Combat pilot to corner office

Stuart Parker received his first USAA membership card more than 30 years ago, a time when fewer than 2 million active-duty or former military officers and their families had insurance policies with the San Antonio-based association. 

A young Air Force second lieutenant at the time, Parker started out as a typical policyholder. But his flight path ultimately led to USAA’s chief executive office, where he touched down in late February. He takes over for retired Army Maj. Gen. Josue Robles, who is stepping away after more than 20 years at USAA, the past seven as CEO.

Parker’s journey to the corner office has had many stops and connections, all of which helped fulfill a career profile he would need to lead USAA, The American Legion’s preferred provider of financial services, which now has nearly 11 million members.

After graduating with a business degree from Georgia’s Valdosta State University and its Air Force ROTC program, Parker earned his wings and an assignment to help train NATO jet pilots at Sheppard Air Force Base in Wichita Falls, Texas. There, he was a wing flight examiner and, when he wasn’t in the air or teaching others, he completed a master’s degree in political science from Midwestern State University. He also met and married an Air Force nurse, thus becoming both an active-duty officer and a military spouse – perspectives that would benefit him later.

Parker’s understanding of the USAA member base deepened as his Air Force career unfolded. Like many military families, he bounced across the map, from duty station to duty station, before he deployed to fly combat missions during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm.

After his discharge, Parker earned a master’s degree in business administration from St. Mary’s University in San Antonio. In 1998, USAA hired him as a financial planner, working one on one with military families and former officers not unlike himself. Six years later, he was promoted to president of financial planning services, followed by a number of other executive positions.

Parker, who was an American Legion oratorical contest competitor in his youth, recently spoke with The American Legion Magazine.

So much of the USAA message is about multiple generations of honorable military service. How does that message fit your own family?

When I was growing up, my father was enlisted in the Air Force. He was a master sergeant. And then I decided to join the military. I went through ROTC in southern Georgia, then to pilot training at Wichita Falls, Texas. In Wichita Falls, there wasn’t a lot going on for young adults, so they all tended to live in the same area. I met my wife at our apartment complex. She happened to be an Air Force nurse. We were a joint-spouse couple. And when I got my follow-on assignment to Charleston, S.C., she left active duty and went into the reserves. So I am a proud military spouse as well as a former military officer.

That experience must give you tremendous insight about today’s military families.

Without a doubt. And what we’re finding is that the younger adults coming in have the same passion and love for our country as we did in our generation.

What drove you to the Air Force?

I was partly influenced by my father’s history in the military. In the small town where I grew up in southern Georgia was Moody Air Force Base. So as a young person I was influenced by my family history and also by my community. There was just this inclination toward serving our country. And when I was about junior-high age, I got this love for aviation. It was a natural combination for me: serve my country, serve the military, fly. That was my early pursuit of being an Air Force pilot. I was able to achieve that dream.

How did Junior ROTC play a role in your development?

I was the ROTC commander in high school, and I loved it. I remember being in Junior ROTC and getting an American Legion school medal. So, I literally started wearing a military uniform when I was 15 years old. I started my flying lessons while I was in high school, got my private pilot’s license when I was in college, and then went to pilot training. 

So, you had good mentorship as a young man and then became a trainer yourself.

In Wichita Falls, half of us were American pilots and the other half were from the NATO countries. So it was very interesting. Sometimes your student would be a NATO pilot. Sometimes, as a student, your instructor pilot would be NATO. That helped me really understand the importance of the USA’s leadership in the military. 

How did combat aviation affect you?

When you’re serving, you want to protect and defend this country. Not that you ever want our country to be at war, but if we are, you want to be part of it. So I had the opportunity. I flew missions in 1989 in Operation Just Cause down in Panama. Following that was Desert Shield/Desert Storm. It’s a brotherhood and a sisterhood when you’re doing that. It’s one of those really formative times when you realize that the team is far more important than the individual, that you have to work together, and at the same time share the sacrifices.

How did all that prepare you for leadership at USAA?

It was a very smooth transition for me. One thing that either you bring to the military, or you learn in the military, are core values. At USAA, our values are honesty, integrity, loyalty and service. Those same core values resonated with me when I was in the military, because it’s all about integrity, doing what you say. Your word is your bond. But the mission was probably the biggest connection. When I came to USAA, it was all about serving those who were serving. Even though you’re not wearing the uniform, you feel like you are connected to the military. 

It’s like when you’re a pilot and you do a walkaround of an airplane, you’re checking everything. You’re looking for any little drop, any little rivet, anything out of order, because it could be your life if you don’t catch it. Attention to detail is also critical when you’re in a financial services company. Every detail does matter. 

And it’s the work ethic. During Desert Storm, we had 23-hour missions. We would leave out of Spain, go down to Riyadh, drop off troops, cargo, whatever, refuel and then come back. Three pilots, 23 hours.  

You know, the work ethic that you have in the military translates so easily. The sacrifices that you make in business, in my opinion, are so small compared to the sacrifices that our men and women are making in the military. Work ethic and mission – just a beautiful marriage between USAA and serving in the military.

Did you see yourself eventually becoming the CEO at USAA?

No. I was in the military almost 10 years … saving money to go on vacation, car payments, paying credit cards on time. I had enough money to live on, but money never motivated me. It was that sense of service. Being an executive at USAA was never an aspiration for me; serving was. 

You have been with USAA for 16 years. Describe the arc of change during your time there.

Amazing. When I joined the USAA team in 1998, we had just started serving enlisted personnel. My dad was enlisted. That meant a lot to me. In 1998, the only time you could join USAA as an enlisted person was if you were on active duty or within a year of leaving active duty. My father and those of his generation could not join USAA. That changed later.

In 2009 we said, “If you have ever honorably served, you can join USAA.” That allowed us to serve more members. I am so proud of our company. Imagine the risk – the ripple effect, the unknown  – when we said, “We’re going to double the number of potential members. We don’t know them as well ... but we know it’s the right thing to do.”

What I saw was a company that at the time was 85 years old and willing to take a risk, willing to say we’re going to do it not because we know it’s going to work, or that it’s going to be instantly successful. We’re going to do it because we know it’s the right thing. What’s happened is we have doubled in size. We were less than 5 million when I came to the company. We are going to approach 11 million this year.

How has expanded eligibility affected the USAA culture?

It’s worked out beautifully. What we have found is we have so many more employees who share that family history – of our fathers being enlisted in the military – there’s a bond there. It resonates with our employees. It’s helped our members. It doesn’t matter what rank or what branch. We all want to help those who served our country. So it’s bonded us as a company.

That’s a unique identity in corporate America, isn’t it?

It is. At USAA, our employees feel it’s more of a vocation than it is a job. There’s a higher calling. Over the next five years, 1.5 million active-duty men and women will be leaving the military, transitioning to civilian life. That’s going to be a challenge. Our responsibility is to help them in that transition, help them understand there are things they can do before they get out, to smooth the transition, and once they are out, things they need to consider. For us, it’s mission first. Core values. Serving as a team. 

What about all the technological changes during your time at USAA?

Some of our members still want to call us, and some want to get paper documents. And we have a lot of millennials – by the way, by 2020, just a few years from now, half of our members will be millennials – and they want to interact with us differently. They want to have mobile devices to do their banking, their checking, their investments, their communication, and we’re responding to that. USAA has a lot of history of leading technology. We were one of the first companies in America to have a 1-800 number. Now we’re doing check deposits through mobile. Our job is to serve men and women who don’t necessarily live near a branch, so technology is absolutely huge.

With constant changes in the way people conduct business, how do you strategically plan for the future? 

I love planning ahead and making adjustments along the way. What we can do now is project what the demographics will look like. We have a general idea of where technologies are taking us, although no one knows what’s happening five years from now. But we do know the direction. So you want to have a five-year plan, a beacon on the hill. You start operating toward that and make adjustments along the way. We know millennials are going to be a bigger part of what we do. We know the enlisted membership will be a bigger part. Children of the military will be a bigger part. So, how do we serve them in a valuable way? We’re not just about a product. We’re about a relationship.

Almost equally confusing, and ever-changing, is the whole arena of personal financial management. How do you establish a blueprint for success when the investment landscape is always shifting?

I’m passionate about that. One of the things I believe is going to be transformational for our company and, really, for the community, is helping folks make small decisions in their lives that will have huge impacts on their families. 

There are six components to financial literacy that we are trying to help our employees understand so they can then share with members. One, you have to protect yourself and your stuff. Unfortunately, as a financial planner, I have talked to many families that didn’t have life insurance for the breadwinner. They pass away, and the family is in chaos. It’s pennies on the dollar to get that done. Having the appropriate amount of life insurance, having the right amount of insurance on your property and having health insurance. That’s the base: protection. 

Second, spending less than you earn. Almost 50 percent of enlisted families in USAA live paycheck to paycheck. It’s because they don’t follow a budget or save just a little bit of their paycheck. Following a budget can help you control spending and find ways to save.

Our third level is having something in an emergency fund. The washer is going to fail. The car is going to need to be repaired. Your daughter is going to need braces. Have that versus a high-interest loan or credit card debt. We’re a financial services company, but we don’t want you to have a lot of credit card debt because that’s not the right thing for you personally.

The fourth is to save for retirement. If you can get a young person just to save a few hundred dollars early on, 40 years from now they can have the lifestyle they want to have. But everybody wants to procrastinate. 

The fifth is having some basic estate-planning documents. If you have ever had a family member pass away, it’s one of the saddest events when you don’t know what their wishes were. And you can do that so easily, even online. Just have some basic estate-planning documents.

The sixth is to have a plan. Even if it’s just on a pad, you can share it with your family, and the probability of achieving it is much greater.

Our mission at USAA is the financial security of the military community. I may not be able to get all six components, but if I can get somebody understanding one or two of them, and they start seeing the value, maybe they will start doing a little bit more. What we’re hoping is that five, 10, 15 years later, they’re going to be in a better position than they’re in today.

Is it ever too late to start a financial plan?

If you’re lost, it’s never too late to look at a map. So, financially, it’s never too late to look at some financial planning. I don’t mean a thick document that, when you’re done, looks like an encyclopedia. Write down a couple of your goals, and make a commitment to yourself and your family. It’s never too late to take small steps. As you take small steps, you grow stronger. That’s what we’re trying to do. We have free financial advice at USAA – online, or you can call us. Just like The American Legion trying to make the country stronger, we’re trying to help the military community become stronger. It’s not about the bottom line. It’s about helping.

What is USAA doing to help veterans find good jobs?

We have a commitment internally that 30 percent or more of our new hires will be veterans or the spouses of veterans. We hit that goal last year, and we’ll try to hit that goal again this year. Since 2006, we have hired over 9,150 veterans or spouses of veterans. We are walking the walk. What we have to do in corporate America is help transition them and take their skill sets and put them in appropriate places. We have been able to do that at USAA, and we have been very successful. Now what we want to do is reach out to other companies.

What can you show other companies about veterans employment?

We’ve learned some lessons. As an example, if you have someone who was a tank commander – and I don’t want to stereotype – that person would typically do really well in the claims department. Imagine that tank commander, transitioning. They’re going to adjust cars that were in car wrecks. They’re going to look at homes that were destroyed because of tornadoes. They’re going to get dirty. They’re going to get in there and help people. That is a beautiful transition. 

We’ve had great success bringing combat-arms individuals into the claims environment. Where is the right place for the veteran to go? We’ve had all these lessons learned. Now we’re sharing them with other companies. There was one company in particular, a national hotel company. They had no idea how to translate résumés from the military to civilian life. We helped them, and now that is one of their major initiatives, because they have had so much success with it. What I love about this is that companies reach out initially because they think they are going to help the veterans. What they find out is that it helps them. They are a better company, a stronger company, more profitable and higher-performing because they have veterans. That’s the switch we want to turn on. 

How do you see The American Legion and USAA working together to assist the new wave of transitioning veterans?

Both organizations are very aligned on values and on mission. We believe in serving the military community. That’s a great starting point. Second, we want to share what we are doing as a company. We’re not only hiring individuals, but we are helping to teach other companies. We are also trying to put in individual tool kits. That’s what The American Legion is doing, too, trying to give specific advice. We’re working together on checklists and calculators. What we can do is build awareness of what The American Legion is doing to help veterans. We want veterans to have access to the benefits from both of our organizations. 

USAA and The American Legion have chemistry. I think it’s because we care about the same things. When you look at the way we offer our products and services, we’re not doing it because we want to maximize our profits. We’re doing it as a service. When we see 100,000 Legionnaires becoming part of USAA over the last four years, we think that’s amazing success. But more importantly, it’s the retention – that same commitment to how we continue to serve. We love everything that The American Legion is doing for youth. I’ve been the beneficiary of some of The American Legion’s youth programs in my life. I think we all have. I was in the Oratorical contest when I was in high school.

And your Junior ROTC program was Legion-supported.

That’s right. What’s interesting is that, as a 15- or 16-year-old, you don’t really understand how that kind of sponsorship is affecting you. But then when you become an adult and look at your life, you see that those were very formative years. That sponsorship made a difference. It made a difference in who I am and how I progressed in my life. It helped me in the military. But now, as a CEO, that’s a huge skill set.

How do you see the Legion-USAA relationship evolving?

We’ve had amazing growth over the last four years, but we want a long-term relationship with The American Legion. We believe we have a kindred spirit. We want to help American Legion members. 

We are always going to have highly competitive rates. What I see in the future is more members of The American Legion seeing our value and knowing where we come from. We’re just trying to provide a suite of products that will help, and do it in the right way. If five years from now we can look back and say there are more American Legion members who are more financially secure today, and USAA was a part of that, that would be success. 

Jeff Stoffer is director of The American Legion Media & Communications Division.