EAST HARTFORD, Conn. -- Members of American Eagle Federal Credit Union may not have exchanged high fives when their financial institution hit the $1 billion mark about two years ago, but the board and CEO saw it as a landmark on a path that pinpoints growth as essential.
"I think our members are primarily concerned about the service and products we provide," said president/CEO William Dokas.
"It's obviously a great milestone, but we didn't really put up that much of a fanfare. From the employee standpoint we had some celebration. Obviously the board was well aware of it."
Dokas said he believes credit unions face a grow-or-else environment.
"Every credit union is challenged with continuing to grow," he said. "To remain successful, credit unions have to continue to grow to support their operating expenses. Over the past 10 to 20 years, many credit unions have merged or disappeared. We've gone from 14,000 credit unions to somewhere around 8,000.
"It's difficult for small credit unions to compete with the banking industry. Banks have merged, and they're benefiting from economies of scale. We basically have to operate with that same type of equation. We have to control our expenses and at the same time grow."
Credit unions have realized, he continued, that they need miscellaneous income from other sources besides interest margins such as fees. With margins being squeezed over the past five years or more, it's been difficult to operate on spread.
One step American Eagle has taken to promote expansion is a switch to a community charter covering three counties. The charter change only took place two years ago, and "we're progressing prudently," Dokas reported.
"We're getting some contacts, and we're building decent business. I think it's the right way to go, and we're still basically in the process of putting the program together."
Originally American Eagle was known as East Hartford Aircraft Federal Credit Union, serving employees of Pratt and Whitney Aircraft. In 1993, the credit union was still linked to a single sponsor, but the need for change was signaled when the parent company moved to downsize some of its business units. The credit union began wooing other select employee groups.
That continued from the mid-1990s until 2006. It then became evident a community charter was needed if the credit union was going to continue to thrive. The SEG strategy had proven very competitive as other credit unions pursued the same approach.
Even in the 1990s, most of American Eagle's branches were in the sponsor's plants. As employer downsizing took hold, the credit union realized it needed to build publicly accessible branches. The original strategy was to locate the branches in areas with high concentrations of members. With those branches opening, a community charter was obviously a good complement.
"The timing was good as far as how we positioned ourselves," Dokas said. "When we got our charter, publicly accessible branches were already in place."
It also didn't hurt that the local economy is doing fairly well.
"The economy here in Connecticut has changed a little bit," he noted. "There are a lot more service jobs than there were years ago, and there has been some out-migration of young people.
"Thirty years ago, Connecticut almost had a private economy compared to the rest of the country. It was very heavily focused on the defense industry, and also insurance and financial services. That has changed a little bit and made it somewhat more difficult to operate, but we still have a skilled, well-educated population. We're weathering the economy, although it's more challenging than it was."
In still another move, which took place last fall, American Eagle introduced business services. Dokas indicated that action was another step that fit nicely into the community charter concept.
While members may not have paid much attention when American Eagle joined the Billionaires Club, they have certainly seen headline after headline proclaiming the problems sparked by the subprime mortgage lending mess. But the credit union has avoided that pitfall.
"We're a conservative organization," Dokas noted. "We do have a residential mortgage lending program. We underwrite to Fannie Mae standards, and we lend with the best interests of the member in mind.
"In the subprime situation you had a different type of delivery mechanism. A lot of people were just getting walked over to a mortgage broker by a real estate agent and told they could afford a mortgage and were A-1. Two years later they were underwater with the loan-to-value ratio and hit when the interest on their variable-rate mortgage adjusted upward."
Dokas can readily trace events at American Eagle because he's been there 36 years. After graduating from the University of Hartford with a degree in economics and finance, he joined the credit union as part of a management training program. That meant shifting around from collections to bookkeeping and other departments to get hands-on knowledge of how things worked. He became president/CEO in 1990.
The expansion of American Eagle, he noted, has benefited from the regulatory transition that has allowed credit unions to broaden their menus and provide more services to members.
The credit union has also been modifying its management approaches.
"I think we're transitioning," Dokas said. "Being here for so many years I've seen a lot of change. We've grown from a little less than $100 million in the early 1970s to what we are now. I've been part of the transition where we went from a lot of hands-on to the need to delegate and have a solid management team at the top and in middle management."
When he isn't on the job, family-friendly pretty much defines the life Dokas leads. He and his wife have five daughters ranging in age from 10 to 27. He likes simply hanging out with his family, going out and doing things such as visiting a museum or taking in some other event.
He also enjoys golf and cooking on the weekends, although he admits he isn't that fond of cleaning up the kitchen.
"I feel very fortunate to have had a career with our credit union, and to have been given the opportunity work my way up through the ranks," Dokas said.
"I appreciate the opportunity that was given to me back in 1990, and I'm proud of our credit union and the success we've had. We're a somewhat conservative credit union that tries to do the right thing operationally and for the members. We've avoided any major setbacks, and we do our homework."
About American Eagle FCU
- Assets: $1.07 billion
- Members: 95,000
- Field of membership: Community charter.
- Originally founded to serve Pratt & Whitney
- Aircraft employees.
- Branches: 18
- Capital-to-asset ratio: 10.16%
- Loan portfolio: $666 million
- Employees: 253
About William Dokas
President/CEO since 1990
Married, five children
Graduate of University of Hartford