For Blocks, It's CU At Work, CU In Retirement

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They showed up at the same conferences, had meals together and, um, shared the same hotel rooms. And, not by coincidence, this indiscreet couple both recently announced their respective retirements as CU CEOs to play more "tennis and golf."

It might have been good gossip if they weren't married.

Richard Block, CEO of New Jersey Federal Credit Union here, and his wife, Joan Block, CEO of ADP (Automatic Data Processing) FCU in nearby Roseland, walked into the sunset together after 40 some years of combined service to the CU industry.

"When my wife retired in December 2004, it had a big influence on me," said Richard Block, who took charge of NJFCU 33 years ago. "I thought that I had a successful career and any goals that I might have had in the back of my mind, I realized."

Block said he was eager to "experience the next phase of his life" that would include playing more tennis and golf, and spending time between cottages on the New Jersey shore and the Florida coast.

Of course, it wouldn't be any fun without Joan, two grown children, two grandchildren and a third on the way in December, he said.

Joan, who entered the CU industry as a second career after her youngest was in kindergarten, agreed.

"You know, I never really wanted to work my whole life," said Joan, a former social worker. "I had career goals that I wanted to achieve. I thought if we became a full-service institution and reached $40-million in assets, I would be happy."

Unlike her husband, who had an accounting background and experience with the Bureau of Federal Credit Unions before taking a pay cut to run the "very small, very plain vanilla" New Jersey Federal Credit Union, Joan Block had no CU experience at all.

"I was at home with the children and kind of looking for something different when I went back to work," she said. It just so happened that she was intrigued by her husband's job. "I had nothing to do with three little kids running around, so he would bring home audits for me to do," she said.

Seeking To Enhance Skills

Joan Block said she liked the work so much that she took some accounting courses to enhance her skills. And, when a small area CU called Valley Fair asked her husband to refer someone to help with daily postings, she was at the top of his list. When that CU's treasurer had a heart attack six weeks later, Joan said, she found herself in a key position.

"I ended up being the treasurer/manager of this credit union with less than a million in assets," she said. Joan Block later moved to Fairleigh Dickinson University CU in Madison, where she was part-time CEO and helped the institution grow from $500,000 in assets to $8 million.

When growth peaked in the late 1970s as the CU's single sponsor began downsizing, Joan Block made what would be the last move of her career to ADP Credit Union in Roseland. At the time, ADP had only $5 million in assets and no products and services, she said. "But there was a lot of potential."

When she retired, it was a full-service financial institution with $55 million in assets, and 13,000 members all over the country.

"I really just wanted to leave when things were going well," she said, "leave at a high point in my career."

Easier said than done, Joan Block admitted, as this CU was also a single-sponsor institution with strict guidelines on how it could market to potential members.

Even now, as credit unions compete with each other, she expects the future will be difficult for many.

"There is so much out there and the competition is fierce," she said. "We used to have a niche, and now we aren't just competing against the banks. We're competing against other credit unions with community charters."

Richard Block said he is proud of how the industry has evolved, but also has reservations about the future of smaller credit unions. "The competition has made credit unions better and that's good," he said. "But the smaller credit unions won't make it if they can't get a niche." His hope is that the NCUA and smaller credit unions will do what they can to keep their financial institutions thriving.

"When I first started, there were a lot of small credit unions," Mr. Block said. "People worked in the shop, than grabbed a desk here for two or three hours a day. As the credit union grew larger, they were afraid of losing their part-time jobs."

He said the fear was that their credit unions wouldn't be able to compete. Even back then, changes triggered concerns that credit unions were trying to become banks. "This is the same concern now with community charters," he said. "But this is progress and you can't stop it."

Great Satisfaction

Mr. Block, who has served in many volunteer positions with the New Jersey Credit Union League and the National Association of Federal Credit Unions, even earning a top award for distinguished service, said he leaves the industry with great satisfaction.

When asked if there was anything along the way that he would like to re-do, Block simply stated, "Nothing."

His CU, which had some $800,000 in assets, no full-time staff and barely a product or service to speak about, is now a $170-million institution with 30,000 members and three branches including a main branch that boasts 34,000 square feet.

While staff credits him with the CU's growth, Mr. Block said it was a good staff and some positive regulatory changes that made it possible.

"As a leader, I felt that I had high ethical standards and that I delegated well," he said.

He said he operated in a team environment, which benefited everybody and made for a "transparent transition" when his 20-year senior VP, Lourdes Garcia, took the helm.

Mrs. Block said ADP's former senior VP, Juliet Jaremko, stepped into the key role there.

"She worked with me seven years before I retired," Mrs. Block said. "She knows that she can call me."

Both CEOs said there's a lot about the industry they miss-regulatory changes not being among them.

"I think I am going to miss the people most," Mr. Block said. "They were one of the reasons I liked coming to work every morning."

And, while he's still on the CU's board, Mr. Block said, "I want to make a clean break. If they need me for any questions, for any advice, I'm here. But when I stepped down as CEO, I wanted to be fully retired."

For Mrs. Block, the new joys of her day will begin with "a morning newspaper, a cup of coffee and my golf."

For those following in his footsteps, Mr. Block offered this advice. "Each situation is different and you have to act on each on its own merit," he said. "Things that look good in theory do not always work in practice. If you got this far, your instincts are probably pretty good, so use them."

Block also suggested upcoming CEOs surround themselves with "good people and listen to them."

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