Fresh out of college and eager to work in the travel industry, Thomas J. Powers, Jr. in 1976 sought out an airline recruiter in hopes of finding a job that would allow him to fly for free, just like his college fraternity brother who had landed a job at Air France.
The recruiter found it interesting Powers had an accounting degree — and had also worked a stint as a bank teller — and quickly suggested an entry-level job at a credit union, despite Powers not knowing what a credit union actually was.
However, it did not take long for Powers to recognize “the credit union difference,” and he accepted the job at Pan-Am FCU, now known as People’s Alliance FCU, which at the time provided flight benefits to its credit union employees. And just six months into the job, Powers was promoted to run the accounting department, which meant that, as part of management (and just 22 years old), he was eligible for special flight privileges that allowed him to fly first class.
Powers took full advantage of the flight benefits, logging adventures around the world, including Christmas shopping trips to Rome, visits to Paris during cold East Coast winters and sunny golfing excursions to Los Angeles.
Powers ultimately rose through the ranks to become executive vice president and CFO of Pan-Am FCU, and it was just the start of a four-decade credit union career — and the beginning of nearly a lifetime commitment to the credit union mission and philosophy, which he would go on to consistently instill in his employees throughout the years.
Powers, who on Dec. 31 retired as president/CEO of Hudson River Financial — recently acquired by Sunmark FCU — went on to become VP/CFO of American Broadcast Employees FCU and VP of operations, then later president/CEO, at First Atlantic FCU in New Jersey, where he led the credit union through an extensive re-brand and name change.
Powers later served as president/CEO at First Commonwealth FCU in Pennsylvania and CFE FCU in Florida. Along the way, he oversaw significant brand changes, sustainable growth, financial stability and a commitment to member service.
In 2006, Powers took over as president/CEO of Hudson River Teachers FCU, where he played a key role in renaming and rebranding the credit union as Hudson River Financial and exponentially growing its assets and members. He also oversaw the construction of the credit union’s new main office and branch location, and spearheaded the process to receive approval for the transition from a SEG-based charter to a community charter serving three counties in southern New York.
Throughout his credit union career, Powers has been active in the greater credit union community, serving as president of the Association’s Westchester-Rockland Chapter, where he oversaw a number of initiatives to foster local credit union cooperation and an active participant in federal- and state-level advocacy efforts and industry events. He was inducted into the New York Credit Union Association Hall of Fame in 2019.
“For more than four decades, Thom Powers has made invaluable contributions to credit unions and his commitment to the credit union philosophy is unwavering,” said William J. Mellin, New York Credit Union Association president/CEO. “While it’s difficult to see him go, we wish him a well-deserved happy and healthy retirement.”
Powers recently reflected on his lengthy career, and noted how the credit union world has evolved and included some groundbreaking changes that would permanently alter the credit union landscape. He said that notably, deregulation of interest rates in the 1970s “changed the financial landscape” for credit unions and banks, while the approval of credit unions to offer checking accounts — a change Powers was involved with on the national level — was a game changer.
“I got to live through a lot of change in the credit union world,” Powers said.
And as technology advanced and computers were introduced, Powers kept pace, participating on several committees and even serving as vice chair of a credit union that owned a data processing company. He said technology obviously had a huge impact on credit unions, and fortunately, he was still “young and very interested in tech,” which allowed him to adapt as new technologies such as telephone and home banking were implemented.
The credit union difference
Powers remains deeply committed to the credit union mission and philosophy, and actively worked to instill the same in his employees throughout his career. He says credit unions “are not banks” and said that he often tried to make that clear to his banker friends, explaining that the co-op model is not the same as the banking model, because banks are owned by stockholders, where the bottom line goes to them.
“As a nerd accountant, I argued for a long time that net income was incorrect for credit unions because we were making a net contribution to capital,” Powers said. “We weren’t making that net income for stock holders, we were making a net contribution to reserves for the rainy day.”
Challenges for credit unions ahead
As credit unions deal with the ongoing pandemic and economic crisis and the changes they have brought, Powers believes one of the biggest challenges currently facing credit unions is their ability to keep the commitment to the credit union mission and philosophy amid these changes.
“We’ve learned from COVID, that technology is going to be extremely important … but the main thing is to keep the philosophy,” he said. “That’s the biggest challenge going forward … keeping the mission.”
Looking back – and ahead
Looking back on his career — including changes in the industry, successes, advocating for the credit union movement and traveling — Powers says his best memory is that he was able to work with his son Chris at Hudson River Financial from 2009 until 2020. His son is now a vice president with Sunmark FCU.
Powers said that he had wanted to teach his son the credit union business, “and to be completely fair, work his way up from the bottom. That is probably the most memorable — to teach my son the business, the philosophy and see him succeed.”
As for future travels, Powers says he has no plans this year due to COVID-19, but when it is safe to travel, the Torrey Pines and Pebble Beach golf courses are top on his list.