Secret Staff Action Honors Not-So-Secret Successes

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When Carlo Cestra's staff asked if he had a passport, Digital Federal Credit Union's CEO said he was surprised that he would even need one.

"They told me I had to go to Canada for a special award," he said. "I was so surprised."

Several months earlier, the sneaky staff nominated their boss for NAFCU's Professional of the Year award at a CU with more than $150 million in assets. "They did it all behind my back," Cestra told The Credit Union Journal. "What an honor."

Cestra will join other credit union staff and volunteers honored for their outstanding achievements during NAFCU's 39th Annual Conference and Exhibition, July 12-15, in Toronto, Canada.

Hired at DFCU in 1995, Cestra is credited with lifting the then single-sponsor CU with declining membership (less than 67,000) and shrinking assets ($350 million) to the nation's fastest growing credit union in New England with assets at $3.1 billion, according to Callahan & Associates.

Under Cestra's leadership, assets grew 813%, savings grew 807%, loans 992%, and membership 400%-without mergers, said Tim Garner, VP Marketing/Strategic Planning. "In all but members, DCU growth rates are ahead of the next highest CU by more than 172%," Garner said. "Capital grew 668%-4th highest."

DCU now serves more than 650 employee groups, six membership organizations and seven underserved communities.

"Through Carlo's leadership, DCU grew more in assets in 2005 than it was large in 1996," he said. "Carlo's emphasis on treating the members right resulted in 96% of the members saying they are satisfied or very satisfied with DCU service."

In fact, Garner said, satisfaction rates have not been below 95% since Cestra took the reins.

Even when HP, the successor to DCU's original sponsor, asked DCU to close shop on HP property so it could bring in its own credit union, not only did DCU's members remain loyal, another 7.9% joined, Garner said.

Garner said Cestra wasted no time when he arrived at DCU from AT&T Employees FCU (now Affinity FCU) in Bedminster, N.J., where he served as CEO for 15 years.

"Carlo introduced DCU's board to policy governance using the John Carver model soon after coming here," Garner said. "The board embraced the concept and has worked diligently to improve their application of the concept."

Cestra also supported a company-wide initiative to control expenses and increase income helped drive a 12% increase in ROA and a 9% decrease in the expense ratio. His credit union saved an additional $1 million per year in printing and mailing costs when it moved 120,000 online banking users to e-statements.

Garner said the CU now focuses a significant amount of DCU member marketing toward online users. In addition to its online newsletter, DCU added online membership to its website, which now handles more than 40% of new member enrollment.

Garner said the board has trusted its leader and given him "wide latitude to achieve both his and the board's mission and vision. "Carlo's board relationship enabled DCU to become a nimble organization -free to act quickly on opportunities for growth and improvement," Garner said. "DCU's achievements would be impossible without the trust and authority the volunteers have bestowed on him."

Garner said Cestra works equally well with staff.

"Everyone is on a first name basis with Carlo and the management team," Garner said. "Carlo will not hire a manager who won't smile and say hello to employees in the hallway."

In 1996, Cestra instituted DCU's Success Sharing Program, which gives bonuses of up to 15% of salaries. "The program drives team spirit and accomplishment," Garner said. "Every month, employees know how DCU is doing against goals and to what level their expected bonus has increased."

Garner said Cestra believes that managers need to take care of their staff so that they, in turn, will take care of the members. Along with DCU's common employee benefits, its employees get free food on Fridays, liberal tuition reimbursement, subsidized vending machines and employee appreciation dinners complete with training programs.

Garner said that five of DCU's VPs hold CUES Certified Chief Executive certifications, and that the 17-member senior management team meets biweekly to stay creative and focused on key goals.

To ensure they have the right mix of employees, Cestra and his two SVPs meet with every new hire during orientation to both learn about them and ensure they understand the DCU culture.

The Place To Work

His philosophy earned DCU a place on Best Places to Work Institute's list of 25 Best Medium Companies to Work for in America in 2004 and 2005. "Few other credit unions have been on this list and only DCU has been there twice," Garner said.

To better facilitate the CU's charitable efforts, Cestra incorporated DCU for Kids, a non-profit charitable foundation. Through its annual charity golf classic, DCU raised a record $210,000 for the Boomer Esiason Foundation for Cystic Fibrosis.

Cestra, who traveled to the United States from Italy on the last successful voyage of the Andrea Doria, said he has learned a lot about the credit union industry simply by doing. He attended Pennsylvania Military College in Chester, Penn., and received a bachelor's degree in accounting. His employment history includes several stints as an NCUA examiner, an intelligence officer in the U.S. Army and general manager of Suffolk FCU, where assets grew from $150,000 to $15 million during his tenure.

"At an early staff meeting upon coming to DCU, Carlo encouraged everyone to follow the advice his mother gave him when he was a boy," Garner said. "Good, better, best. Never take a rest. Make your good better and your better best."

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