MOON TOWNSHIP, Pa. – Joseph Cirelli has been on both sides of the fence during his 40-year career in financial services, but his intention has always been to not work himself into an early grave. Cirelli, 64, will retire as president/CEO on Oct.1 after 35 years at the $607 million US Airways Federal Credit Union and four years at the helm. When he accepted the top spot in 2000, it was written into his contract that he would retire by Dec. 30, 2004. He asked for the stipulation knowing that he wanted to retire by age 65. “I don’t believe in immortality,” Cirelli said. “Life is short. I want to stop and smell the roses.” While his last day is Oct. 1, his final day in the office is Sept. 24. Cirelli isn’t wasting any time making the transition: he and his wife Judy of 40 years will embark on a much-anticipated cruise to Hawaii on Sept. 26. The father of two sons who live in Baltimore and Philadelphia, Cirelli is looking forward to spending more time with them and his grandchildren. “I think it’s going to be more of a mental adjustment than a financial adjustment for me,” Cirelli said, adding his wife is very supportive of his decision to retire but she may have second thoughts down the road considering his “high energy.” That zeal goes back to 1964 when an “aggressive, hard charging” guy started working in the lending department at Western Pennsylvania National Bank. Cirelli became one of the bank’s top “troubleshooters” traveling to branches throughout Philadelphia. A chance meeting in 1969 with a branch manager from what was then Allegheny Airlines Federal Credit Union resulted in an invitation to come help expand its lending staff. The credit union had four employees, 4,000 members and $2 million in assets then. That year, Lake Central Airlines FCU merged with Allegheny. Another merger with Mohawk Federal Credit Union took place in 1972. Over the next nearly four decades, Cirelli’s positions at US Airways FCU would include loan officer, assistant treasurer, assistant general manager, senior vice president, executive vice president and then president/CEO. The credit union moved its main office in an airplane hanger to its own 13,000-square foot facility in 1980 to an expanded headquarters in 1989. In 1980, Allegheny became USAir FCU and in 1997, US Airways FCU. Growing steadily along the way, Ohio Valley General Hospital FCU merged with the credit union in 2002 and B-K Pittsburgh Employees Federal Credit Union did so in 2003 as US Airways FCU celebrated its 50th anniversary. Today, it serves more than 80,000 members, has 250 employees and six branches in Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, North Carolina and Virginia. Cirelli’s retirement date, although set up back in 2000, comes at a time when US Airways recently filed its second Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in two years. (See related story on page 1.) In a statement, the company said bankruptcy protection will provide the nation’s seventh-largest airline the opportunity to implement its Transformation Plan built on lower costs, a simplified fare structure, and expanded service in the eastern U.S., the Caribbean, Latin America and Europe. The action came after the airline was unable to obtain $800 million in annual cost cuts from its workers’ unions that it said it needed to stay afloat. Cirelli’s long-time experience working for an airline credit union provided him with privies and even instincts on which directions the airline industry would go. He had seen his share of smaller airlines go out of business. But it was a “premonition” he had one warm, spring day. “I can’t really explain it but in March 2002, I got this premonition that (US Airways) would file,” Cirelli said. “We got management staff together and came up with a bankruptcy protection plan.” That dry run plan included scripts of what to tell members via mail, the Web site, local newspapers and at the branches. “We were so closely aligned with the airline, our primary concern was `how would the members react,’ ” Cirelli recalled. “ The second concern was our employees. They were a little antsy.” It took two weeks to put the bankruptcy plan together. US Airways would go on to file its first Chapter bankruptcy protection in August 2002, three months after Cirelli’s premonition. Cirelli was at the beach with his family in Delaware when the news broke on a Sunday afternoon. The carrier emerged from that bankruptcy in March 2003. “We’ve been down this road before,” Cirelli said. “I think members know what to expect.” This second bankruptcy impact may not be as strong given that less than 30,000 members of the credit union’s 80,000 membership base are airline employees, Cirelli said. He gives props to having “confident and capable” staff and is secure with leaving the helm to his successor, Mark Brennan, who’s been at the credit union for nearly 15 years. “I’m a firm believer in grooming from within,” Cirelli said. “Mark’s strength is in human resources and training, he’s very astute.” Two years into his job as president/CEO, a succession plan was put in place. There were several key persons within the organization that had thrown their hat into the ring as a possible successor. Cirelli excused himself from the interviewing process so as not to intimidate or manipulate the process, he said. As the days wind down to the end of his working career, Cirelli joked 50% of the employees are “thrilled” that he’s leaving and the other 50% are sad. The Vietnam veteran has held several positions including vice president of the Pittsburgh Chapter of Credit Unions; secretary of the Airline Credit Union Association; Filene Research Institute Council member; and a member of NAFCU’s legislative committee. He will continue to work with Brennan to foster current vendor relationships including attending next year’s CUNA GAC with the new CEO. With the current buzz on executive compensation and retirement benefits, and whether CEOs are being compensated fairly, Cirelli said he’s “happy” with his plan. If his airline credit union colleagues asked for pieces of advice, Cirelli put it quite simply. “Don’t tie yourself too much to the airline,” Cirelli said. “Look ahead and be independent. Remember, you’re the members’ credit union, not the airline’s credit union.” -email@example.com
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