BUENA PARK, Calif. -- New CEOs expect a learning curve when it comes to new fields of membership, but do CEOs with backgrounds that match their FOMs have an advantage over their peers?
Mark Swenson, board chairman for $31 million California Agribusiness Credit Union, believes they do. A few years ago, the credit union's newly hired CEO experienced a change of heart, and left for another job closer to home--an important quality of life issue in grid-locked Southern California.
Rather than call back other top candidates, Swenson gave Adam Denbo, whose resume didn't arrive in time to be considered the first time around, a call instead. Swenson had filed it away for future consideration; not because of Denbo's master's in international finance, but because he had an undergraduate degree in Agriculture from California State Polytechnic University.
Denbo has served as his CEO since mid-2005.
"Definitely, his agricultural background was key for us," Swenson said.
Swenson is vice president of operations finance for Brea, Calif.-based Ventura Foods, a major processor of private and brand label salad dressings, oils, and mayonnaise.
He said the board was looking for a CEO who could strengthen bonds with SEGs, and Denbo's ag-based education and early career path trumped the fact that he hadn't yet run his own credit union.
"In our first annual meeting with him as CEO, he did his talk in English, and then immediately did it again in Spanish, and really brought the house down," Swenson recalled.
Denbo agreed his agricultural background makes his job a little easier.
"It helps with camaraderie, like at dinner after the board meeting, to be able to share an understanding of what they're talking about," Denbo said.
Community relations activities also allow Denbo to get involved with agricultural projects, like CalAg's recent $1,000 donation to Amy's Farm, a cutting-edge urban farm located within the greater Los Angeles metro area.
"It's rewarding to have a job that justifies not just one of my degrees, but both," he said.
In the Navy
Before Cutler Dawson took over as President/CEO of $33 billion Navy Federal Credit Union, he served 34 years in the Navy himself, rising to the prestigious rank of vice admiral. Along the way, he earned a master's degree in financial management, and not only served as principal advisor to the chief of Naval operations to develop the Navy's $100 billion annual budget, he also landed the job of selling it to Congress.
Dawson took a unique path to Navy Federal's corner office, having first served as a one of the credit union's volunteers intermittently from 1994 to 2003. Most Navy Fed volunteers are active-duty military, and like Dawson, their terms are interrupted every few years to lead a ship or fleet out to sea, or to accept a temporary transfer to another naval installation.
"The whole time I was on the board, back and forth, I never thought once about coming to Navy Federal to work," he said.
But when former credit union CEO Brian McDonnell announced his retirement around the same time Dawson did, board members asked Dawson to consider the job. The career military man discussed the decision with his wife, and the couple agreed the opportunity was like a perfect fit for his post-military career.
"Having spent 34 years in the Navy, this position allows me to continue my ties with sailors, marines and their families," Dawson said. "It's in a different capacity, but the tie is still there."
Dawson said his new credit union career is particularly rewarding when he mingles with enlisted men and women as a retired officer, not credit union CEO, and hears members candidly expressing their satisfaction with, and loyalty, to Navy Fed. Separating wants from needs is a growing up process for young adults, and for many new military recruits, it's their first crack at money management. Dawson said the Navy Federal job has also given him a unique opportunity to continue his work looking out for sailors and marines; not just educating young enlistees about money management, but also being there to help pick up the pieces after a hard-learned lessons about payday lenders and debt obligation.
"Payday lenders don't mess with me," he said, noting he's already gone toe-to-toe with abusive payday lenders who have preyed on his charges.
Dawson said he also enjoys using his reputation on Capitol Hill to help out the credit union cause.
"I was just recently appointed to be on the President's financial literacy council, the only credit union person," Dawson said, "and I think they were probably intrigued with my double background. It does get me places."
Dawson also recalled when he testified before the House Ways and Means Committee in 2005, his nametag didn't say Cutler, which he goes by in credit union circles. Instead, it read: Admiral Dawson.
"And, I could relate to them how credit union tax exemption directly helped men and women in military, which they're always mindful of," he said.