A little more than 30 days in and Sheilah Montgomery understands that she came in under extraordinary circumstances as the new president/CEO of the Credit Union of Atlanta.
Montgomery took the helm March 3 after serving 21 years as the president/CEO of 1st Choice Credit Union, also based in Atlanta, literally 15 minutes away from the building she is currently working in.
“I would like to be able to go in and nurture and expand on what I believe is a great job they are already doing–serving those of modest means,” Montgomery said.
It was in July 2010 that DeFarra Gaymon, known as Dean, CUA’s president/CEO at the time, was fatally shot and killed by a New Jersey undercover sheriff detective in a Newark park. Gaymon was in town for a high school class reunion. The death is still under investigation and a grand jury is scheduled to hear the case by May, according to the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office.
CUA tapped one of its senior executives as interim chief while a search was conducted to find a permanent CEO. Montgomery, a fixture in the Atlanta credit union movement, was very familiar with CUA, having worked there as a vice president from 1988 to 1990. In fact, it was shortly after she was instrumental in picking the current building CUA is housed in, including the furniture, that Montgomery took the position at 1st Choice.
Montgomery said she received a call from her former CUA boss asking if she would be interested in throwing her name in the hat for the CEO position. After talking with him about what the board was looking for, some deliberation and prayer, she accepted. The credit union interviewed at least a dozen candidates, both internally and outside CUA. Ultimately, the board decided on Montgomery. She likes to believe it was her 35-year financial services track record that gave her the edge. But leaving 1st Choice was not an easy move.
“For all practical purposes, that was the best job I ever had. The credit union is really on autopilot. I really didn’t have to worry about its financial condition. It’s as solid as a rock,” Montgomery said. “That made my transition easier.”
What made the move even smoother was she knew many of CUA’s senior team and board of directors. That familiarity helped when the executive team met off-site for strategic planning sessions shortly after Montgomery’s arrival. She walked in with a four-point agenda on the credit union’s direction but listened to candid feedback on what management liked and didn’t like about the cooperative.
One of Montgomery’s four initiatives is embracing technology. A growing segment of the population is opting to do its banking outside of the traditional branch walk-ins, she said. “There is this myth that inner city and lower income members don’t have the capacity to engage in technology. I don’t buy into that.”
Montgomery would also like to see the credit union form more relationships with young people from infants to age 35. As a starter, discussions are under way to form councils made up of kids, teenagers and young adults to pick their brains on the types of services and products they want and need.
“All of us on the management team are 40 and older. We don’t know how to reach them. We can’t tell them what to do. They have to tell us,” Montgomery acknowledged.
She also wants to start monthly savings club meetings and campaigns to let bank customers know there is a credit union alternative. Plans are also on the table to empower small businesses including how to have a good relationship with their financial institution, building leverage and forming partnerships. Montgomery said since lenders have stopped lending over the past couple years it is critical to give those firms assistance. As a community development financial institution, CUA can apply for grants to help with technical and other forms of support.
“Small businesses will bring you all these beautifully written business plans, but when you ask them about capital, they don’t know how to answer,” Montgomery said. “We want to teach them how to manage their money. We’ll be more hands-on than banks.”
Under her watch, Montgomery also wants to expand CUA’s footprint in the community through partnerships. The credit union currently has five churches in its membership and wants to expand that alliance by 50% by the end of the year. At the time of the interview, Montgomery was at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, the largest in the world, to see if CUA could have ATMs installed there. Through the partnerships, she hopes to start financial literacy programs in a way that participants will motivate each other to stay on track with their goals.
Montgomery is confident in her new role partly because 1st Choice and CUA’s models mirror each other in the way that they serve people of modest means. Still, she is excited about the possibilities given CUA’s larger size. The $20 million 1st Choice serves 8,200 members and has 10 employees while the $60 million CUA has 18,000 members and 42 employees. While both are CDFIs and there is some field of membership overlap, Montgomery said each cooperative has loyalty ties. Seventy percent of 1st Choice members are Grady Hospital employees. CUA still has a large following with city employees.
Gaymon’s legacy can still be seen and felt at CUA. In August 2010, a third branch re-opened offering new account, investments, loan services, an ATM and call center to serve a large senior citizen member base in the area. It was one of Gaymon’s last projects. Montgomery said she knew him, collaborated with him on ideas and watched how he moved the credit union in new directions. She conveyed those memories during one of the strategic sessions.
“The first thing I let them know was I loved Dean as much as they did, and I wasn’t trying to replace him,” she recalled saying. “For the first 60 days, I told them I’m not going to change anything. I will listen and learn. I want them to understand that not only are we in this for the long run but we’re in it together.”