IC Federal’s new CEO leans into outsider status

Chris Hendry is the first to admit that he had a nontraditional path to credit union leadership.

But he’s just as quick to add that even with an unusual background, he may still be the right guy in the right place at the right time.

The $571 million-asset IC Federal Credit Union in Fitchburg, Mass., in January named Hendry its new president and CEO.

Hendry most recently served as senior director of external affairs for UMass Memorial Health Alliance-Clinton Hospital but had been a member of the credit union’s board and supervisory committee since 2014. Before his stint in the health care industry, he ran the foundation board at Fitchburg State University.

Chris Hendry, president and CEO of IC Federal Credit Union

The credit union’s CEO has historically been a director on either the university’s board of trustees or the foundation board.

Tony Emerson, IC’s previous chief executive, worked with Hendry while serving the university, and encouraged him to join the credit union’s supervisory committee.

“And then six years later here we are,” said Hendry.

In this Q&A, Hendry discusses his new role at the credit union, his career path and the challenges he faces as a new CEO, IC’s growth opportunities and more.

Responses have been edited for clarity and style.

How does your background and experience in the health care industry translate to the credit union space?

CHRIS HENDRY: I’ve been on the credit union’s board for six years. I started in a supervisory committee role and then moved up to the full board. We took about six months to figure out what we were looking for [in a new CEO after Emerson left]. A lot of the experience we were looking for in a new leader — marketing, engagement, all of the things that are more front-facing — were exactly what I do. I was in higher education philanthropy for the better part of 17 years before I switched over to health care. And in both of those roles my position was frontward-facing, where I had either complete or some responsibility with marketing, public relations and being the face for the community. That’s something we’re really embracing here with IC Federal Credit Union. We want to get back to our role in the community. So there really are a lot of transferable skills. And with six years of knowledge from my time on the board behind me — admittedly not what people who have been with a credit union their entire careers have — it’s a pretty solid record of executive leadership. It doesn’t look like the normal because, quite honestly, it isn’t the normal path to get here.

Are you at any disadvantage though? Is there a steeper learning curve for you because you didn’t come up in the industry?

I think the challenge there is that without the years of experience, I don’t have the history behind me. So I will have to rely on my team, which is very strong. And the learning curve for me has already started and will be steep. But I’m not concerned with that. I’ve always been someone who has taken on new challenges and I love continual learning, so that doesn’t scare me. But I don’t have the experience with the day-to-day operations and being able to look at the various divisions and say, “Well, I did that job pretty recently so I know how it should go.” There are certainly things that I’m going to have to work through.

Do you see any similarities between the health care and the credit union industries?

My roles between the two are very much similar. You’re building those relationships and it comes down to that same type of trust. If I’m in philanthropy and I’m asking someone to trust me enough with their funds that they want to donate to the hospital or university, it’s the same type of thing. Now I’m talking to people who want to trust us with things like small business loans as their partner. You want to have trust and faith in the organization where you’re putting your paycheck.

How do you see IC finding strategic growth in the next few years? Are you interested in mergers?

That’s certainly going to be a challenge. I think we have 120+ credit unions in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and we’re in the top 25.[Ed. The National Credit Union Administration lists 152 credit unions in Massachusetts, and IC was the 27th largest at the end of the third quarter of 2020, the most recent data available.] We’d certainly like to be higher than that. So we have to work some strategies together to see what growth is going to be, because it’s not just about getting more members in the door. The only way that we’re going to grow is not to steal members from other credit unions or other financial institutions. To me, that isn’t a strategy that would be successful. We have to look at a lot of things. For example, we have a relatively new [member business lending] program and getting more people involved with that will certainly help us with growth. We haven’t gotten to the point to talk about M&A yet, so I can’t tell you what that future will be. I haven’t met a lot of the other credit union CEOs yet, so I don’t know what merger possibilities might be out there. Those are things for us to consider, but we don’t have a strategy in place yet. But we’re going to look at all of that.

You mentioned the new MBL program. Historically, commercial lending was the purview of the banks. How do you compete with them in that space?

It’s that old-school mentality of credit unions. It still comes down to pricing. If we can offer the same level of service and better pricing, people will come to us for business loans. We need to look at a strategy that will give us consistent growth over the next few years.

What other lending lines are you optimistic about, and which might need more attention?

Time will tell, and we have to see what the Fed does with interest rates, but the housing market is ripe here in New England. Our first-time homebuyers program is something that I’m really interested in. And we’re going to look at offering loans out through [potential certification as a community development financial institution] for housing. Can we become part of that? I’m not sure yet, but I want to kick the tires on the things that other credit unions are doing and see what fits for us.

The pandemic obviously drove customers to digital offerings more than ever, so how are you looking to balance that with brick-and-mortar going forward?

It is going to be interesting to see what happens when we open the doors again. I don’t expect everyone to come back in. There will be people who want to come back because they like the face-to-face interactions. But digital was growing anyway, and people were already getting used to doing everything on their phone and online. So we have to embrace that technology and see what more we can offer our members. If they want the old-school style of coming to a branch to cash a check, we’ll be available to them. And if they just want to be able to do everything on their phone, we have to give them the ability to do that as well.

How can a credit union like IC compete with the big banks on technology?

We have to play a lot bigger than what our net assets look like. It comes down to do you want to do business in your backyard? We have to make sure our community knows that we’re here. But, that said, there’s an ever-expanding investment on the IT side of the house to make sure we’re keeping up.

Looking at the call reports, IC earned roughly $2.5 million in 2020, compared with $3.4 million in 2019. That’s not too bad compared to the hit some other CUs have seen. Will 2021 be the year where earnings are more negatively impacted for IC?

I think 2021 is certainly going to be a challenge for us. There’s no way around that. I think some of it ultimately comes down to when do you want to take the hit for the pandemic. Some credit unions took the brunt of the financial hit in 2020 while others, like I-C, will feel it during a more difficult 2021. I don’t see us having the income we did the last couple of years.

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