Every Number is a Decision for Michael Vasalos

CBC Federal Credit Union has doubled its sustainable profit over the past two years thanks to the work of CFO Michael Vasalos

In the two years since he joined CBC Federal Credit Union, Michael Vasalos has built up the treasury role and refocused the company’s interests on maintaining liquidity and increasing sustainable income. And he’s been finding a great deal of success—creating a 100 percent increase in sustainable income. A large part of Vasalos’s progress has come from his ability to dig deeper and his insistence that accounting is the language of business. “Most people see numbers,” Vasalos says. “I see decisions.”

To Vasalos, every number is a decision—if you can dig it out. The CFO of CBC Federal Credit Union is creating a proactive, accountable culture within the company to change the way they make decisions and, ultimately, the story of decisions told in their financials.

Vasalos joined the California-based CBC Federal Credit Union in March 2015 and took on the role of CFO in March 2017. The first thing he did upon joining the organization was take the time to understand the financials. “You have to understand the rules before you can understand how to play the game at its best,” he says.

Michael Vasalos, CFO of CBC Federal Credit Union

Vasalos took that knowledge and went about restructuring the company’s balance sheet. First, he focused on building up the company’s investment allocations and selling off legacy investments and loans that were less favorable from a risk-reward standpoint. Then, he went on to activating new sources of funding to improve the deposit structure and stabilize net interest income. Next, he turned to implementing new corporate budgeting processes to manage expenses more efficiently. But before focusing on appurtenances, he says, you have to find the sweet spot for risk. If risk gets too high, much more time is needed to justify yourself to regulators, sapping time for other initiatives. Once you’ve reached the point of diminishing returns, he says, you can refocus on adding value to operational functions, he says.

Vasalos is looking at other forms of noninterest revenue that don’t rely on levying fees on its members. Thanks to a qualitative view of risk and reward, Vasalos is able to make a distinction between what’s fair and what’s equitable. There’s a fine balance in bringing the best possible rates to the members while being sure decisions aren’t detrimental to the company over time so that it can continue to service the members effectively.

Vasalos credits his success to a focus on understanding the business and looking past raw numbers into the reasons behind them. But the lessons he learned in his youth from watching his father have been perhaps even more important to driving that perspective.

Vasalos’s father emigrated from Greece in his twenties and started a local seafood market business in Rochester, New York. As a boy, Vasalos worked in that store, which gave him an early insight into operations. “My father was a strong man, charismatic, and sometimes stubborn,” he says. “He had a lot of common sense and experience.” Moreover, his father’s ability to connect with people helped cultivate the business’ impressive reputation. He believed in dealing with issues and commendations in the moment, not down the line. “You treat people well, but you also hold them accountable,” Vasalos recalls his father saying.

“Being able to take financial information and make it actionable for operational decisions is how finance people are going to ensure their viability.”

Vasalos also admires his father because he built his business with hard work. His father didn’t have much technical education, but had a strong sense of purpose and determination to drive him forward. His father spent his days building the best life he could for his family, Vasalos says.

Charisma, determination, holding people accountable, and being a diligent and industrious worker are all things that Vasalos has carried with him into his own career.

Communication is key for finance professionals, particularly with people in other roles. “Being able to take financial information and make it actionable for operational decisions is how finance people are going to ensure their viability,” Vasalos says.

The knowledge of his father’s relocation to the United States aided Vasalos in embracing uncertainty during his move to California. His first day on the job in Oxnard was also his first day in the state. But his father’s no-nonsense attitude has helped Vasalos transition quickly to his work. He understands his own views and stands by them, and he’s comfortable speaking up when he sees something in the works that he doesn’t agree with.

Throughout, Vasalos strives to have his work and life not balanced, but aligned—concentrating on keeping his head clear and taking into account the experiences he’s had in his life. He sets aside time to reflect and be grateful, not just for the good moments, but also for the tough moments that have forced him to stretch himself. And that’s where so much of the learning happens.