Top Brass Take Strategic Risks In, Beyond CU Space
Bert Hash is known to zig when everyone else zags.
It's one of the reasons why the then-president/CEO of the $1.2 billion Municipal Employees Credit Union of Baltimore Inc., was named CU Times’ Trailblazer CEO of the Year in 2007.
Six years later in 2013, the cooperative became a part of a growing and some would argue controversial industry trend when it bought the $62 million Advance Mutual Savings Bank in Baltimore through a purchase and assumption agreement.
The deal was finalized in December 2013 and the integration of systems wrapped at the end of March for a bank that had been a staple in the community for nearly 58 years and served 3,500 customers.
“We couldn't be more pleased with how it turned out,” Hash said. “We added customers to our membership base and we were happy to integrate the 18 employees (at Advance Mutual) into MECU. Their leadership went into some key positions.”
Hash, who retired from MECU in June after 17 years at the helm, is preparing for the next chapter of his life content that the credit union's legacy of community outreach will live on.
“Our culture has always been to give back and get involved,” Hash said. Over the past few years, the credit union continued its partnership with the city of Baltimore by providing grants for health fairs and seed money to improve local neighborhoods, he noted.
MECU adopted nine area schools where MECU employees donate their time to help children with reading and other projects. An annual golf tournament raises money to support education and each year, nearly $35,000 in scholarships are provided to high school graduates.
In 2007, the year Hash won the Trailblazer award, the credit union served 85,000 members and had $800 million in assets. Since then, membership has grown to nearly 110,000 and the credit union surpassed the billion-dollar mark.
In 2012, Mercy Health Services Employees Credit Union merged into the credit union. Although the cooperative was small with $1 million in assets and 1,000 members, Hash said the fusion opened MECU up to Mercy Medical Center, which has 12,000 employees. The merger was one of two smaller ones that had occurred for the credit union over the past few years.
A few months in to his retirement, Hash said he's looking forward to a new chapter.
“I’m leaving MECU but not my life,” he quipped, adding he will continue to serve on several boards through 2016 but plans to fish more, keep up his power walks, and take more time for leisure travel.
Hash was actually preparing to leave in January 2013 but with a few senior executives set to retire as well, those plans were put on hold so that those key departures wouldn't challenge MECU's operations. Gary Martin, who had served at MECU for 42 years, is the credit union's new president/CEO.
“I’m 67 years old. My wife retired nine years ago. It's time to pass the torch,” Hash said. “It's a great team and a great culture.”
As for the next line of CEOs, he said the industry has much more regulation to contend with that will ultimately impact the way credit unions do business – namely, interest rate risk and risk-based capital. Still, today and tomorrow's CEOs should embrace collaboration.
“From my experience, it's become more of a partnership of team building as opposed to dictatorial leadership. It requires more understanding of training and what it takes to be successful,” Hash offered. “The turnover for the CEO position over the next five years will be high. You need to have people in place to get the job done and a plan to replace those people when it's time.”
He added, “There are more opportunities to go beyond the credit union space. We’re competing with the banking industry, we want the community to do business with us.”
Ann South knows just how critical it is to offer outlets that allow credit unions to compete. The president/CEO of the $139 million Novartis Federal Credit Union in East Hanover, N.J., received CU Times Trailblazer CEO of the Year award in 2010 mainly for her role in helping credit unions recover stolen assets after CU National Mortgage, the credit union's third-party mortgage processor, collapsed in a fog of fraud in 2009.
CU National Mortgage, a subsidiary of the defunct U.S. Mortgage Corp., was involved in the fraudulent sale of loans to 19 credit unions costing the cooperatives $139 million. Michael J. McGrath Jr., the former president of both entities, pled guilty in 2009 to mail and wire fraud and money laundering for using proceeds from the credit union loans to repair cash flow problems stemming from losses on investments in mortgage-backed securities.
At one point, CU National Mortgage served more than 120 credit unions.
In its wake, South, along with the New Jersey Credit Union League, organized a group of credit unions to recover stolen assets and prevent many clients from losing a large portion of their capital when it was discovered that fraud was involved.
Five years after McGrath's guilty plea, some credit unions are still waiting on reclamation as litigation stalls in courts nationwide, South said. The good news is 80% to 90% of the assets have been recovered and Novartis did fairly well with its negotiations, she added.
“The bankruptcy estate is still going on. It's unbelievable that it's been five years and it's probably going to be another year or so before it gets to court,” she explained. “The insurance companies of those credit unions don't want to settle to a point where they need to settle without suffering huge losses.”
South said those credit unions that have recovered were bound by confidential settlements so she couldn't provide a collective dollar amount. She was tapped to serve on a court-appointed bankruptcy liquidation committee, which she credited for helping credit unions to get as much back as they did.
Out the ashes of the CUNM debacle came Symbionce Financial Solutions LLC, a CUSO that originates and services mortgage loans. South said the entity helped to salvage some of the CUNM mortgage loans, many of which were held by smaller credit unions.
The CUSO bought the servicing rights of more than 80 credit unions that were served by CUNM, South said. Many of them had very small portfolios with just one or two loans, she added. Today, roughly 80 credit unions in 16 states are now Symbionce clients.
“It was an extremely good 2013. Even though the tide of the housing market is breaking down, we’re not losing money,” South said.
Meanwhile, Novartis continued to forge ahead with more technology products including mobile banking, an online financial planning tool and a service that allows members to aggregate all of their retirement accounts, including at other financial institutions, in one spot. The innovations have helped to grow Novartis’ wealth management group bringing on industry recognitions for the credit union's financial planners.
Rather than court potential members, Novartis prefers to deepen relationships with existing members, South said. Baby boomers get just as much attention as the younger generations.
“There's so much we can provide to boomers that we didn't try to do in the past. And, in this day and age, for young people, if you don't give them the technology, they’re not going to come. But (technology) is expensive.”
Even though Novartis is a $139 million credit union, it only serves 6,060 members, mainly through Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corp. South said she's aware of the risks of being a single SEG cooperative these days and while plans are in place to remain that way, there are contingencies should a major financial catastrophe occur.
While Symbionce had a strong 2013, South acknowledged that last year was a tough time for Novartis. In fact, the past few years have been a battle, she added.
“Everyone struggled to make ends meets. Money just doesn't run in the door anymore. From 2009 to today, we’re down eight employees to 16, who are doing more with less. I don't want employees to not get raises or bonuses.
“I don't see a light at the end of the tunnel. It's going to be a struggle for another two to three years. It's going to take a while for portfolios to rise enough before we can breathe easy. A lot of people lost their jobs and we may never see Americans borrowing like they did before.”
In spite of a rough financial patch, she praised the support of Novartis’ board, management team and staff. Her top suggestion to those vying for a credit union CEO spot? Surround yourself with people who are better than you.
“When I started 30 years ago, I thought I would be able to put my feet up and read the Wall Street Journal all day long,” she joked. “These days, it hard to use your mind for strategic planning if you’re constantly putting out fires and trying to make ends meet.”