Redefining Financial Assistance

Empowering employees and encouraging them to make their own decisions are the cornerstones of company president Bernard Isabelle's leadership style.

Bernard Isabelle of Vermont Federal Credit Union discusses staying competitive, credit builder and fuel assistance loans, and giving back to Vermont

By combining product innovation with member-service expertise, Vermont Federal Credit Union (VFCU) has become a model for industry-leading financial services. Spearheading the company’s winning formula is the credit union’s president and CEO Bernard Isabelle, who has enthusiasm to spare. “I spent nearly 30 years of my career serving financial institutions in Massachusetts and Connecticut,” Isabelle says. “But, when the opportunity came up to lead VFCU, I couldn’t wait to get home.” Here, we chat with Isabelle about his leadership efforts, which have enabled VFCU to become one of the top credit unions in the industry.

What is your leadership philosophy?

I strive to lead by example while encouraging professional growth among management and staff. I feel it is important to regularly take the pulse of our company. For this reason, I often make it a point to meet and talk with staff at all levels. By better understanding employees it is easier to promote their own sense of career advancement and leadership. I try to trust in people’s abilities. We strive to choose the right people with the right training and then encourage them in making their own decisions.

How has this leadership approach benefited the company?

Take our Innovation Committee, for instance. This employee-staffed committee serves as a think tank, proposing new financial products and services for membership. The committee has enabled VFCU to develop a strong reputation for new approaches in member services such as our reward checking account. As the only high-yield checking account in Vermont, it is geared toward members who utilize electronic services such as e-statements, online banking, and debit cards.

The committee also focuses on internal approaches, recently developing a Rock Star employee program where any staff member can nominate a fellow employee for recognition. The honored employee is awarded guitar picks, which can be traded for financial and nonfinancial rewards, such as lunch with your boss or job-related classes.

How does VFCU strive to meet member needs?

Credit unions often target products to meet member needs. For example, our Credit Builder and Fuel Assistance loans enable struggling consumers to obtain a helping hand from VFCU. Our Fuel Assistance loans enable members to pay up front for heating fuel, thereby saving them money while honoring the terms of our loans at a moderate interest rate over a 10-month period. Meanwhile, a secured share account is the basis for our credit builder loan that allows members to pay off debts, while rebuilding their credit and earning dividends at the
same time.

We’re highly competitive in traditional service offerings. For instance, favorable interest rates through our online reward checking accounts have generated more than $43 million in account holdings. In addition, we’re now Vermont’s third-largest US Small Business Administration lender. These product initiatives typify our larger commitment to membership and the community. Seminars focusing on topics including car buying and understanding credit lending and budgeting have proven invaluable to [our] membership. The financial well-being of each member continues to guide our corporate strategy.

Service to the community is also important to VFCU. Can you tell me more about this focus?

We place great emphasis on civic engagement. Our employees are each granted 20 hours per year to serve on the boards of local nonprofit agencies or volunteer for charity projects. I serve on the board of directors of the Vermont council of the Boy Scouts of America. We do business here, most of our staff live here, so it is in our best interests to promote the well-being of the communities who support us.

What are the credit union’s goals for the future?

We currently serve residents in Vermont’s six northwestern counties. VFCU has a presence in four of them and we hope to expand facilities into the two additional counties. In our continuing efforts to strengthen service efficiency, we are also investing heavily in online technologies and computerized operations. Considering our positive capacity for growth, I see a very bright future for our credit union and, even more importantly, the members that we serve.