The president and chief executive of Navy Federal Credit Union has announced he will relinquish his command April 19.

Tom Hughes, who steered the country's largest credit union for eight years, cited his age - 69 - as the reason for his retirement.

"When you get old, it's time," said Mr. Hughes, who expects to serve at least part of the two years remaining in his term on the Navy Federal board. "I'd rather not retire. I love the job, but it's time for some younger hands to get in here."

Mr. Hughes' handpicked successor is current executive vice president Brian McDonnell, a 26-year veteran of the $8.8 billion-asset credit union, based in Merrifield, Va.

"He has a lot of experience in the bowels of the organization," Mr. Hughes said. "Over the past year, in preparation, I've tried exposing him to more and more of the operation."

Despite Mr. McDonnell's extensive experience and prominent role in the credit union - he has served as director of the credit union's mortgage and operations departments - his appointment surprised some observers.

Eyebrows were raised over the issue of rank: Mr. McDonnell was a captain in the Naval Reserve, while Mr. Hughes and his predecessor both were admirals. A principal task of the credit union's chief executive is maintaining relations with its sponsor, and conventional wisdom holds that the higher the chief's former rank, the better.

But Mr. Hughes and Mr. McDonnell don't expect any problems.

"Being an admiral doesn't hurt, but you don't have to be one," Mr. McDonnell said.

Regardless of his rank, Mr. McDonnell will have to fill some big shoes.

Mr. Hughes diversified the range of products Navy Federal offered during his eight-year watch, and the credit union nearly tripled in assets.

"Our challenge was not to grow, but to satisfy the growth we had," he said.

The strong-willed Mr. Hughes also held a prominent position in the industry. Besides serving in industry trade groups, he held advisory roles with the Federal Reserve Board and now acts as an adviser to the boards of Visa U.S.A. and the Plus System Inc.

He also was willing to take strong stands. For instance, last year Navy Federal pulled out of the industry's largest trade group after it sued the federal government.

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