Stuart Russell – Truliant Federal Credit Union
To some people, the main difference between a bank and a credit union is simple. A bank is usually a for-profit organization responsible for delivering results to its owner or shareholders. A credit union is a not-for-profit financial cooperative committed to serving the financial needs of its members.
As the general counsel for Truliant Federal Credit Union—a $5 billion financial institution with more than 323,000 members—Stuart Russell plays a crucial part in various legal aspects of the organization’s operations. That includes financial, real estate and regulatory matters, which Russell tackles by leveraging his years of legal experience litigating and advising on cases across the financial industry.
Truliant Federal Credit Union has served its members in North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia and beyond for over 70 years and recently added three new branches to its network.
“We have more than 35 branches now, and we’re excited to continue to grow and serve even more people throughout the Carolinas and Virginia,” Russell says.
Growing the credit union’s footprint
On the real estate front, Russell is actively involved in numerous activities, including the acquisition stage. He negotiates purchase contracts and conducts due diligence on properties that Truliant is interested in acquiring. Additionally, Russell oversees significant projects involving properties owned by the credit union, ensuring that necessary work is being completed.
Recent projects include advising on contracts for a project to place signage on a 30-story skyscraper in downtown Winston-Salem and contracts for the company’s new operations center in a former three-story Macy’s that the credit union renovated through a major adaptive reuse project.
Lease agreements also fall under Stuart’s purview, as he helps strike deals and negotiate lease renewals. Russell also addresses real property issues related to different branch locations.
“I’m the only in-house lawyer, but I have support from a paralegal and an excellent assistant,” he says. “We work with many outside real estate and construction lawyers and corporate M&A attorneys on various projects.”
Apart from real estate matters, Russell’s daily work involves issues that arise at branches that ultimately make their way to him. With many contracts, questions and other issues popping up at different times of the day, he must juggle and prioritize his tasks and delegate responsibilities where necessary.
Russell also oversees and collaborates with the vendor management department. Together, they work on updating software to make managing contracts easier.
Security and other improvements
Although Truliant Federal Credit Union has a highly progressive management team, the regulatory field puts up roadblocks, putting the brakes on some upgrades the credit union wants to make.
Russell’s role as a general counsel involves attending senior management meetings regularly to understand better the company’s general goals and the new regulations the credit union must follow to get to where it wants to be. As a part of the legal team, he is receptive to updating the credit union’s processes and making them more current, but he is mindful of the tightly regulated industry.
The financial industry is often a target of hackers and other bad actors. Russell works closely with the credit union’s information security and IT teams on data and tech-intensive contracts. As a financial institution dealing with sensitive member information, Truliant greatly protects its data. Russell ensures that contracts with vendors who handle sensitive information contain necessary provisions to safeguard the credit union. He emphasizes the importance of identifying risks and outlining responsibilities clearly within contracts.
“Our info tech and cyber groups are very good at staying ahead of things, and it’s my role to ensure the agreements they reach with vendors protect the credit union and our members,” he says. “With vendors, we need to know where the information is going, how it will be stored and who will be able to access it.”
Gaining new legal skills
As a general counsel for a growing financial institution, Russell says he is paid to solve complex problems with creativity and to ensure that any agreements struck by the credit union are in the best interest of its members.
“I enjoy our contract negotiations and particularly balancing the numerous variables and stakeholders’ concerns that each negotiation presents,” he says.
Russell earned a degree in political science and public policy and a J.D. from Duke University. He says that his early law school days reminded him of ninth-grade geometry.
“A good legal argument is like a geometric proof. If it is structured properly and presented correctly, it is impossible to disagree with it,” he says.
After dedicating about 17 years to Wilson & Helms, Stuart Russell embarked on a new chapter by joining Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough as a partner, along with his colleagues from Wilson & Helms. During his nearly five-year tenure at Nelson Mullins, Russell continued to thrive on the litigation side, relishing complex negotiations and accumulating valuable experience representing clients across the financial spectrum.
After many years of working cases involving check fraud, loan renewals, good faith dealings, and more, Russell decided to expand his skills beyond commercial litigation. He found that opportunity with Truliant in May 2022 and was promoted to his current role in June 2023.
“I learn new things every day, and once I started working here, I learned quickly how much I enjoyed the credit union part of finance,” Russell says. “I also like how being an in-house attorney allows me to have a more active role in determining the organization’s future.”
View this feature in the Vanguard Winter II 2024 Edition here.
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