Bridge Builder

by Julia Lynam

David Bard makes sure his institution maintains links to the community

New England Federal Credit Union in Williston, the largest credit union in Vermont, started in 1961 as the IBM Employees’ Credit Union. David Bard, president and chief executive officer, has been at the helm since 1986.

Bridge-building is an ancient and venerable art. Although it’s not one normally associated with a financial institution, that’s how David Bard sees the role of the credit union he leads. President of New England Federal Credit Union in Williston since 1986, Bard believes the mission of the credit union extends beyond serving members and employees into a commitment to work for the wider community.

Credit unions are nonprofit organizations based on a simple idea that grew out of the 19th-century cooperative movement: They enable people to pool their money and make loans to one another. The range of loans and the places of business have changed and expanded over the years, but the basic principle holds true.

New England Federal Credit Union (NEFCU) originates around $270 million in loans annually and has $500 million in assets, with an additional $550 million in mortgages sold but still serviced for members. It is the largest credit union in Vermont, established in 1961 as the IBM Employees’ Credit Union and serving the technology giant, as it does today, at its Essex Junction facility.

The “New England” designation came when the credit union was serving an IBM facility in Massachusetts. In 1996 NEFCU merged with the Vermont Health Care Credit Union, acquiring members at Fletcher Allen Health Care and the Visiting Nurse Association. It became a community credit union in 2001.

“This means that we are now able to serve Chittenden and its five contiguous counties,” says Bard. He explains that credit unions have a defined field of membership, which for NEFCU extends to anyone living or working in Chittenden, Grand Isle, Franklin, Lamoille, Addison and Washington counties.

This imposes limits to growth, but NEFCU has nonetheless grown its assets tenfold since Bard took up his position. With 67,000 members, 135 employees, seven branches and 21 ATMs, NEFCU is an important force in Vermont’s economic community.

New England Federal Credit Union, with $500 million in assets, originates about $270 million in loans each year. Susan Leonard is senior vice president and chief financial officer of the nonprofit institution.

“If you look at the business we do, there are a lot of similarities with a bank,” says Bard. “The main difference is that we’re a mutual company, a cooperative. We don’t have stockholders as banks do; they’re constantly trying to find the balance between providing value to their stockholders, customers and employees. We have a very clear mission: members and employees.

"As a mutual company we’re in a position to go the extra mile to serve members’ best interests. I’m aware of nobody else that’s open both Saturdays and Sundays, and into the evenings, as we are. There’s a real demand for that, and we have the flexibility - even the obligation - to be pro-consumer.”

Bard, a former commissioner of Banking and Insurance in the Kunin administration, has been a prominent player on the Vermont banking scene for many years. The Long Island native landed in Vermont to study psychology at the University of Vermont and, finding the state "a wonderful place to live," decided to stay. After graduation and a stint in the U.S. Navy, he returned to UVM for a master's degree in counseling and worked in the university's College of Education for two years before joining the Chittenden Bank's human resources team.

At the Chittenden, he soon made the transition into the financial arena, working in product development and strategic planning to become a senior vice president. He joined Kunin in 1985, and left politics in '86 to take his current position.

“David has been an innovator in bringing locally managed and developed financial services to the people of Vermont,” says Steve Waltien, resident director of Merrill Lynch in Vermont.

“He’s one of the last true entrepreneurial bankers in Vermont. A typical example of his approach has been his insistence that NEFCU’s ATMs should not charge people who are not customers. Everyone else is taking $1 to $3 each time a non-customer uses their ATM, but you can go to NEFCU and not pay anything - that gains new customers.”

The no-fee ATM policy is just one of Bard’s bridges to the community. Another is the major outreach program under development in the form of an extension of the free financial workshops NEFCU offers. “We’ve really worked hard at education,” says executive vice president and chief operating officer John Dwyer, “We have a certified financial planner and registered IRS agent, Shirley Polworth, on staff who plans and organizes the program.”

In the last year, 1,500 members attended workshops on subjects ranging from basic budget and retirement planning to understanding and improving credit scores. NEFCU is widening the scope of the program by funding a $250,000 foundation, which will extend the seminar program to underserved demographic groups including young people, recent immigrants, refugees and the working poor.

Bard has also recognized the need for speed and convenience of transactions. “People are very time-pressed,” says Bard, “More than half of our consumer loans are done over the phone or Internet, and that’s growing. Sometimes the staff in our call center are doing the seventh or eighth loan for the same member - they can turn a used-car loan around in 15 minutes.”

For more complicated loans and mortgages, an innovative loan contact center provides members with a conduit to carry information between them and their loan officer while a loan is being processed. That includes running two courier vans to pick up documents from members.

In today’s tremendously competitive market, financial institutions face growing problems of check and credit fraud and identity theft. NEFCU is anxious to make members aware of these dangers. “It’s really critical that people shred their sensitive documents with Social Security and account numbers,” says Bard. “Three times this year we’ve held a “shredfest” in the parking lot when we shredded 5,000 pounds of documents for members. It’s part of encouraging people to be sensitive to these considerations and make better decisions.” NEFCU provides free assistance for members who fall victim to identity theft or similar problems, by making access available to professionals who help them write letters and contact credit bureaus.

Superior employment conditions are another crucial aspect of NEFCU’s mission, says Bard. “The members tell us that the employees here do a magnificent job. We have a very low turnover rate - right now it’s below 7 percent. We pay well, support professional growth and offer wellness programs.

One of the things that’s very important is actively including our employees in defining how the credit union is successful. We don’t think they’re going to treat our members any differently from the way we treat them.”

Chief financial officer and senior vice president Sue Leonard has found the NEFCU mission inspiring. “This business is much more complex than it was when I joined 15 years ago,” she says. “I’m primarily a businessperson, and I like competition and challenge. I didn’t join NEFCU specifically because it is a nonprofit, but over the years what’s evolved for me is an appreciation of working with a business that helps people, that has an impact on the community.”

Leonard, originally from Highgate, worked for KPMG in Burlington for two years after graduating from UVM. “I audited many Vermont businesses, including NEFCU,” she recalls. Leonard joined NEFCU in 1990 as controller working for John Dwyer, and in 2001 stepped into the CFO slot when Dwyer took on the mantle of the retail operations.

Gerri Bloomberg, an independent organizational and workplace consultant who lives in the same Shelburne neighborhood as Bard and his wife, Doris, has worked with NEFCU’s senior management. “They are a very high-performing team,” says Bloomberg. “They really push themselves hard and work with a lot of intensity. They always want to do better - it’s in the nature of their culture and the nature of David’s leadership.

“David holds himself to very high standards,” Bloomberg continues. “He’s a very humane man who cares about his people, and he’s also very savvy about the conditions out there, so he expects them to hold high standards, too. He knows that in order to do well you have to be original and serve your customers well, and that his senior management team must communicate well with one another.”

The credit union begins Phase One of a major renovation of its 10-year-old headquarters building this month. John Dwyer Jr., executive vice president and chief operating officer, stresses the importance of convenience for current and future members.

Those communication skills are being tested as NECFU gears up for a major renovation of its 10-year-old Harvest Lane headquarters, with all the concomitant disruption and staff relocation. The renovation will add drive-ups, points of sale, teller lines and automated tellers to allow for the growing volume of business.

“This is a business that’s about convenience,” says Dwyer, “And we want to be sure that whether you want to use an ATM or a drive-up, or you want to come in and see a teller, it’s convenient for you. This building isn’t big enough for the demands that we have today and those we see coming in the next 10 years.”

David Bard and his team at NEFCU are striving to make those next 10 years as fulfilling as the past decade: to make a real difference in people’s lives, building bridges within their membership base and out to the wider community.

“It’s really gratifying to work in a place where your work makes a difference, where it’s not just a job,” says Bard, “That’s why a lot of the staff here stay as long as they do and are engaged in the business the way they are. It translates into a nice formula

Originally published in November 2005 Business People-Vermont