After Linda Levy retired last year from the $55 million Lower East Side People’s Federal Credit Union in New York, N.Y., Cliff Rosenthal, former executive director of the National Federation of Community Development Credit Unions (now Inclusiv), said it would be difficult to find a new president/CEO who could fill her shoes, according to a New York Timesarticle headlined “The Little Bank that Could.”
In the April 13, 2018 feature story, Rosenthal noted the successor would require an “extraordinary combination of being very focused on the business aspect and yet being in tune with the political and social aspirations of that community,” he said. “Those things are not easy to find.”
After several months of searching, the credit union board hired that not-so-easy-to-find CEO, Maureen Genna, who holds an impressive combination of work experience at credit unions with sizable assets and small credit unions where she developed a passion for serving the underserved.
It was that same passion under Levy’s executive tenure that fueled the credit union’s growth in assets and membership over the years despite being surrounded by the world’s biggest banks – not to mention the constant economic pressures that bear down on all small credit unions.
Levy was not afraid to speak her mind and claimed LES People’s FCU’s 15 minutes of national fame in 2017 when she sued President Trump – albeit unsuccessfully – for his controversial appointment of Mick Mulvaney as acting CFPB director.
And in 2011, LES People’s FCU served as the financial institution for the Occupy Wall Street movement. In that year, the credit union was observing its 25th anniversary. For its gala event, the credit union named the Occupy Wall Street movement as one of its honorees because it stood for economic justice, a principle that LES People’s FCU has proudly promoted since it opened in 1986, Levy said. As a result of that move, however, investment banking giant Goldman Sachs yanked its $5,000 sponsorship for the anniversary event.
Like Levy, Genna is not afraid to speak her mind, revealing in this CU Times interview that large-asset credit unions can help stem the tide of consolidation by making non-member deposits with small cooperatives and providing free executive mentorship for executives of small credit unions. Although she has been in the CEO’s chair for less than three months, Genna has hit the ground running in advocating the state legislature for more affordable housing to counterbalance the gentrification of the Lower East Side that was once a drug-infested neighborhood. The credit union has invested more than $100 million to help public housing residents. Genna is determined to keep expanding that community investment legacy and fulfill its mission to provide high-quality financial products and services in low-income, immigrant and other underserved communities.
CU Times: So can you tell us how and why you decided to join the credit union movement?
Genna: I had graduated from college with a degree in economics and my mom gave me two weeks to get a job. She handed me the New York Times in which I saw this tiny ad that said, “College graduates wanted with teller experience. Flight benefits available.” I had put myself through college by working as a teller at Citibank. Well, the ad was for British Airways Employees Federal Credit Union. I had been a teller for three years. I had just graduated college, and I could travel. This was like a dream job, right? Once I started working there the culture was so different and much more appealing to me than the bank culture for so many reasons. It was a great experience; I loved every minute of it. That’s where you start learning everything, because at the time it was only a four-person shop.
CU Times: How do you lead?
Genna: I think setting clear expectations are important. My biggest expectation of anybody I work with is that [they agree] the only reason we’re here is for our members. All members, most importantly, should be treated with the utmost dignity, the utmost respect and the utmost care. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, even if people are financially challenged, if you will, they know a job that you don’t know how to do. Bringing that professional level to everybody is important. When I say dignity in financial services, I also mean equity. Sometimes we think that the lower income person doesn’t need the mobile app or doesn’t need the instant access to a loan. That’s baloney. They need and deserve all those same services. Maybe they need somebody to explain it to them a little bit better, but they deserve the same level of quality service that everybody else gets.
CU Times: How does LES People’s FCU manage to thrive in the middle of New York City, the financial capital of the world?
Genna: We’re successful because we’re serving those members who are not served by anybody else, [in] the underserved areas of New York, and there are plenty of them. Citibank, Chase and other banks are closing branches in areas where we are. I’ve got a location open on East 103rd Street in East Harlem, this one [the main branch at Avenue B and 3rd Street) and one on Staten Island. We’re going to open another branch in East Harlem on East 117th Street. My husband retired from the NYC police department about 10 years ago. He was a narcotics detective and worked the Lower East Side, which had been known as a drug location. Today, the Lower East Side is being gentrified and it’s the cool place to be.
CU Times: What are you doing to counter balance the gentrification trend and its effects on the cost of housing?
Genna: We do a great deal of lending for lower income housing, so hopefully that will keep the affordable housing market up and running in New York. We’re one of the few financial institutions in New York that do lending through a program called HDFC loans operated by the City of New York. The city sells a building, typically an apartment building, to the residents as a co-op. The arrangement requires residents to keep the apartment building low income, so they have very strict restrictions on how much income people can make if they’re going to come in and buy into the co-op. Then if they sell [their share] of the co-op, they have very strict restrictions on how much profit they can make. We do provide individual co-op loans, and we also make loans to the co-ops to maintain the buildings. This type of homeownership helps to stabilize our neighborhoods. It gives our members an opportunity to build equity and wealth. One of the tragic things about low-income people is their inability to build wealth.
CU Times: You have worked at small credit unions with assets of under $100 million, but you have also worked at credit unions with sizeable assets from $249 million to nearly $1.7 billion. Were those deliberate career decisions you made?
Genna: I hate to even admit it, but I’m entering maybe the last phase of my career here and this is where I can make the most difference. Some of the other jobs I moved to because I needed to for personal reasons, but from a professional standpoint, the jobs at small credit unions have given me the most satisfaction and [they are] where I can make the most impact. If a member doesn‘t think they can get a mortgage because their income is just barely making it, we can figure out a way to get you that mortgage. That’s better than getting somebody the best rate on a mortgage because they already know they could go to five different financial institutions. Don’t get me wrong, large credit unions are fantastic to work for, and they can do amazing things because they have the resources. But at the end of the day, they’re still large, and large credit unions tend to look more and more and more like banks.
CU Times: Speaking of large credit unions, I understand you think they can play a greater role in helping small credit unions survive.
Genna: Large credit unions can help their small credit union brothers and sisters through nonmember deposits for one thing, and in other ways. I honestly believe that there’s safety and strength in numbers. When you start looking at more and more credit unions merging into big credit unions, which makes the big credit unions even bigger, there’s the danger of taxation and regulations. When you consider that, I think the big credit unions should be saying, “Maybe we should do more to help small credit unions.” Maybe large credit unions could do some kind of mentorship where their executives could help up-and-coming managers of small credit unions. Mentor them through the first year so they can get to the position where they can run a small credit union. Small credit unions need that mentorship from the CEO, CFO and even the CIO. If big credit unions could donate a little time and a little expertise, I think you would find at least some of those credit unions could be run by very competent persons. I think another way they can help us out is to support state leagues because that will provide the resources the leagues need to assist small credit unions with compliance and HR help, which is needed.
CU Times: Can you share the overall strategy to keep the credit union growing?
Genna: Our overall plan of action is to partner a lot with other like-minded organizations – socially conscious organizations. There are a lot of them in New York. Our strategy is to increase those relationships so that we’re not only being attractive to the people that they serve, but also to the people who are doing the serving. We’re also looking at becoming more sophisticated in leveraging whatever electronic means we can to support our other initiatives. If we can get a portion of our membership who like using mobile apps and other internet applications, we can increase our availability in those ways and still take care of the members who need that personal one-on-one touch at the branches.
By Peter Strozniak | April 26, 2019 at 09:00 AM