Hilary Eisbrenner, CFO, Keesler Federal Credit Union
Hilary Eisbrenner has the kind of career experiences that put her on a direct path to becoming a chief financial officer. During her last two weeks of high school, she received special permission to miss class so she could attend teller training at a local bank. She worked as a teller through college — where she studied finance — and passed the CPA exam after four years of night school.
Through her 25-year career, she has served as a financial analyst at MSU Federal Credit Union, senior auditor and consultant at Doeren Mayhew, chief financial officer at Astera Credit Union, vice president of finance at Michigan First Credit Union, and controller at Central Corporate Credit Union, where she ended up just three miles from her hometown.
When Central Corporate Credit Union and Alloya Corporate Federal Credit Union announced their merger in 2012, she was assured of taking the reins as controller of the new larger organization. But it was one of those pivot points in life, and this time, she didn’t go with the sure thing.
CU QUICK FACTS
Data as of 06.30.15
HQ: Biloxi, MS
12-MO SHARE GROWTH: 3.95%
12-MO LOAN GROWTH: 11.92%
So Eisbrenner and her husband, Bert, boarded a 35-foot Catamaran with all their possessions and embarked on a journey down the Mississippi River, with Eisbrenner applying for jobs at credit unions en route. As their “Cat” entered panoramic Mobile Bay, AL, she got a call from Keesler Federal Credit Union ($2.3B, Biloxi, MS). Two and half years later, Eisbrenner still lives on that Catamaran — full-time — and serves as senior vice president and CFO at Keesler.
“I love my lifestyle,” Eisbrenner says. “You can live on a boat and still be a responsible credit union professional.”
Here are a few more pronouncements from Eisbrenner.
On visible leadership ...
When I worked on the teller line, the senior executives used to stand outside the second-floor offices and look down across the lobby. As a teller, I thought, ‘Oh, my goodness, they’re watching me.’ As I’ve progressed in my own career, I’ve learned they weren’t watching me, but I realize the influence, or the unintended influence, I have on lower-level staff. If I start running around with my hair on fire, it’s going to make the organization jumpy or unsettled. So I have to keep control, stay calm in all situations, and provide clear instructions, clear communication, and clear vision.
On visionary leadership ...
When I was working at Michigan First Credit Union, one of my former CEOs, Michal Poulos, was a strong visionary leader who laid out a clear path for the credit union that everybody could follow. Michigan First was Detroit Teacher’s Credit Union at that time, and it had a horrible rating. It hired a consultant to change the leadership team, and I was part of the new team.
Everybody was new — all the vice presidents, the CEO, the whole executive level — and in five years we changed more than 80% of the staff. We went through a name change, a core system conversion, all new staff, all new leadership, and we moved the headquarters out of the city of Detroit and into the suburbs. When you consider doing all of that in a five-year period, that’s vision.
On building teams ...
You’ve got to put people first. Nothing is going to get accomplished without the team.
You’ve also got to act quicker and be more decisive, especially when it comes to moving people off your team that aren’t the right fit for the organization. If you’ve got a new hire in a probationary period, that’s the honeymoon. That’s the best you’re ever going to get. If you’ve got some challenges with that person, cut the cord early or you might have that person for the next 15, 20, or 25 years, and that’s not fair to the membership.
On staying focused ...
It’s a challenge to keep focused on what’s important. Don’t get consumed by the day-to-day stuff and lose sight of the strategic plan or the vision of the organization and what you’re trying to accomplish for the membership. Don’t let the day-to-day stuff eat you up.
On believing in the community ...
We just had the 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina on Aug. 29. I wasn’t here for Katrina, but there isn’t a day since I got to the Mississippi Gulf Coast that there isn’t some reference to the loss. And in April 2010, the Deep Water Horizon oil spill also hit this community hard.
The community is recovering, like our credit union. We have a new leadership team — I was the last one in — and we’ve gone from negative loan growth in 2010 and 2011 to positive growth in 2012, 2013, and 2014. We’re doing great this year as well.
And for three years running, we have been voted the best bank/credit union and the best local mortgage lender — even beating out the big local banks —in the Sun Herald newspaper’s People’s Choice awards.
On the regulatory environment ...
I’d like to see fewer regulatory, compliance, and legal barriers. Let us get back to our mission of people helping people. Not only in our industry, but in other industries as well, something big and bad happens and there’s a whole new set of rules put in place. I’m not sure just adding more rules is the solution.
Ultimately, it’s making financial services more expensive for members. A great example is the remittance transfer rule. The end result of all the new disclosure requirements was that to process international remittances or international wires, we had to change how we did it and we had to increase our cost to the member. For us to comply, it is a more expensive service that we pass through to the membership. So in the end, these consumer protections are costing the membership more, and that’s not the intended outcome.
On following your dreams ...
We met so many people when we were coming down the river, and a lot of people in retirement were doing something called America’s Great Loop. Basically you circumnavigate the Eastern United States. It’s a year-long journey down the Mississippi, around the tip of Florida, and north along the East Coast to the Great Lakes. So many people on the trip either were having medical issues, family issues, and all of kinds of problems, and they weren’t able to complete their dreams. This just further reinforced for my husband and me that we made the right decision to make these life changes. Life doesn’t have to be an “either-or.” Life can be an “and.”
Three years ago, Hilary Eisbrenner and her husband, Bert, lived full-time onboard a houseboat on the Great Lakes. When they embarked on a journey down the Mississippi River riding a 35-foot Catamaran that housed all their possessions and dreams, they didn't know they'd end up at the mouth of Mobile Bay on the Gulf Coast, home of Keesler Federal Credit Union.
— As told to E.C. Harrison