CEO Learns From Being Near The Fridge

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XCEL FCU CEO Jim Wisnieski will spend much of the second anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the basement, next to the coffee maker and the refrigerator.

It's not that Wisnieski will be seeking shelter: it's been his office since he, like thousands of others, lost his office- and much more-when the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center collapsed.

"Yes, I'm still stuck in the basement, but at least I have it to myself," he laughed, noting that the two senior members of his staff who had been sharing the cramped basement quarters with him are no longer there. "We bought some modular furniture and shuffled some folks around on the second floor, so they're up there, now."

But there is hope that the CEO will soon emerge from his Batcave-like lair in the temporary headquarters of the $84- million credit union.

"We are in negotiations for a new building in New Jersey that will serve as a new operations center and branch with retail facilities," he told The CU Journal.

The move is in keeping with Wisnieski's now two-year-old vow never to return to the World Trade Center once something is rebuilt on the site of the nation's worst terrorist attack of all time. As he noted in the days following the catastrophe, "(terrorists) have tried to get me twice now. I'm not giving them a third shot at it," a reference to the fact that XCEL FCU also survived the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993, when six people were killed and more than 1,000 injured.

But his two years in the basement have not gone to waste. "Since I'm next to the fridge and the coffeemaker, everyone stops down here at least once a day so I see a lot more of my staff than I did before," he related. "Before I was sort of in that CEO's ivory tower, but being here has allowed to me to get to know my staff in a different way. I've learned quite a bit about my staff over the last two years."

While Wisnieski will be very happy to be in an office more befitting his role as CEO, he also wants to maintain at least some of what he has gained by being in the basement. "Before, the way we were set up, it was very segmented in different areas and different buildings. Our call center and accounting department are in Federal Plaza (in Manhattan), and they'll get to move over, so there will be more of us all together, and I'll be able to walk around and see more people."

Challenge To Get To Branch

XCEL will maintain its branch and ATMs at Federal Plaza as some 47% of its membership works in that building. But post-Sept. 11 security changes have made the location less than convenient for most anyone else, and that includes Wisnieski himself, when he goes to visit his staff at the federal building.

"If you don't work there, you have to get a pass, and to do that you have to wait in the visitor's line, which also includes immigration. The line is so long that they've put out a canvas tent and a fiberglass hut to shelter people in line. It can easily take two hours to get in," he commented. "But it's an important location for our membership. We're talking about ways of putting in an electronic branch that could be open 24/7."

The push to create an e-branch at the Federal Plaza location is one example of the way the CU has changed in the wake of Sept. 11. "We've implemented shared branching, started a call center and started a debit card program," Wisnieski noted. "Only about 8% of our membership comes to the branch, so we're getting electronic everything."

The credit union has also launched its first mortgage program to astounding success. "We projected to have about $2 million in mortgages by the end of the year, but the way things are going we'll probably be closer to $7 million," he offered. "It's gone so well that now we're going to start offering mortgages on vacation homes, too. We're very proud of the fact that our loan growth is higher than the national average, but our delinquency is lower than the national average."

But while assets and loans are growing, membership growth is a challenge for XCEL. "Our membership has been declining because the Port Authority (of New York and New Jersey, XCEL's primary sponsor) is contracting out a lot of work. In 1986, the Port Authority employed 12,000 people, now that's down to 6,000," Wisnieski explained. "We're going out more and more for family members. We do have some SEGs, and we're still pursuing that avenue."

While the credit union has done an admirable job of moving on from the Sept. 11 disaster, that doesn't mean that the pain and loss aren't still very close to the surface.

"People the world over sat in front of their televisions and cried after 9/11, but here in New York we're not finished crying, yet," he said. "Everyone here is still very sensitive about it. We will mark the day, but it will be very low key. Last year we gave out patriotic teddy bears in red, white and blue. This year, we're giving out flag pins that have the World Trade Center on it. We had a few people who just couldn't come back to work, one retired just a year ago ans is still shaky. We've still got two employees on workman's comp."

A Family Member's Perspective

Wisnieski's daughter's experience lends perspective to the difference between how New York feels about Sept. 11 compared with the rest of the nation. "My daughter goes to York College in Pennsylvania, and there's just not the same fever of response as there was here," he said. "It was a whole lot easier for the rest of the nation to move on. It's not that anyone has forgotten, it's just not as ever present for them the way it is for us. My wife lost her first cousin, he was a firefighter. It wasn't long ago that the family finally got his body back and was able to have a burial for him."

So, as a New Yorker whose experience with the terrorist attacks is far more personal, Wisnieski offered some words of wisdom: "We must not be complacent, this could happen again, and we have to be ever vigilant," he advised. "I know the security at the airports is a pain in the neck, but it's definitely a necessary thing."

And last but not least: pause to remember the fallen. "They gave their lives up to terrorism, and that is as much a war as anything else," Wisnieski said. "Remember the day with reverence."

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