Pen Air Federal Credit Union Takes to the Skies With Honor Flights to D.C. for WW II Veterans
It seems only natural that veterans who slogged ashore in Normandy or Iwo Jima or flew over Berlin and Tokyo on bombing raids should have a chance to see the World War II memorial in Washington, D.C.
It also seems fitting that Pensacola, Fla.-based Pen Air Federal Credit Union, with its roots serving the military, is helping them get there.
The credit union has become a platinum sponsor of the Emerald Coast Honor Flight, which flies veterans to Washington to visit the memorials that pay tribute to their service. Last fall, 102 veterans from northwest Florida boarded the fifth such charter flight from Pensacola Gulf Coast Regional Airport. Though their escorts paid to travel, the veterans were able to fly at no cost.
"It was a great experience," Pen Air President/CEO Ron Fields said. "Once we found out about this initiative, which was started in Florida by our Congressman Jeff Miller (R), we jumped on board and wanted to be part of it."
Field said his credit union has sponsored three golf tournaments to raise money for the Honor Flight. In April 2009, he paid his own way and went through two days of training to become a guardian for three veterans. Pen Air sponsored a flight last October, and Field hopes to raise enough money to do it again this fall.
Pen Air has a good reason for getting involved with the Honor Flight-it was established in 1936 to serve military and Civil Service employees assigned to bases in the Pensacola area. Today, Fields said, it's SEG-based, with 16 branches across northwest Florida and southeast Alabama and an economically diverse membership that ranges from minimum wage earners to highly paid professionals.
Pen Air has earned a Bauer five-star rating for 76 quarters, and last year reached $1 billion in assets. But despite these accomplishments, fallout from corporate credit union problems has been a challenge. The credit union has tried to explain to members that it is simply a member of the corporate system, but when people hear the word "failure," it can diminish their trust.
The solution seems to be continuing to stress that credit union members haven't lost a penny in insured funds, and that credit unions themselves-not taxpayers-refunded the corporates.
In spite of the obstacles, Fields remains upbeat.
"We will look back on this year and say, 'Pen Air was financially strong before the deep recession and weathered the storm,'" he said.
Fields attributes the credit union's durability to its conservative approach.
"We make good lending decisions," he said. "We have a strong underwriting department and we're pretty stringent on loan requirements."
But Pen Air is not afraid to take calculated chances. For example, it didn't shy away from joining with Navy Federal Credit Union and Superior Bank last year to provide a loan for a new Pensacola beach hotel. The credit unions each provided $10 million, and Superior Bank provided $18 million.
At first glance, the loan would seem somewhat risky considering the currently high vacancy rates at many Florida hotels and motels.
"Yes, we're conservative," Fields said, "But we felt positively about the developer/owner of this new hotel, who has two other properties on the beach."
Construction on the building has already reached four floors, and the hotel should welcome its first guests in about a year. Considered a drive-to rather than a fly-to destination, Pensacola is within a reasonable drive of Atlanta, New Orleans and much of Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee, making it attractive to vacationing families on a budget.
Speaking of location, Pensacola and the rest of the Panhandle are no strangers to hurricanes. The Pensacola area was affected by Hurricane Ivan in 2004 and Hurricane Dennis in 2005. So last July, the Florida Credit Union League asked Pen Air to host a conference about how to plan for dealing with disaster.
"We have a portable generator on a trailer that we can take around to branches that have lost power," Fields said. "The other credit unions were really interested in how we do things like that."
In addition to teaching other credit unions how to prepare for crisis, Pen Air doesn't hesitate to lend a hand when crisis actually strikes.
"We have what we call a buddy system involving credit unions in Florida, Alabama and Mississippi," Fields said. "In case of disaster other credit unions will provide whatever they can whether it's people, generators, supplies, cash or whatever."
When Katrina destroyed a branch of Biloxi, Miss.-based Keesler Federal Credit Union in 2005, Pen Air pitched in by loaning Keesler a motor home equipped as a credit union office and letting Keesler set up a call center at Pen Air.
For Pen Air, helping other credit unions is a recurring theme.
"We're losing about a credit union a day to mergers, insolvency, things like that," Fields said. "We are very interested in trying to assist smaller credit unions that need help."
For example, Fields said, about four years ago the credit union sent its vice president of lending to a small credit union to help set up its mortgage loan program.
"If we want to see credit unions survive, it really doesn't help the American people to lose 150 credit unions a year," Fields said. "It's not good for our community, it's not good for our members, and it's not good for credit unions nationwide."
Fields graduated with a B.S. in economics from Jacksonville State University in Alabama, and but for a brief time with a finance company has spent virtually all his 30-year career in credit unions. He came to Pen Air as CFO in 2001 and became CEO in 2008. He's married and has three grown children, two daughters and a son.
During the week when he's not in the office, he's often at chamber of commerce events. He likes to spend weekends outdoors fishing or hunting. He recently traveled to Colorado with a group to hunt elk.