Exit Interview is a new series from CreditUnions.com that shares the insight and experience of credit union executives who are retiring after many years of service to the movement.
Doug Fecher left high school with the intention of being a chef. That didn’t work out, but he did cook up a career in cooperatives that has seen him spend the past 21 years as president and CEO at Wright-Patt Credit Union ($6.6B, Beavercreek, OH).
Here’s his story.
The Back Story
When did you join the credit union movement?
Doug Fecher: After trying my hand at chef’s school I learned liking to cook didn’t mean I was any good at it I went to the University of Cincinnati and got a degree in finance and marketing. I was a lifeguard the summer after I graduated in 1983 and realized I needed a real job. When September arrived, I joined Chaco Credit Union as a teller.
What was your career path to president/CEO?
DF: I stayed at Chaco for 12 years and steadily moved up from teller to running our IRA business when that was a new thing to becoming our first marketing manager. Then I became vice president of business development overseeing lending and new accounts.
In 1995, Wright-Patt approached me about taking its newly created position of vice president of consumer lending. The credit union had loans-to-shares of maybe less than 50% at the time and wasn’t doing a lot of lending. Not being the brightest crayon in the box, I said no.
I had just gotten a nice raise from Chaco. I’m a loyal guy, and Chaco had always taken care of me, but that night I realized I owed it to my family to at least talk to Wright-Patt.
I interviewed and joined Wright-Patt in April 1995. Our president at the time, Harold Vance, moved the mortgage group under me about six months later. He retired around 1998 and our new president, Patrick Gantt, made me COO, at which point I had lending and branches. He passed away unexpectedly in 2000, and the board of directors asked me to be acting CEO for six months while they did a national search for a permanent successor.
I threw my hat into the ring and was named president and CEO in December of that year. I’m glad they did that search because I was the newest senior manager and it helped validate me to the rest of our staff.
When is your retirement effective? Who is succeeding you?
DF: My retirement is effective Dec. 31, 2021. We have a good internal candidate, but our board is doing its fiduciary duty and is in the middle of its own national search. The goal is to name my successor in November.
How much has Wright-Patt grown since you took the helm?
DF: We were at $596 million in assets then and are now at $6.7 billion. We had 16 branches then, now we have 37 and have moved into new markets, including Columbus. We’re the largest member-owned financial cooperative in the state of Ohio.
Learnings And Legacy
How has the credit union industry changed during your career?
DF: It’s much bigger. When I became CEO, $596 million was a pretty large credit union. That would be moderate-sized now.
The biggest change is probably the discipline it takes to run a credit union in today’s regulatory environment. When I started, we spent most of our time figuring out how to best serve members. Of course, we still do that, but now we have to make sure we keep up with requirements and compliance around ALM and balance sheets, BSA, and cybersecurity.
All that requires a much-higher level of expertise than I can bring to the table myself. In that regard, I like to point to the advice of my first boss at Chaco, Bill Michael. He was an All-American end at Ohio State who frequently told me that if you always hire people smarter than yourself, you’ll end up in the company of giants.
Is that the best piece of advice you have for someone assuming the CEO role at a credit union today?
DF: Well, if your ego is such that you need to hire only people who respect you because you’re in charge, they’ll start making decisions based on what you want them to do rather than pushing back with their own ideas. Everybody who reports to me understands they can push back. That’s why hiring smart people matters so much.
I also learned from my dad that if you take care of people, they’ll take care of you. That, honest-to-goodness, is what I’ve based my entire credit union career on.
He was a mechanical engineer who sold manufacturing process instrumentation. He was a big Dale Carnegie guy, and one of his big clients was Champion International, the paper company. Chaco, where I started, was Champion’s credit union.
What would you most like to be remembered for as CEO at Wright-Patt?
DF: For deeply instilling the whole notion that this is a people business. I worked on that my whole career. You have to work hard to take care of your employees, especially those on the front line.
It’s not like they woke up one day and decided their life passion is cashing checks. They’re doing this, in some cases as a second job, because they need the income to support their families. Taking care of them ensures they’ll make a difference in the lives of the people they serve our members even if it’s just a smile. It might be the only smile that member sees all day.
We preach servant leadership. We don’t worry about growth. If you make sure your members partner better with you than anywhere else, that will bring all the success you need.
So, it comes down to these two ideas: Hire people smarter than you; and, take care of the people, and they’ll take care of you.
What are your plans now? How will you start your retirement?
DF: We love to ski and I’m training to be a member of the National Ski Patrol. Those are the people in the red jackets with the big white crosses. They’re all volunteers at a ski area in IndianaI go to, and I plan to help out two days a week. I’m halfway through the training.
I also plan to stay engaged with credit unions. If someone wants my help with strategic planning, for example, I’m available for that.
I’m not retiring to stop working. I’m retiring to put time back in my life. After more than 20 years of doing this, I owe that to my wife and our three kids and five grandkids.
What’s left on your bucket list?
DF: I love to golf, and I want to play Pebble Beach. I’m also thinking of renting an RV and hanging out in some of our national parks.
Do you have any final words for the credit union industry?
DF: When I started with credit unions in the 1980s, we always called it a movement. Now we talk about it as an industry. Don’t ever forget you’re a cooperative owned by members the whole idea is to help make their lives better.
I call credit unions an American treasure. We have an obligation as their leaders to preserve and promote America’s cooperative credit union movement.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Editor’s Note: Doug Fecher is chairman of the board of directors of Callahan & Associates, owner of CreditUnions.com.