk with any member of ours.

Q: How did caring become a value at Affinity Plus?

A: When I became CEO, the organization needed caring. Employees needed to feel that. Members needed to feel it. I've worked here for 21 years. There was a time when we rarely had a retirement. I hear time and time again today from our employees, "I want to retire here."

Q: What challenges or opportunities arise when more than half of your members are considered low income?

A: We're good at working with people in low-income or low- to moderate-income levels. What some may view as riskier, we view as an opportunity for us to make an impact in those communities. We look at markets that maybe others are leaving or maybe it's a [banking] desert, and we say, "What about this market?"

Q: Why do you work in financial services, particularly at a credit union?

A: I'm super motivated by the credit union mission: People helping people. I've been approached about, "You should go work for a bank. You can make a lot more money." And I'm like, "No, I'm not a banker. I'm a credit union guy." I'm really drawn to this industry because I think it aligns quite well with who I am as a human being.

Todd Nelson is a freelance writer in Lake Elmo. His e-mail is todd_nelson@mac.com.