Dean Marchessault, President and CEO of the $2.3-billion American Eagle Financial CU, is sharing a number of “learnings” about leadership and credit union growth he has gathered as he prepares to retire at year-end following a 22-year career as CEO. During his two-decade tenure with American Eagle Financial, Marchessault has overseen nearly a doubling of assets and growth to more than 160,000 members as the credit union has expanded its field of membership into portions of nearby Massachusetts. 

During his over 40 year banking career, Marchessault has garnered several honors as a business and community leader, including a C-Suite Award from the Harford Business Journal in 2020, and the Business Person of the Year Award from the Connecticut River Valley Chamber of Commerce in 2018. In 2019, AEFCU was named one of the “Best Places to Work in Connecticut” by the Hartford Business Journal. 

Mr. Marchessault shared these insights with credit union industry publication CUToday.info:

1. How did you come to be involved with credit unions?

More happenstance than a divine plan. I had been in banking, working a long way from home for a number of years, and clearly needed to make a change; in venue, in industry, and in attitude. While my career working for banks progressed well enough, there were many near misses with so many mergers and transitions, that it was hard to envision a steady future and a shot at a C-suite, or eventually a CEO position. That’s when a management position came up at American Eagle FCU, formerly East Hartford Aircraft Federal Credit Union, which was one of the first 100 or so credit unions formed after the reconstitution of the banking system in 1934/5. It’s been a great ride, with a great team of people, for over 21 years now.

2. What have you learned about driving and managing growth during your career, and how has it changed? 

In 2015, after a very slow recovery from the Great Recession, especially in Connecticut, our board and the management team set out a new course of growth within a long-term plan. We have been successful in growing our financial assets, especially our loan portfolio over the last seven years, reaching out to far more members and households than previous to our long-term plan. The learning for me is that while we successfully “got bigger” we also needed to spend more time and treasure on nurturing our talent, providing more development, change readiness, and competency clarity. It’s also about the journey, not just the destination. I was really dialed into the financial outcomes, and my learnings include being better at taking more time with every employee and celebrating their successes and challenges along the way.  Our team, in just a few short years has demonstrated a can-do attitude (to complete our core conversion, our new headquarters, new branches, tons of tech investments, oh, and COVID). I don’t think they will ever fully understand how much respect I have for their hands in our successes, and how we dealt with our failures as well. In the end, it’s about the people, not the numbers.

3. What have you learned about managing people and building a culture during your career, and how has that evolved?

When I started my professional career, “culture” wasn’t the loaded word it is now. Maybe it used to be called office politics, or something like that. Engagement wasn’t a thing. Bosses and workers were in lanes, clearly delineated by titles, compensation, and work space.  Over my career, that rubric got blown up, and rightly so to some degree. We have tried to move from telling people how to do something, to telling them what’s expected and letting them decide how best to achieve an objective. Leading by good example has not changed. I still think that being genuine in what you communicate and how you act, in front of and behind the scenes, means a lot. What I have also learned is that you can never coach enough. I certainly didn’t consistently, and folks need that input and raw material to do better work and be better as a team. While I have a fantastic team in leadership here, I still could and should have been more deliberate in their coaching and development. We are all works in progress.

4. If you could go back and talk to yourself on your first day as CEO, what advice would you share?

Focus on those things that you can change. Sometimes we try to boil the ocean with ideas and things to do, yet we all get constrained, distracted, and end up exhausted. I was too focused on outcomes and scorecards during my tenure, wanting to get our growth rate moving and “putting numbers on the board.” Going back, I would encourage and celebrate saying “no” to things, as much as we say “yes.” It’s important to focus on a few key opportunities, aligned with strategy, and many times I let things mount up, on the fringe of being significant or influenced by people or circumstances. Stay on the plan, and be clear about what’s important.

5.  What is your view on the future of credit unions, if there is to be one?

Most of us would like to think that credit unions can continue to declare their differences and navigate the challenges we all face. If the tax exemption is significantly reduced and/or eliminated, we will see the massive consolidations that took place in other parts of the world in credit unions, simply to survive and compete with banks. Will credit unions ever be able to break through the 7-9% market share versus having about one third of the U.S. population “say” they have a credit union? The numbers don’t line up with reality. Aging of credit union leadership, boards, and members are all headwinds to industry growth. My hope is the workforce of the future will see and understand the value proposition of credit unions, and be as dedicated to the movement as so many of the people I have encountered through my career. 

The good news is that for the foreseeable future, credit unions are in an OK spot. The pandemic has highlighted how credit unions can leverage and multiply resources and services during extreme times.  The people that I have come to know in this field are so passionate about their teams, their members, and their communities. The industry as a whole does a great job of sharing time and treasure, with credit union leagues, CUSOs, trade groups, and the like. Those partnerships and efficiencies need to continue to multiply. There is still a place in the future for small community financial institutions, especially credit unions.