Howard Brady became president and CEO of American Eagle Financial Credit Union last January, succeeding the man who hired him eight years earlier and fostered his career ever since.
Filling the shoes of retiring CEO Dean Marchessault – a venerated mentor – was challenging enough. Doing it in 2022 meant managing through a turbulent economic time.
Plans to draw staff back into the office as the pandemic wound down were scaled back. A return to commercial lending was put on pause.
“We came into the year with a certain set of things we wanted to accomplish, but best-laid plans,” Brady joked.
American Eagle previously offered business loans before exiting the market about a decade ago. A planned return to commercial lending in 2022 was put on pause, in part by the reluctance of workforces everywhere to return to office environments, which, among other factors, created “fluidity” in the real estate market, Brady said.
Despite the obstacles, 2022 is shaping up to be the 176,000-member credit union’s most profitable year yet.
It’s projecting a $27 million profit margin, about double its previous record high of $13.7 million in 2018.
The $2.5-billion institution’s return on assets hit 1.16% as of the end of November. Core earnings remain strong, with auto lending being particularly brisk, Brady said. Profits got a “one-time” $10 million boost from a stock sale “at the right time in the market,” Brady said.
“We had a really great year profitability-wise, which will help us do more for people,” Brady said.
American Eagle still plans to dive back into commercial lending, Brady said, although exactly when is not certain. The credit union — which counts more than 3,500 businesses among its customers — is moving ahead with the introduction of a business-oriented credit card, expected to launch in early 2023.
“We have a pretty solid stable of business accounts from prior ventures into commercial lending,” Brady said
Brady, 50, took over the helm of American Eagle in January as part of a leadership transition plan more than 18 months in the making. Brady’s predecessor, Marchessault, hired him as vice president of lending in 2014.
One of Brady’s biggest tasks in 2022 was to introduce himself to, and seek feedback from, 340 staffers assigned to 15 branches and the credit union’s East River Drive headquarters.
Brady will have made 55 stops by the close of the year, speaking with groups of employees in person and online about changes, challenges and initiatives.
“I wanted to hear where they were in the pandemic,” Brady said. “I wanted to hear where they were in the transition. I wanted to hear what was most important to them. And they are telling us, which is awesome. It’s probably been the thing I enjoyed most this year.”
American Eagle rolled out a new employee-recognition program in March, with a top performer each month receiving a $1,000 bonus. Criteria included displays of courage, leadership or individual competencies; exceptional personal or professional development; or demonstration of company values.
An employee-of-the-year will get to choose from a range of grand prizes, including two-night stays in Boston, New York, the Berkshire East Mountain Ski Resort or other destinations. Each gift package is sweetened with ancillary prizes, including: passes to local attractions, gift cards worth $500, kayaks or other options.
Brady in April found a successor for his prior position as senior vice president of lending, with the hire of Dianna Wilson. She previously held the same title at the Justice Federal Credit Union in the Washington, D.C., area. She helped recruit a friend and colleague — Ashley Rollins — as American Eagle’s vice president of consumer lending.
American Eagle created two new executive vice president roles, including chief strategy and revenue officer, as well as chief operations and experience officer. It also added four senior vice president positions — all filled by existing employees — reporting to the new executive vice presidents.
“I feel strongly about providing opportunities,” Brady said. “I’m a product of people taking an interest in me and giving me opportunities. We want to do that for others.”
To that end, American Eagle also created 10 new assistant vice president jobs in September, which were also filled by existing staff. Brady called it an important part of the credit union’s long-term succession plans.
“We are developing a leadership curriculum that’s really going to be exciting to our team,” Brady said.
No walk in the park ahead
Brady said American Eagle will have to weather continued economic challenges in the near term. Mortgage lending, for example, is drying up as higher interest rates and inflation put homeownership increasingly out of reach.
“If people with lower-earning potential are having their base costs increase — whether that’s food, gas, rent, etc. — it’s going to be increasingly difficult to make that transition to homeownership,” Brady said.
American Eagle issued $19 million in first mortgage funding in the third quarter of 2022, down from $38 million in the second quarter and $54 million in the first.
“The middle of the year should be the strongest,” Brady said. “That’s when the kids are out of school and families are thinking about relocating. To me, the numbers are obvious. Without a doubt (rising interest rates are) having an impact.”