For a guy who serves as CEO for three Southern California credit unions CalCom Federal Credit Union, City of Down Federal Credit Union and Mattel Federal Credit Union Jon Hernandez appears anything but frazzled. Neatly separated stacks of papers line one side of his desk in his office at the El Segundo-based $28 million Mattel FCU’s headquarters, and like many busy CEOs, he relies on a color-coded desktop calendar and an hour-by-hour schedule in his BlackBerry to stay organized. During a 45-minute meeting, he was all laughs and smiles, perhaps inspired by the collection of toy vehicles that sits on a table behind his desk. The credit union serves Mattel employees, after all.
Hernandez began his credit union career as a teller for Mattel FCU in 1990 at age 19. After six months, he became a supervisor, and in 1996, he left Mattel to serve as CEO for the $58 million CalCom FCU in Torrance. Upon completing his finance degree in 2000, Hernandez abandoned his original plan of becoming a stockbroker and pursued a career in credit union management, obtaining graduate degrees through CUES and the CUNA Management School.
Later, the CEO of the former Copley FCU asked Hernandez for assistance when he fell ill, and eventually hired him as his replacement. Then, City of Downey FCU, which has $7 million in assets, called on Hernandez to assist their interim CEO as it conducted a new CEO search. The credit union consequently hired him as its CEO in 2003 after he successfully led several board meetings. City of Downey then merged Copley, leaving Hernandez as CEO for two credit unions, City of Downey and CalCom. Finally, in 2004, Mattel asked him to return to his original workplace and serve as CEO.
In addition to juggling all three jobs, he’s served on numerous boards and committees, plus spearheaded the Southern California Credit Union Alliance (SCCUA), which provides a collaborative forum for credit unions in the region.
Despite his hectic schedule, Hernandez took some time to discuss small credit union challenges, the importance of collaboration and how he pulls off managing three credit unions at the same time.
Credit Union Times: When you started out as a teller for Mattel, was there an aha moment that made you realize you wanted a career in credit unions?
Hernandez: I was working at a bank, and the chairman of Mattel was making deposits at the bank, and he told me there was an opening there for 25 cents more an hour. I was 19 years old, so that was a lot of money, right? Anyway, I was working at a bank because I thought it would lead me to becoming a stockbroker and maybe an investment banker in the future. Then I had a baby when I was 26, and that kind of changed my perspective. As a teller for a small credit union, I felt like I was part of the process of some of these people’s lives. I was helping people, at one point with wedding expenses, and then baby expenses and then school expenses because in that short a period, six years, all those life stages were happening, and they were consistent with what was happening to me. It’s not my money I’m loaning out, but I’m able to help them through that process. And surprisingly, there are a lot of people, as smart as they are, who don’t look at their finances or have a plan, and I felt like that was kind of my role. But I really didn’t make a final decision until I finished college. I was going through school and raising a family all at the same time, and when I graduated, I was already 30 years old, and I was at a fork. And I said, I really like what I do.
CUTimes: And did it seem that helping people through their life stages was more in line with a credit union’s philosophy than a bank’s?
Hernandez: Without a doubt, because as I’m getting older, I’m understanding more how things operate, not just with credit unions, but with banks. And it felt that with banks, people can’t just walk in there and apply for a loan. Granted, at credit unions, there are those moments where you have to deny the loan, but you don’t let that stop you because the reward for the others makes up for all that.
CUTimes: As CEO for three credit unions, what does your typical week look like and how do you manage your time?
Hernandez: Technically, I work just like everybody does, 9 to 5, or 9:30 to 5:30, believe it or not. But I do work at home, I’m not going to lie. I can’t get in the office any earlier because I drop off my daughter at school every day, and that’s an hour and 15 minutes away, so I get in the office around 9, 9:30. I only set up meetings between 10 and 3, and I keep my meetings to 30 minutes as much as possible. And then I leave the office around 5:30 or 6. But I do work at home, maybe one to two hours, it depends on if there’s anything due, but to be honest, sometimes just sitting and thinking is working for me. You know, my long drive of an hour and 15 minutes both ways, most people would probably have an issue with that, but I actually use that time as my alone time. I use it to reflect and think and strategize, and during that drive, I’ve developed a lot of things.
CUTimes: How do you separate your tasks for each credit union? Do they overlap sometimes?
Hernandez: Schedule-wise, I’m usually at CalCom Monday and Friday, I’m here Tuesday and Wednesday, and then I’m at City of Downey Thursday. I chose certain days because of when my board meetings are held. Friday’s my floating day. This Friday I’m playing golf, but I’m playing with CEOs, so I’m still working I guess. Are there overlaps? Yes, an example of that is when there’s an initiative that we’re working on, or even a regulatory issue that we’re facing, all credit unions for the most part will be subject to it. Or an initiative, if it’s a good thing and all three credit unions can benefit from it, why not do it? The challenge is, everything happens in three for me. So the corporate capital write-off that we’re all experiencing, I have to do that three times. It’s the same thing with NCUSIF assessments, examinations, audits and 5300s. But it’s all part of the deal, and you just deal with it. I don’t spend too much time dwelling and complaining about things, I’d rather focus on how I can handle it. The energy you waste on complaining is not productive.
CUTimes: What’s been your hardest year? Was it the first year after you became CEO for Mattel?
Hernandez: It was the hardest year, but it was the most exciting as well. And I think I was lucky in the sense that it happened before the financial crisis. In 2004, if you remember, that’s when it appeared that things were really good for all of us. So I opened up a branch for City of Downey, I opened up a branch in New York for Mattel, and then I had a plan to open up another branch in Middleton, Wis., for Mattel, because Mattel owns Fisher Price in New York and American Girl in Middleton. So I had all that planned out and was ready to rock, and simultaneously I opened up a branch at Downey. That year, 2004, and 2005 were probably the busiest years for me. And I think what was different was that there wasn’t a pattern to follow. We were open to doing what we needed to do to make it happen, as far as the three credit unions working simultaneously. The most important thing is having the right attitude. Whatever challenges there may be, we just have to face them and figure out how to deal with them. In 2005, we had two simultaneous mergers, and then the same year we had a relocation, and this is all just at CalCom. We had so much going on. It was fun, but it was a lot of work. And then the financial crisis hit in 2008.
CUTimes: When did you notice the effects of the financial crisis?
Hernandez: Well, we could sort of see it happening already, and so my reaction to that was SCCUA. In September, when it actually hit the news, I started gathering people, and the earliest I could schedule a meeting was in December. So the first meeting of SCCUA was in December, and the funny thing is, I got this room, it was relatively decent sized, and I didn’t expect more than 20 people to arrive. But I think there were about 50 people there, so we were pressed against the wall. We wanted to do an open forum in a rectangle because my thought was I just wanted to know what people were planning to do. I really had no answer, but I was the cheerleader to get everybody together. I just knew that if we worked together and maybe combined our resources, it would give us a fighting chance.
CUTimes: So you had a lot of people on board with SCCUA from the beginning?
Hernandez: Yeah, I called 12 people, my close peers, right away and said, I think we need to get together. See, I don’t pose a threat to any of my peers because I’m usually the smallest credit union in my group. There were a couple of things we started with SCCUA, and some people have asked what they have to do with collaboration. But I think people forget that collaboration works because you trust the other person. We started our Credit Union Olympics staff training program, which is a way to get people together, and when they do things together, things are easier to accept. And it’s not so much about the initial expense or savings, it’s more about the future plan that we have, which is to do more things in the office together, and that will hopefully reduce expenses. Not necessarily to eliminate the jobs that current employees have, but as we expand our footprint, perhaps we can do it in a more inexpensive way. Maybe we can open up a branch and share it with eight different credit unions. I’ve always had this vision of an octagon.
CUTimes: You’ve said your future plans include opening an ice cream shop. Is that still the case?
Hernandez: It is. I used to think about opening a flower shop, but then I realized flowers are used for funerals, so there would be some sad moments there. But with an ice cream shop, people could be fighting when they walk in, but when they walk out... How could you be upset coming out of an ice cream shop? You just can’t. I went to Florence, Italy, in November, and my daughter and I ate gelato in November, when it was freezing. Why? Because it makes you feel good.