The coronavirus pandemic was just beginning when NCUA Executive Director Mark Treichel retired earlier this year, ruling out the possibility of a traditional retirement party befitting of a well-respected 33-year agency employee.
But sometimes, an unfortunate turn of events such as a pandemic can have a bright side.
“Retiring during COVID-19 made saying goodbye to my amazing staff different,” Treichel admitted. “But ironically, in some ways it created memories I would not otherwise have.”
In an effort to give Treichel a proper send-off despite the pandemic, NCUA staff got creative and made a virtual poster board for Treichel, where his peers could leave him well wishes. “I received so many nice messages from staff that really touched me in ways I did not expect and made me realize I may have had more of an impact than I ever imagined,” Treichel said. “The touching comments may never have made it to my ears without the timing of my departure.”
The virtual farewell capped off Treichel’s esteemed NCUA career, which began when he was hired in October 1986 as an examiner following his graduation from the University of Minnesota. He was no stranger to credit unions, having had an account since he was a young child at a credit union in Minneapolis that serviced the local telephone company his father belonged to.
Treichel would go on to become an NCUA supervisory examiner in Dallas, Texas, director of special actions in Concord, California, associate regional director in Albany and then deputy executive director in Alexandria, Virginia, where he served for three years, before being named an NCUA regional director. He said the regional director role in particular allowed him to obtain a real-world perspective on how actions in the agency’s central office impact credit unions on Main Street — in both good and bad ways — and perspectives that would serve him well in his future role as executive director nine years later.
As rewarding as his nearly eight-year position as executive director was, it was not without some unique challenges, including working under four different chairmen. While the executive director reports to the board, the position is supervised by the chairman, meaning he had four different supervisors over that eight-year period. “Each chairman had fresh ideas on how to best serve as chair and I enjoyed the challenge of assisting the chair and the board as a whole, in achieving their vision while providing sound counsel on NCUA overall operations,” Treichel said.
Treichel also said the budget process was consistently a challenge, because “we are spending other people’s money and always strive to find the right balance to achieve mission without over-reaching.”
In 2017, Treichel recommended a comprehensive reorganization of NCUA that saved millions annually by restructuring several offices to gain efficiency and consolidating from five regional offices to three, and ultimately reducing leased space by 80%. “That was a personal challenge because the regional changes involved closing the Albany office that I loved working in for 11 of my 33 years at NCUA,” he said. “However, it made good business sense. I was pleased we were able to offer positions to all impacted staff while also saving credit unions money.”
Treichel believes his greatest accomplishment was the development of staff during his time as executive director. “For me it was always about treating people with respect and dignity and empowering staff to grow and achieve their goals while assisting NCUA in achieving its mission and keeping credit unions safe and sound,” he said. “Playing a role in developing staff to become executives, supervisors or advance as specialists was always what I most enjoyed.”
Relative to his 23 years of credit union supervision, Treichel says he is proud to have been able to influence the process and ensure his examiners used a common-sense approach to solving problems. “There are credit unions around today that are thriving because my team and the credit union team were able to work together to ‘right the ship’” Treichel said. “I enjoyed the challenge of finding solutions that worked both for the credit union and NCUA, and I’m looking forward in this next phase of my life to put some of the knowledge I’ve gained in my roles at NCUA to work for credit unions.”
Throughout his credit union career, Treichel was known for his strong leadership skills. “Long ago I read a book on leadership by Warren Bennis. I still remember it talked about leadership being a stool that balanced on three legs: ambition (a desire to lead), competence (technical skills) and most importantly integrity,” Treichel said. “It sounds overly simple, but that is all that is needed.”
And because credit unions and the NCUA have additional challenges, such as more restrictive budgets than bigger banks or bigger regulators, credit union executives and NCUA executives need to be able to roll up their sleeves get actual work done – in addition to leading, Treichel said. “In the end, I believe that makes for a more well-rounded leader. As a colleague at NCUA often said, ‘do the right things for the right reasons, and things will take care of themselves.’”
Changes and challenges for credit unions
Treichel said one of the biggest changes he observed during his career was the changing number of credit unions. When he began, there were more than 12,000 credit unions in the U.S., “so just the lack of units over time is a striking change,” he said. Yet the transition to more community credit unions over time impacts the business model in many ways, while the combination of changing FOMs and the consolidation of units results in larger and more complex operations, he said.
Overall, the best thing that hasn’t changed about credit unions is their efforts to serve the underserved, Treichel said. “Credit unions can beat banks on any corner of this country.”
Competition is the biggest challenge currently facing credit unions, Treichel said, noting that large credit unions have to compete at the level of the big banks while also facing the competition from fintech and alternative banking options.
Partnerships between credit unions and fintech providers — something Treichel explored as executive director — is already occurring, but may be more a necessity in the years ahead, Treichel predicted. “The mid-size credit unions have pressure to provide every service, but lack the economies of scale of the larger institutions,” he said, adding that he has always been amazed by how the small credit unions, with few staff and resources, have the wherewithal to do what they do, and are a “really special” part of the credit union movement.
The pandemic’s impact on credit unions
And as the COVID-19 pandemic continues, Treichel said although he is concerned about the economic impact that may lie ahead, the crisis is a “material short-term challenge” and fortunately, capital levels will provide a “much-needed cushion to survive and thrive.”
He also said that, under certain scenarios, he anticipates many credit unions may struggle over the next few years, but there will be opportunities as well. “It has been a while since NCUA and credit unions have had to deal with any magnitude of economic challenges, and I am sure that both sides will do their best to fulfill their role and keep credit unions safe. It will be important for credit unions to plan well and ensure sound communications with the regulators.”
As someone who served a key role in the resolution of both the corporate credit union crisis over a decade ago and more recently, the taxi medallion market decline, Treichel said he knows “valuable lessons in leadership and strategy emerge from challenging times that inform decisions for handling the next crisis, such as pandemic that we are now facing.”
Finally, as Treichel recently reflected on his career, he said that he enjoyed his time interacting with staff at the New York Credit Union Association and New York credit unions. “While Minnesota was home, we now consider ourselves an East coast family and we will continue to summer in Upstate New York. My wife and I plan to do some traveling and enjoy retirement, but I am also going to stay active in the credit union industry, because I believe in its consumer focused mission.”
Credit union peers who want to reach out to Treichel can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.