As avid a University of Alabama sports fan Caren Gabriel, president/CEO of Tullahoma, Tenn.-based Ascend Federal Credit Union may be, being a sports agent/attorney will just have to wait for her next life because she has found her true calling with credit unions.
“My father always told me to work hard every day and never be satisfied with the status quo. Theodore Roosevelt said ‘Far and away, the best prize that life offers is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.’ It’s these philosophies that I have built into my career,” said Gabriel. “I, and the rest of the team here, always want to improve. Determine how we can do a better job. As a result, I have been incredibly fortunate to excel in a job that I enjoy immensely. And at the end of the day, I believe the work I perform positively impacts credit union employees and members alike.”
Gabriel has been selected as a Woman to Watch by Credit Union Times. Her career at Ascend began when she was recruited in 1985 by Jimmie Bearden, former longtime CEO of what was then called AEDC Federal Credit Union, to be a staff attorney. She later became the credit union’s executive vice president and general counsel and in 2004 was named president/CEO.
“At the time there were very few in-house attorneys at a credit union,” said Gabriel. “My CEO mentioned that the board was interested in a succession plan and she began to introduce me to other areas beyond legal.”
A believer in the value of mentorship, Gabriel said young professionals should be willing to seek out mentors from across all industries, disciplines and departments.
“Ask yourself what do you aspire to in your career? Is there someone in your workplace who epitomizes success to you,” said Gabriel on how to find a mentor. “Model yourself after that individual. Get to know him or her. I believe young professionals shouldn’t be afraid to take the initiative and develop these types of relationships. People are usually willing to share advice, but you have to seek out the right individual for your particular situation.”
At the over $1.6 billion credit union Gabriel has fostered a collaborative environment where employees across the organization feel comfortable to share everything from ideas to feedback.
“I surround myself with really good people and give them the opportunity to tell me what they think,” said Gabriel. “In today’s complex environment, it's impossible for one person to know it all. So you have to not only surround yourself with smart people but listen to what they have to say and keep those lines of communication open.”
Following an employee survey in 2011, Gabriel created an initiative called CEO 101 in which she met with the staff of each department and financial center. During these informal sessions, she answered questions about her role at the credit union and addressed employee concerns on a wide range of topics. To achieve the best results from her team Gabriel often presents the challenge—whether it’s a request for a new service or a change in procedure—and provides all the relevant data to the team. She then steps back and allows the staffers to do their jobs.
She added that trust and transparency has also helped with board relations.
“I’ve been lucky to have a good relationship with our board and I think that’s because we’ve always had honest, upfront communication,” said Gabriel. “Whatever the challenge or opportunity–whether good or bad news, details are communicated with the board in a timely manner. They always know and understand what’s coming down the pike so they don’t ever feel blindsided. I also think giving other members of the senior staff interaction with the board also provides a comfort level that it’s not just one person moving things along but an entire team and the credit union is in good hands.”
During the ongoing recession and increased federal regulatory changes, communication has played a major role in allaying member fears, ensuring member perception of the credit union as a stable resource for financial products and services, and the team at Ascend has been making the most of growth opportunities presented by the economic conditions.
“Change takes tenacity. You can’t give up easily,” said Gabriel. “We were doing quite well with a high capital level, good ratings but we had become a bit complacent so we began an aggressive building program, changed our name. You have to keep trying to push yourself, your organization to keep reaching for that next level.”
To that end education and training has been key. A branch management trainee program was created as a proactive way to identify, prepare, and promote deserving individuals from within. In addition, enhanced training efforts focus on sales/service, team building and communication skills as a way to help employees continue to evolve both personally and professionally while delivering better member experiences.
So far it’s working. The credit union plans its eighth consecutive member return in November, giving back $5 million to members in the form of bonus dividends and loan interest refunds. This brings the total member return to $44 million. And almost $360 million in new loans were added in 2011 resulting in a 0.57% net gain to the total loan portfolio. Under her leadership The Nature Conservancy was added to Ascend FCU’s field of membership, which generated a tremendous ongoing opportunity for potential membership growth.
“At the end of the day, knowing what you do at work matters and you have made someone’s life better, whether member or employee, because of decisions you’ve made is both rewarding and challenging,” said Gabriel. “I’m proud of my team at Ascend. I’m also proud to be part of the bigger credit union mission of people helping people. I try to make the best decisions possible to move my credit union forward while staying within the economic and regulatory parameters of today’s financial world. Succeeding is quite a bit harder than it used to be.”
Looking ahead, Gabriel added in terms of relevance, the industry as a whole needs to pay attention to technology as far as what members need, particularly ways to deliver greater convenience through the mobile channel.
“Technology changes so quickly, but it’s important that our industry keep pace and position ourselves as being a lead provider of solutions that enhance member convenience while maintaining stringent levels of security. Some pockets of the industry focus on areas that may not be as important at the moment. For example, the national branding issue is not at the top of my list but it may be for others,” said Gabriel. “I think today’s regulatory environment is an unbelievable challenge for the industry as a whole. We must develop and maintain viable revenue streams to protect the stability of credit unions. And, we must attract a younger demographic to ensure access to future borrowers. These are just a few of the more immediate concerns facing all credit unions.”
She said while the past few years have not changed the definition of leadership, it does demand perhaps a steadier hand.
“You definitely have to step up your game and I do think it goes back to hard work,” said Gabriel. “As a leader it’s important to show others you are willing to work as hard as they are and you are there to support them.”