Tennessee CU CEO Feels Fortunate in Tough Times
But times are even tougher elsewhere, noted Caren Gabriel, president/CEO.
"If you look at our history, we had hardly any foreclosures at all. Houses are staying on the market longer, but probably not as long as other areas of the country. Home values have decreased, but again, not nearly at the rate in some other states."
Actually, "We feel fortunate," Gabriel declared.
That's true even though Ascend's mortgage, auto and RV loans have taken a hit this year. One bright spot is an increase in Ascend's Home Loan Payment Relief product, developed by CUNA to help borrowers with household incomes at or below median levels.
"It was designed before the whole economic downturn," Gabriel explained. This year, along with a significant $8,000 federal tax credit, it has helped first-time buyers get into homes.
That's important to Ascend, whose typical member has a lower average household income than the median in Tennessee and across the country. Ascend was formed in 1951 to serve employees of Arnold Air Force Base. Since then it has grown to $1.2 billion in assets serving more than 138,000 members from more than 800 companies forming 874 SEGs.
The numbers are impressive, but they also present a challenge. In order to grow, Ascend needs to add companies to its SEG roster. So far this year, the credit union has fallen short of its SEG growth projections. Goals for loan volume have also been challenged as members are saving instead of borrowing. The credit union holds its mortgages, and changing rate environments have made it difficult to compete.
On a positive note, last fall the credit union broke ground for a new 80,000-square-foot corporate headquarters building scheduled for completion in March 2010. In addition to attracting and retaining top people, the new facility is expected to improve service delivery in Ascend's branches. It's also expected to promote a healthier lifestyle for employees.
"We do have an exercise facility designed into this space," Gabriel said. "It will be accessible by employees before work, after work and on weekends. We have done some studies and surveys and tried to design it with the kind of equipment employees will use and enjoy.
"I recently had a presentation for employees who will be occupying that building. We're also hoping to eventually have some walking paths on the exterior of the building so employees can take a nice walk on their lunch or break."
Whether at the headquarters or a branch, when members travel throughout middle Tennessee the credit union wants them to easily spot an Ascend office. So in 2005 the credit union built a flagship branch introducing a consistent architectural style. All new and remodeled branches since then share the same elements-colors, signage, a rotunda and a high-tech interior.
"A member or potential member driving down the street will immediately recognize an Ascend financial center," Gabriel said.
Although electronic service delivery is important, "It may not be as popular as at some other credit unions that have a more urban membership. We have a lot of members who are in rural areas and don't have easy access to high-speed Internet. We have such a diverse membership that we have to be good at both (electronic and brick-and-mortar delivery)."
The credit union believes those members want a financial partner to help them recognize and raise financial possibilities. Ascend offers seminars that members can call into and work with a counselor.
"We're having a tremendous response-more than we've ever had," Gabriel noted.
One of the credit union's major goals is to attract young members. In addition to being active in local schools, within the past year the credit union has introduced Discover, Venture and Go accounts. Discover is designed for children 12 and younger, Venture for teens 15-17, and Go for young adults 18-24. Marketing is also aimed at parents and grandparents, encouraging them to in turn inspire their children and grandchildren to save at the credit union.
Gabriel, who joined Ascend in 1985 as executive vice president and general counsel, credits her credit union career path to "fate, relationships and a little good luck."
Her first job after graduating from the University of Tennessee, College of Law in Knoxville was as an attorney and labor relations administrator for Arnold Engineering Center at Arnold Air Force Base.
One day the CEO at Ascend called her. The credit union wanted to put an attorney on staff, and wondered if Gabriel would be interested in the job. At the time, the credit union had about $150 million in assets, and was on the cutting edge of a trend to hire in-house counsel.
"I came on as attorney and did a lot of things through the years," Gabriel explained. "Eventually we hired another attorney and I got away from the legal part."
When she's not working, Gabriel spends time with her family, including three children.
ABOUT ASCEND FEDERAL CREDIT UNION
Assets - $1.24 billion
Members - 138,306
Primary sponsor and SEGs - Occupational-based credit union serving 874 SEGs
Loan portfolio - $787.4 million
Employees - 343
ABOUT CAREN GABRIEL
Married, 3 children
B.S. from University of Alabama; J.D. from University of Tennessee.
President/CEO since 2004