Trailblazer Award: VolCorp CFO Jeff Merry Comes Full Circle Post-Crisis
There's not a lot of financial trailblazing going on in corporate credit unions these days.
Unless you count finding a way to thrive and grow in today's low-rate environment under strict new NCUA rules, all the while defying experts who proclaimed the death of the corporate business model a few years ago.
Volunteer Corporate Credit Union's Jeff Merry is leading the $1.15 billion corporate into the post-stabilization world, and the 37-year-old chief financial officer makes it look surprisingly easy. That is why CU Times selected him as the 2014 Trailblazer CFO of the Year.
Granted, compared to other corporates, the new VolCorp doesn't look much different from the pre-crisis VolCorp. Merry is quick to credit his corporate's traditional business model with its survival and current success.
VolCorp was one of a handful of midsized corporates that lucked out when it chose a business model that expanded products and services beyond the U.S. Central pass-through model, but didn't stray too far outside state lines for members or beyond government-backed securities for investment income.
“Our business model really successfully withstood a major test during the crisis,” Merry said. “It was never our intent to be all things to all credit unions, but rather, be what our members need when they need it. From there, it becomes a matter of creating a vision of what you want to be for your members, and passionately driving toward that vision.”
That business model landing VolCorp among the “Solvent Five”, a group of corporates that didn't have to tap into member capital to absorb U.S. Central Federal Credit Union losses after the corporate's corporate failed.
In December 2009, after most corporates wrote off the rest of their U.S. Central losses and the future of corporates was in doubt, VolCorp took a $2 million hit but retained a 4% capital ratio.
By the following year, when the future of many corporates depended upon members’ willingness to recapitalize, and some were also scrambling to replace U.S. Central services, VolCorp was already on the road to recovery and looking toward the future.
Merry can be credited in part for that enviable position, as he joined VolCorp at age 27 as the corporate's chief investment officer from 2004 to 2006. After two years, he crossed the continent and a cultural divide to work as Western Corporate Federal Credit Union's director of member services from two years, before smartly returning to Nashville in early 2008 to take his current CFO position.
Under Merry's leadership, VolCorp has already met the NCUA's post-crisis capital requirements, and it's ahead of schedule to meet the more difficult retained earnings requirement.
Merry also developed an analytical tool called Liquidity Analyzer, which forecasts VolCorp's cash position over the next 12 months, allowing it to increase net income.
In December, VolCorp and the $153 million Kentucky Corporate Federal Credit Union announced plans to merge. If approved, it would mark VolCorp's second merger in three years; the Nashville-based cooperative successfully merged West Virginia Corporate Credit Union in 2012. Merry performed the pre-merger due diligence for both deals, and headed up the effort to integrate West Virginia Corporate's accounting operations into VolCorp.
When asked to sum up his success in one word, Merry chose an appropriate one for a financial manager: balance.
Balancing VolCorp's investment portfolio as Merry describes it sounds more like the old vaudeville plate spinner act.
First, there's the traditional balance between loan and investment income, which these days leans heavily on investment income due to a lack of loan demand from member credit unions.
Then, once the size of the portfolio is determined, Merry must strike a balance between meeting NCUA investment regulations, which include adjusted average life limits, and earning enough income to offset low loan demand.
“We’re always scouring the market for securities that fit our risk profile and generate a return, too,” he said.
Unfortunately, the Federal Reserve hasn't made that easy. The Fed's quantitative easing policy has taken most of those securities off the market, making it even more difficult for institutions like VolCorp to find them.
“Hopefully, the tapering will help,” Merry said of the Fed's intent to slow its securities purchase rate. “They’ve been buying things we have historically bought, and in such great magnitude, it really limits what's available out there.”
It's hard to imagine any credit union has room to trim expenses in this day and age, but Merry said he believes there is always room to improve efficiencies.
“One thing we pride ourselves in at VolCorp is never answering a question with ‘because we’ve always done it that way’,” he said.
And so, VolCorp has continued to reduce expenses, add in-demand new services that produce fee income, and achieve better scale through mergers. In particular, Merry said the West Virginia Corporate merger allowed VolCorp to consolidate technology resources and expenses, a strategy that will hopefully continue with the Kentucky merger, he added.
The challenge of growing a corporate credit union in today's environment seems an all-consuming task. However, Merry has achieved work-life balance, too.
Last year, Merry was valedictorian of his MBA class at Vanderbilt University, an achievement he admits was a difficult one for the busy husband and father.
“It's about maximizing every single minute,” he said. “That's how you keep all the balls in the air, by focusing on whatever you’re working on at the time. That got me through school, and now that it's over, I feel like I have all the time in the world.”
The Merry family also built a new home recently, which the CFO joked he doesn't recommend anyone attempt while employed full time and pursuing a graduate degree. He credited his wife, Tami, for holding everything together during that time.
The spouses stay on track by going out on a date at the beginning of each year, he said, during which they set new personal and family goals.
Merry said he likes to relax by going to the gym or watching sports on TV. But not surprisingly, he said he doesn't have a Facebook account and doesn't spend much time on social media.
VolCorp Financials as of Nov. 30, 2013
Assets: $1.15 billion
Total capital: $71.50 million
Leverage Ratio: 5.96% (NCUA well-capitalized minimum is 5%.)
Retained Earnings Ratio: 0.91% (NCUA will require 2% in 2016.)
Return on Average Assets: 0.19%
Year-to-Date Net Income: $1.856 million