Trailblazer Award: Fairfax County CEO Takes Fire Lessons Beyond the Flames
On a humid summer day when roofers are using blow torches to seal in black tar, at the most, a few employees working in that building may grumble about the smell or the noise.
But at the $277 million Fairfax County Federal Credit Union, the usual construction activity quickly morphed into an emergency that would put the Fairfax, Va., cooperative's disaster recovery plan to the test and endear it even more to its county workers-heavy field of membership.
For his even-keeled temperament that helped save one person's life, moved staffers to safety and got his credit union back up and running within 24 hours after a fire, Joe Thomas Jr., president/CEO of Fairfax County FCU, has been named Credit Union Times’ 2014 Trailbazer CEO of the Year.
While recovery after the fire was a top headline last year, it didn't overshadow Fairfax's 50% surge in loan growth 2013 that came through a number of strategies to capitalize on local refinancing demand,F as well as a bold shift away from aging checking account options.
The day of the blaze, July 11, 2013, was fairly routine at Fairfax County FCU. Thomas said he had noticed a couple of water spots in the computer room. A roofer was hired to seal the tar between the deck and the building. As the roofer sealed the tar, he didn't realize that plywood had caught fire from his blowtorch, Thomas recalled.
As the roofer worked on top of the building all that week, everyone could smell the tar but it hadn't been any worse than before. Suddenly, the credit union's fire alarm went off, Thomas said. The employees spilled out into parking lot and Thomas checked the building to ensure it was vacant.
He noticed the roofer was still on the deck sealing the tar. Thomas made his way to him and told him he needed to leave. Instead of coming through a heavy door, the roofer said he would come down his work ladder. Thomas insisted he come through the door.
By this time, the sound of fire engines could be heard in the background. Soon, firefighters showed up at Fairfax with their crowbars ready. Thomas told them what happened, that he had all the keys and there was really no need to bash any of the building's doors in.
The fire chief said the smoke detector triggered the air conditioning unit and if Thomas could go back in the building and shut the device off, employees would be let back in to retrieve their belongings.
The firefighters were all members of the credit union and joked about whether they were going to get paid since the following day was a county payroll day.
Read more: Meanwhile, back on the roof ...
“I walked up three flights of stairs to turn off the AC, which is next to my office,” Thomas said. “As I’m walking back down, I see a lot of thick smoke so I thought I’d open the windows and doors for some fresh air.”
As he entered one of the rooms, he was startled to see the roofer trying to put a fire out. Thomas said he quickly grabbed a fire extinguisher to help smother the blaze, but was unable to and ran back up the stairs. Panicked, the roofer who was worried about tracking tar on the carpet, had to literally be pulled by Thomas out to the parking lot.
The firefighters sprang into action, turning on their water hoses to extinguish the flames that had started underneath those plywood panels and was spreading. In the end, the two-alarm fire was squelched and no one was injured.
The good news is there wasn't any structural damage, Thomas noted. By that night, the credit union was up and running, serving members.
Thomas said he stayed until 11:30 p.m., went home for a few hours and came back at 4:30 in the morning to continue prepping for the next day's county payroll processing. He rented a few hotel rooms nearby for staff, many of who had to remain in the parking lot under cooling tents on the hot day because the fire engines had blocked their cars in for several hours.
Looking back, for the approximately 30 employees and members – and the roofer – who were in the building when the fire alarm, the outcome could have been much worse, Thomas said. The claims for damage were more than $400,000 to pay for the water-damaged computer room, replace the plywood panels, drywall and tiles and clear out the smoke odor and stains and treat for mold prevention.
What also helped saved Fairfax was a disaster recovery plan that was finalized and tested a few months earlier.
Lessons learned? After the fire, Thomas and his team had a series of meetings to assess.
“Hindsight is always 20/20. One thing we started doing differently in the planning process is instead of planning for a flood, fire or tornado, let's start planning by systems in the credit union,” Thomas said. “What would we do if a system is down and how will the other systems react? One of my favorite quotes comes from Dwight D. Eisenhower – plans are useless when they are needed but planning is essential.”
Read more: A record lending year ...
Meanwhile, recovering after the fire came in the middle of a record lending year for Fairfax during a time when many credit unions were grappling with tepid loan growth. Thanks to resurgence in real estate in the area, at $146 million, Fairfax's 2013 loan portfolio grew nearly 50% over 2012's figure, Thomas said.
First mortgages that were held grew more than 10% last year with Fairfax selling $4.7 million of them. The surge in real estate lending was also helped along by the credit union's conversion to a community charter nearly seven years ago. Still, county workers remain Fairfax's membership core.
Two years ago, the credit union dipped its toe in business lending but it was in 2013 when it started to see robust activity, mostly through participation loans, Thomas said. A CUSO that wasn't able to secure loans in Fairfax County resulted in the cooperative being the lead lender on some of the loans. At year-end, the credit unions had amassed $17 million in business loans.
Fairfax also took a hard look at its checking accounts and decided it was time for a revamp. As with many credit unions and banks, it had a plethora of accounts including for those over 50, working professionals and families.
“We found out that whatever name we called it, young people just didn't care. It was too old school,” Thomas said.
So Fairfax consolidated all of its checking account into two offerings. The result was the debut of its Shift and Shift Up checking accounts which downplayed the word “checking” and emphasized convenient access at ATMs, retailers and beyond, Thomas explained. At the end of 2013, more than 1,500 accounts had opened.
“We’re not competing with other banks, we’re competing against stored value cards,” Thomas said. “I just put this money on my card and can use it anywhere. People my age think one way and think everyone else thinks the same. We have to figure out where (others) are coming from.”
Thomas got his start with credit unions as part of his service in the United States Peace Corp in the 1980s when he managed the largest regional field office for the Malawian Union of Savings and Credit Cooperatives, the national credit union trade association in Malawi. A move back to the U.S. led to an assistant manager job at Fairfax in 1994 and in 1999, he was promoted to president/CEO.