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Leader is banking on growth at this credit union

Rochester Business Journal
October 5, 2012

Pamela Heald, the youngest of 12 children and president and CEO of Reliant Community Credit Union, has incorporated her childhood experiences into her professional life.
 
“It’s a big part of my background,” she says. “It’s a big part of my work ethic and everything else.”
 
Heald, 47, was born and raised in Williamson, some 10 miles west of the credit union’s headquarters in Sodus, Wayne County. She was named president and CEO in January 2007 and oversees 163 employees in a credit union with 37,700 members.
 
“The opportunity I had growing up with 12 children, nobody else gets that,” she says. “You don’t even realize until you’re about 40 years old what kind of life lesson that is.
 
“We worked from a very young age. We joke that my parents had that many children so we could work.”
 
Chester and Pearl Peters worked the family’s fruit farm. He also worked construction and was the caretaker of a cemetery where Heald and her siblings worked at digging graves and other tasks.
 
“I, at a young age, was clipping around gravestones, working on our family farm, baby-sitting,” Heald says. “I went to Europe when I was 15; I baby-sat for an entire year and had my siblings not pay me until it was time to go to Europe.
 
“Working for what you have, when that’s instilled in you as a kid, that doesn’t go away. That’s there your entire life—which is a great life lesson, because I’ve never looked for anything to be given to me.”
 
Heald is two years younger than the second-youngest child and 20 years younger than the eldest.
 
“The other 11 would say I’m spoiled, and I would say I’m not,” Heald says. “It was a lot of fun. I wouldn’t change a thing. You had to work hard to get attention.
 
“Part of how I think it shaped me is you typically didn’t get anything you wanted, so when you got something, you were happy with it. Sharing was part of what you did. Teamwork was part of what you did. That’s why I feel that background really helps me out as an adult.”
 
Kathy Cooper, one of Heald’s best friends since kindergarten, agrees.
 
“It’s made her assertive,” Cooper says. “It’s made her a hard worker. I wouldn’t dispute that at all.”
 
Cooper, a Rochester-based underwriting officer with the Travelers Cos. Inc. insurance firm, grew up with Heald in Williamson and considers herself part of the family.
 
“I’m kind of like the 13th child,” Cooper says. “We’re the same age. I know her entire family really well. Her siblings are like my siblings.
 
“Pamela is a really trustworthy person. She always sees the positive in any situation. You can count on her for anything. You can trust her in confidence. I can’t think of anybody better.”

Key player
Reliant had total assets of nearly $235.8 million as of Dec. 31. It is the fourth-largest credit union in the Rochester market.
 
It has nine branches, four of which have been added since Heald became CEO in 2007. Three opened in the last 24 months, the most recent in May at the Wal-Mart Stores Inc. location in Henrietta.
 
“Our vision is to be the premier financial institution, our members’ choice, in every community we serve, which today is three counties,” Heald says. “That could be different in the future. I can’t share where our next branch location will be, but there will be additional branch locations.”
 
Reliant serves the counties of Monroe, Ontario and Wayne.
 
It works cooperatively with other credit unions in the Rochester area, Heald says.
 
“I have a lot of respect for her,” says Michael Vadala, president and CEO of the Summit Federal Credit Union, the third-largest in the local market. “I think she does a tremendous job. I like the way she thinks. I like the way she approaches the credit union industry and its issues.”
 
Vadala works with Heald on community, legislative and industry-specific issues related to credit unions.
 
“We’re very close friends,” Vadala says. “I’ve known her since before she was CEO,” he says. “I think she has a great understanding of what a credit union is supposed to be. She understands that the members own it, that she’s there to serve them.
 
“A lot of people try to do things too much like the for-profit financial institutions. Pamela doesn’t. She runs her shop in what we think—because we think we do this, too—is the right way.”

Career path
Heald entered the banking industry in 1984 because an aunt who worked at Citibank N.A. said it was hiring. She took a job as a temporary worker at bank subsidiary Student Loan Corp. and stayed with Citibank for eight years.
 
“I had a great career going at Citibank,” she says. “I had promotions every six months. It’s a large company. A lot of people work there. If you had a good work ethic and could do your job well, you stood out and it was easy to get promoted.
 
“But I was driving an hour each way every day. I thought there had to be someplace that I can share my talents and be closer to home. My husband said, ‘Why don’t you apply at my credit union?’ I applied at his credit union. The rest is history.”
 
Heald joined Reliant in 1992 as supervisor of its collections department. Eighteen months later, the manager at the Reliant branch in Newark left. Its other branches were in Sodus and Canandaigua.
 
“I said to my boss’s boss at the time, ‘What does a branch manager do?’” she recalls. “He was, like, come on in and sit down. I was, like, oh-oh, he wants me to do this job. I applied and was accepted.
 
“I had never worked in a branch environment. I had banking, and I had management and supervision of people, but I had not actually managed a branch. But the credit union gave me that opportunity because they had worked with me and knew that I would learn it and figure it out.”
 
Heald managed the branch for six years, then was assigned the Sodus and Canandaigua locations. Reliant opened a branch in Macedon in 2000 and one in Webster in 2003. Heald managed all five branches.
 
She eventually assumed management responsibilities for the credit union’s lending department, in addition to her branch duties.
 
In 2007, Heald became president and CEO, succeeding Gail Bedell, who retired.
 
“First of all, what a compliment that was,” she says. “It was a dream come true. I did not come to the credit union in 1992 to say I’m going to be CEO. But I did, after eight years, see a lot of opportunity here.”
 
Later in 2007, the name of the credit union—formed in 1970 for Wayne County teachers—was changed to Reliant from WCTA Federal Credit Union.
 
“Part of that was to let people know that they were eligible for the credit union,” Heald says. “We serve three counties. With our former name being WCTA, people thought they had to have some connection to Wayne County schools to be eligible. We changed our name to help us grow.”
 
However, some 21 months after Heald became CEO, the recession hit.
 
“Boom, everything changed,” Heald says. “The value in that to me is when you can lead and manage in difficult times, you can get through anything.”
 
Reliant largely has weathered the recession, caused in part by recklessness in the banking community. Membership in credit unions nationwide has increased as customers have switched from traditional banks.

Growth period
Reliant membership was at 37,734 at the end of June, up 18.7 percent from 31,812 in December 2007.
 
Its assets were at $69 million when Heald joined 20 years ago. They have climbed 372 percent since then, and 44 percent since she became CEO.
 
“That shows that people are coming to credit unions,” Heald says. “We need new members to grow our credit union, and we need to do well so we can offer the products and services we need to our loyal members.
 
“I think any leader brings a different style to a role. But we were growing, obviously. We’ve always been growing. That philosophy has not changed.”
 
Reliant is among only a few credit unions involved in business lending.
 
“We have done commercial lending for a long time,” she says. “But it was in 2003 where we decided to have more of a dedicated focus to commercial lending. And we’ve done very well. We are conservative in our approach at growing the business and understanding the business.”
 
Loan requests range from $50,000 to $750,000, Heald says.
 
“We have a niche in the business lending arena,” she says. “We’re not known for the big deals. We do a lot of business that the banks are not interested in, meaning the dollar amount of the loan. We do a ton of business based on referrals from banks.”
 
Reliant has two full-time business lenders. Its loans are fairly balanced among the three counties it serves.
 
“Our roots are in Wayne County, so we’re very successful there,” she says. “Our business lenders are located out of our Macedon branch, so it’s right on the Monroe County edge. It’s also right on the Ontario County line.”

History buff
Heald’s passion outside of work is antique cars. She and her husband, Steven, own five cars made prior to 1916, during the horseless carriage era. Three are stored in a museum in Norwich, Chenango County.
 
“One of the things that’s very important to me—because, let’s face it, we need me to be good—is balance,” Heald says. “I enjoy life, and I love my job. I need to play in order to enjoy life.”
 
Steven, whose father was a town historian in Williamson, bought their first antique car in 1993. It is a 1912 model made by Maxwell-Briscoe Co. of Tarrytown.
 
“We were both into history independently before we knew each other,” Heald says. “And I was into costumes: hats, goofy clothes, that kind of stuff.
 
“I was, like, we can get that done and then we can dress up. The car part of it wasn’t me, but what kind of leads you to anything historical is the preservation of history, which is important to both of us.”
 
The 1912 Maxwell is the legacy of a close friend of the Healds who was restoring it when he died.
 
“His wife was selling all of his cars,” Heald says. “I think Steve was driven by kind of an honor and tribute to our friend, buying his car and doing what he was going to do. That started it all.”
 
Their second purchase was a 1912 EMF, made in Sodus and delivered from Arizona. Steven discovered it in a magazine advertisement.
 
“We drive that around and on local car tours,” Heald says. “It’s a forerunner of the Studebaker. I think we’ve had that one since 2003.”
 
Two of their cars were made in Newark in 1908. One is a small model made for children but registered for the road. The other was made at the Mora Motor Car Co.
 
“It was a high-dollar car in its day,” Heald says. “It’s larger than life for a 1908 car. I can’t touch the top of it.”
 
The Newark-made cars are with the Maxwell in the Norwich museum.
 
“We have gone all over the country with our cars,” Heald says. “We don’t restore them ourselves. We get help with things like painting and that kind of stuff. We have some show cars and we have some tour cars. It just depends on what we’re doing.
 
“What a great hobby that has been for us. We’re involved in it together, which is nice. We coordinate our clothing. We dress up a lot of the time in period clothing.”
 
Heald, who turns 48 in November, has taken to golf and running in recent years.
 
“I have walked two miles every weekday with my neighbor since 17 years ago,” she says. “About four years ago, I started running. As you start to get a little older, you just kick it up a notch.
 
“I’m not a fast runner, but I run. I sometimes do 5Ks. I like to hike. I like the outdoors.”
 
Reliant sponsors the annual Moore Than a Race 5K event, this year scheduled for Oct. 21. It is named for the late Richard Moore, who served as chairman of the credit union’s board from 1986 until his death in 2009.
 
The event is a fundraiser for the credit union’s scholarship program, which has distributed $110,000 since its inception.
 
“When he passed three years ago, we started this,” Heald says. “Dick ran eight miles a day from age 42 until 73, literally until the year he passed.”
 
Heald has been part of a ladies golf league for two years.
 
“I think it’s very important, being a leader in the organization, to show that you can have a life, too,” Heald says. “We all know people that work all the time and can’t easily enjoy leisure time. And we know people that are very (leisure-oriented), who have challenges working. I think you’re better at both when you’re a well-rounded person.
 
“That’s something I’ve learned as I’ve aged, specifically since I’ve become CEO. It is important to be able to do that. You have to be able to release, which is a part of helping you cope and being better at what you do.”
 
Heald and her husband also spend time restoring their 1820s home in Sodus. They have no children but a large extended family.
 
“And then, with a large family, there’s always a birthday party, a wedding or something,” Heald says. “With the 12 children, I have 23 nieces and nephews, and now I’ve exceeded that in great-nieces and nephews.”
 
Nine of her 12 siblings live in Williamson.
 
“In a small town like Williamson, you do kind of get famous for that,” Heald says of her large family. “But I was active in a variety of things. I skied. I played the flute. I was in musicals, band, choir.
 
“I wasn’t an athlete, but I was active in attending sporting functions at the school. I think when you’re from a small town, you’re involved in everything, and everybody knows everybody, which is something that still is very attractive to me today.”

Pamela Heald
Title: President and CEO, Reliant Community Credit Union
Age: 47
Home: Sodus
Education: AAS, retail business management, Monroe Community College, 1984
Family: Husband, Steven
Hobbies: antique cars, golf, running, hiking
Quote: "I definitely did not know that I was going to end up in banking, but I wanted to do something that was business-oriented and with people. At least I knew that that's where my comfort zone was."

10/5/12 (c) 2012 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email service@rbj.net.
 


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