Trailblazer 40 Below: Fernandez Takes Career Path Less Traveled
“I never thought I’d be in the financial sector. In college, I had interned at IBM and Citibank on IT/financial matters but studied to be an electrical engineer and moved to California,” said Fernandez, who is vice president of IT/remittances at the Bronx, N.Y.-based credit union. “I left California after 9/11 to go back home to the Bronx because I wanted to give back to my community. At the time, I thought the credit union was a good way to do that until I found a real job. I mean an electrical engineer, credit union. It just seemed incompatible. But I learned so much and being able to do everything possible to help meet member expectations, develop and deliver solutions that make a difference in members lives, I knew this was where I wanted to be full time.”
A natural curiosity for figuring out how things work has helped Fernandez to constantly look for opportunities to help the over $25 million credit union function like a $50 million institution.
“One key question every credit union, large or small, needs to be asking themselves is how do they stay relevant with their members and employees?” said Fernandez. “How can we do that? If you don’t have a strong bond with your members, a better rate has them going somewhere else. We have to be mindful of a changing environment and focus on how do I help the members solve their issues? Don’t shy away from the issues. At the end of day that’s what it’s all about, staying relevant by really being in tune with our field membership and that may take challenging ourselves in new ways or even new partnerships to make real change.”
Some of the many advancements of delivering more value have included the implementation of a state-of-the-art Check 21 system that has helped the credit union prevent nonsufficient funds checks. The remittance program, which accounts for one-third of Bethex FCU’s income, was based on a first-of-its-kind remitter compliance program created by Fernandez when Bethex became the first credit union in the country to serve money service businesses. He also developed a spreadsheet application that monitors MSB account holders and supports the billing process for each account. He has been the credit union’s point person in negotiating new MSB accounts and providing the account holders with quality customer service.
He currently heads four staff members who manage day-to-day business operations for some 60 MSB accounts, which continues to grow. In 2011, Bethex’s fee income grew to $1.95 million, an increase of 47% over 2010 and 83% over 2009. Fee income from MSBs accounted for 41% of the total.
As in all small credit unions, Fernandez plays many roles, in addition to his expertise in computer technology, he has become a certified anti-money laundering specialist and serves as treasurer and compliance specialist.
“With limited staff, one employee wearing 20 different hats is a way of living especially at small credit unions,” said Fernandez. “I’m a multitasker so it’s something I enjoy. To me, innovation has to be defined as the ability to bring new products, services and technology to the membership without adding additional cost to their use as far as member adoption. Sometimes at smaller credit unions when you have just one or two folks doing the bulk of the day-to-day work, thinking about and launching innovative solutions can look insurmountable. But we’ve got to overcome the fear of the workload and possible failure. It’s really an opportunity for us to be creative.”
To Fernandez, there are no obstacles that can’t be breached. There is always a workaround. It’s just a matter of finding it and that means getting input and buy in from staffers.
“New technology is not always well-accepted, and my goal with any solution has been to involve the employees and get them as much information as I can, so they too have a vested interest in how to move from A to B,” said Fernandez. “When I was in school, the professors kept telling us that getting the solution is not the goal. It’s great to have that, but the process of how things work, how you got there matters. So it’s a multiple stage solution of knowing where you’re headed and how to get there in the most efficient way by making it a team effort.”
He added that it may be time to rethink the competition.
“I think all financial institutions have a place in the marketplace, the members we serve are not typically served by the banks, so I think the challenge with competition is to overcome the competition in our mind first. It’s almost a mental state where in general we’re so reactive to the marketplace that we miss an opportunity to concentrate on the membership, look at how we can serve them in a way that they are not being served by the completion. Or focusing on ways we can become more relevant and create a bigger bond rather than looking at what the competition is doing. Our competition isn’t the banks or even other credit unions. It’s ourselves. We should be figuring out new ways to work as a team to provide unique solutions tailored for the members.”
A regular contributor to the We Care initiative that provides local community development credit unions with much needed volunteer resources, Fernandez lives for collaboration. When We Care donated a server and printer to Transfiguration Parish FCU he was on hand to set up the credit union’s computer system. A small faith-based credit union participating in We Care that was on the brink of insolvency, Fernandez teamed up with another volunteer from the network and wrote up a complicated bond claim free of charge. He said it’s been those opportunities to help make a difference everyday whether in members’ lives, staffers or other credit unions that keeps him excited about being a part of the industry.
Along those lines Fernandez said it’s past time to develop a national succinct, easily grasped national identification for credit unions.
“One of the challenges credit unions have had is being able to define ourselves in the larger picture,” he said. “It’s important to better define ourselves in terms of communicating what we do on a national level that resonates with members and nonmembers alike. Think of what has happened in the last five years and when I think about what could happen in the future, this is the time for credit unions. We have the potential to make this change and educate the public about what we are and how we can better serve them.”
While wildly optimistic about the good credit unions do looking ahead, it’s remaining relevant that he said will be the industry’s greatest challenge.
“When I was about to graduate in 1994, I got a Mac. Apple was going bankrupt and everyone had written them off. But look where they are now. Serve the member, stay relevant and significant,” said Fernandez. “I had a professor who told me don’t concentrate on the grade, just learn the materials, and the grade will come from your understanding of what you’ve learned. We can’t just focus on the competition or even on just making a profit. If we as an industry can concentrate on making members’ lives better or provide a service they didn’t think they could obtain, the income aspect will fall into place. We’ve got to keep being persistent in exploring the options, trying new approaches to common issues and it’s something I try to live.”