Vermont is very much the focus for this establishment
by Virginia Lindauer Simmon
John J. Dwyer Jr., president and CEO of New England Federal Credit Union in Williston, was 24 when he was hired 26 years ago as vice president of finance by his predecessor David Bard. Named president in 2006, he took on the CEO mantle in January 2010, when Bard retired.
When you call us, you talk to Vermonters.” That’s John Dwyer, the president and CEO of New England Federal Credit Union (NEFCU), discussing the factors that contribute to his members’ view of the organization.
NEFCU is Vermont’s largest credit union, with assets of over $900 million and more than 80,000 members and growing. Its 170 employees conduct business in six counties of northwestern Vermont: Chittenden, Grand Isle, Franklin, Lamoille, Washington, and Addison. It was recently named one of the top 25 credit unions in the nation.
“If you originate a first-mortgage loan with us, we’ll likely sell it to Freddie Mac — there are over a billion of those sold to the secondary market,” says Dwyer. “The difference is that we service them out of our Colchester building. Regarding loans we have in portfolio, every decision about underwriting is made here.”
NEFCU started life in 1961 as the New England IBM Employees Federal Credit Union, housed on Pearl Street in Essex Junction, where one of its branch offices now resides. There are still two branches on the IBM campus, as well as branches in South Burlington and Fletcher Allen Health Care, a loan office in St. Albans (where those loan decisions are made), and 11 additional ATMs around the six-county service area. Dwyer’s corner office is on the third floor of the bright and airy three-story main office building in Williston.
Dwyer was only 24 and the institution was still the IBM Employees Federal Credit Union when David Bard, his predecessor, hired him as vice president of finance. He had grown up in Vermont since grammar school, when his father, Jack Dwyer, was sent from Massachusetts to Burlington to run the Aetna Insurance Co. claims office.
Right out of college with a degree in business administration and accounting from the University of Vermont, he married Kathi Stys, whom he had known since childhood. They moved immediately to Boston, where Dwyer had a job with Peat Marwick Mitchell. After three years, wanting to start a family, they returned to Vermont. He joined the credit union staff in 1987.
“I was so fortunate,” says Dwyer. “Obviously it was a much different organization back then.”
He rose through the ranks, moving from vice president of finance to chief financial officer, then co–chief operating officer, executive vice president and chief operating officer, president and chief operating officer, to the top job of president and chief executive officer, which started January 1, 2010, when Bard retired.
In 2000, Dwyer earned his MBA from Rensselaer Rochester Polytechnic Institute.
“The last 10 years that David was CEO,” says Dwyer, “there were only really three senior managers: David, myself, and Sue Leonard.” Dwyer hired Leonard over 20 years ago, and when he was named co–chief operating officer, she became vice president and CFO. Dwyer’s senior management team consists of seven people, including himself and Leonard.
“In early 2006, when I became president and the transition was more formalized,” he says, “I started moving toward today’s senior management team — a senior lending executive, senior IT executive, senior marketing executive, HR executive role, and the position I added after I became CEO was that I hired a senior retail person.”
Some of the differences in approach between himself and Bard, says Dwyer, are as much related to the transition process as to differences in management style. “David was very supportive and accommodative, allowing me to evolve into the role, which meant that more people needed to report to me as we went through the transition, and fewer to him. It was certainly my plan that I would have more direct reports when I was in this job. I like a broader set of direct reports, and David would have as well, I think, if it weren’t for my evolution.
He and Bard complemented each other, he says, “but I am an accountant by training and have learned about the other parts of this job over the years. I’m probably a little more systems-oriented.
“I really like the organization aspect of this job: looking at how things work. This is a very complex business, so meeting the demands of 80,000 members takes an understanding of how our business works and a willingness to look at both the people systems and the IT systems.”
About half of Dwyer’s work week is spent in meetings. “I’ve always liked the meetings part of this job and try at least twice a year to get out to every department and attend their staff meetings.”
He meets with every direct report on Mondays for updates on projects, strategic initiatives, and member topics or issues. “One of the realities of having 170 positions is there’s a fair amount of working with staff. Then there’s a fair number of meetings outside on things I’m involved with, such as a couple of committees in the credit union industry.”
“John is very approachable and easy going, but at the same time extremely knowledgeable and respected. He’s very calculated in his decision-making process,” says Joseph G. Bergeron, president of the Association of Vermont Credit Unions. “For those reasons, he’s very well regarded among his peers, even beyond Vermont and nationwide.”
Dwyer is also a past president of the Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce and the Vermont YMCA.
Two projects he keeps staff up to date on are the replacement of the Shelburne Road branch and the addition of a full-service branch in St. Albans. “We had been talking about renovating Shelburne Road for many years,” says Dwyer. “We’d tried to have a drive-up capacity — it’s an old data center for an insurance company.
“A couple of senior managers, after well and thoughtfully considering our options, became convinced that the best option was, given the land and location, instead of trying to force the use of that existing building, to start from scratch. It’s going to have a drive-up ATM and a drive-up teller and is obviously going to be much newer looking,” he says with a laugh. “We’re pretty excited about the way it will represent the brand.”
Final permitting is in place, and construction is expected to start in October.
The last five years have seen two major changes for NEFCU, says Dwyer. One is the significant growth in both members and loans — specifically mortgages. “One of the factors is that we are a substantial mortgage lender. We are now at about $1 billion, 300 million in first mortgages here in Vermont.”
The second change is membership. “I would venture to say that in the last five years, we have likely grown close to 15,000 members, and that is in Vermont, because we do business in six counties, so substantially, growth in the number of members and the level of relationships with members.”
Asked about a perceived trend away from commercial banks toward credit unions, Dwyer answers diplomatically. “We don’t get involved in trying to market specifically to bank customers; we just try to meet the needs of consumers.,” he says. “It’s really been our position to stay out of whether you do business with a bank or credit union. We are focused on the member by business practice and have had some success in that. I won’t either understate or exaggerate that, but there certainly is a trend in consumer financial services that is moving some people away from other financial institutions. I wouldn’t say it’s just commercial banks, but customers — we call them members — are willing to move.”
Certainly, the evolution of the financial services industry and the regulatory changes that go along with that have created challenges. “Probably everybody says this, but this was a simpler business, even 10 years ago,” says Dwyer, who confesses that he spends more time in Washington, D.C., and Montpelier than he ever did.
Another challenge is meeting the expectations of members wanting online services provided by large financial institutions. “Local banking right now — delivering NEFCU Online, the brand we have for our PC banking, over your mobile phone — that’s not easy to do, but members have expectations that we will have the services that larger institutions have, and we think we’re doing pretty well at it.” He mentions the movement to payments in a cashless society as a matter of rising attention.
The third challenge, says Dwyer, is staffing. “It is important that we provide not only opportunity for our staff, but also meet the needs of members, so there is a bit of complexity in that. We work very hard at being a good employer and have programs that differentiate us as an employer.”
That family he and Kathi returned to Vermont to raise is all grown up now. Nick, their son, graduated from Champlain College last year and was recently married. Emma just entered her senior year at Savannah College of Art and Design. ‘We’ve got one more year of college,” Dwyer says with a sigh of relief.”
He and Kathi are adjusting to their empty nest. Summers, they spend at their place on the lake in Swanton. Dwyer also pursues what he calls his addictions: golf — “I got that bug from my dad” — and hockey, which he plays in the winter “with a nice, older-men’s league.”
Dwyer confesses that he finds the interview conversation a bit awkward, “because I know there’s over 170 people here, and as I say to them whenever I am in a meeting, the people that make the difference to the members every day are the people in the teller line or on the phone or the mortgage processor. My job is to try to create an environment that can be not only successful in the long term, but can also be a place that is good to come to work to every day. I’m lucky that I get to do it.” •