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August 7, 2017 / 2017 Women to Watch Honorees

Women to Watch: Elizabeth Hayes, Infinity Federal Credit Union

Photo / Tim Greenway Elizabeth Hayes, president and CEO of Infinity Federal Credit Union, stands near the new Baxter Boulevard branch during construction in April.
Photo / Tim Greenway Elizabeth Hayes (center), President and CEO of Infinity Federal Credit Union, after cutting the ribbon during a recent grand opening ceremony for the new branch at 29 Baxter Boulevard in Portland.
Photo / Tim Greenway Elizabeth Hayes, CEO of Infinity Federal Credit Union, meets with Matthew Le, assistant branch manager, and Caitlin Field, member specialist, in the Westbrook branch

Elizabeth Hayes can still remember where she was when her beloved Minnesota Vikings missed a field goal and blew their chances to get to the Super Bowl.

She had no control over the outcome. But when it comes to leadership, the president and CEO of Infinity Federal Credit Union takes control and empowers the staff to do the same.

“Don't be afraid to take risks” is one of the values at Infinity, yet since Hayes moved to Infinity FCU from her native Minneapolis in September 2014, the credit union's numbers have been anything but risky business. Assets have grown more than 22%, to $340 million. The number of members has grown by 3,000, to 16,000. In late July, the credit union opened a $2 million branch at 29 Baxter Boulevard in Portland, and Hayes says more growth is expected.

“We're looking to grow. We're looking to expand,” she says.

Prior to joining Infinity FCU, she was executive vice president and chief administrative officer at Affinity Plus Federal Credit union in St. Paul, Minn., which today has assets of $1.8 billion, 180,000 members and 28 branches.

Hayes says credit unions “marry” aspects of commercial banking, where she got her start, and the not-for-profit world, putting members first.

From Minnesota to Maine

Hayes, a Minneapolis-area native and lifelong Vikings fan, was a history and journalism double major at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. She got her start at National City Bank as a processing clerk and worked her way into marketing, which she enjoyed. There she met her first professional mentor, Louise Jalma, her boss at National City Bank.

She later served as a marketing consultant for Liberty Check Printers, dealing predominately with credit unions. That experience changed the direction of her career. She realized she enjoyed marketing analysis. She'd go into credit unions and talk to them about strategic planning.

“That was not their priority. They'd say, 'Yeah, but …' It's not that banks don't care about people or care about their customers, but they're a for-profit model,” she says.

Credit unions appealed, she adds, to her social-justice side.

“I was going down a corporate path before. Now I could marry the two,” she says. “I liked the analysis of banking, but now I was in a setting that fosters what's good for people.”

She joined State Capital Federal Credit Union, which eventually became Affinity Plus FCU. She spent 16 years there. Rising to executive vice president and chief administrative officer, she was ready for a change.

Her daughters were heading off to college and it was on one of the campus tours it occurred to her how they were seeking the best “fit” for her daughter.

“I didn't think about fit when I went to the University of Minnesota. I mean, it was fine, but I wasn't thinking about that,” she says, adding that it got her thinking about her own situation. “I started to think, 'What do you want to be when you grow up?'”

She was ready for a new challenge and initially left Affinity Plus FCU to do consulting. But recruiters were calling — and so was the East Coast, with two of her daughters in New York City and another in London.

She liked the East Coast and its rich history. A recruiter introduced her to the Infinity FCU job.

“We visited Portland and I loved the vibe. The hotel was in the Old Port. It was summer in Maine. There was a cruise ship in port. It was very cool. There's a very good arts community. It's not large, but it's large enough,” she says.

She joined Infinity FCU as president and CEO in September 2014. Her husband, an independent accountant, was able to keep his clients and go back and forth between Portland and Minneapolis, where they keep an apartment. They found a place to live on Munjoy Hill, an easy commute to Infinity FCU's headquarters in Westbrook.

Coming to a smaller credit union, she knew there was potential for growth.

“I wanted to know the board's appetite for growth,” she says.

She was confident that the credit union had room to grow: Its community charter covers Cumberland and York counties, and the city of Bangor.

“We have 2% of the market. We have good capital. We have excellent senior management. It's not growth-at-all-costs, but we can do a better job,” she says.

Assets and membership have grown under Hayes, as mentioned. The credit union has also grown its bricks and mortar: In late July, Infinity FCU opened a branch at 29 Baxter Boulevard.

Also in late July, it unveiled a loan program, “Bridge to Citizenship,” to help new Mainers get rooted and establish a credit record.

She likes to talk about “people over profits,” and the fact that credit unions are people-oriented.

Hiring and managing

Hayes has a number of philosophies about hiring, training, management and leadership.

“You need to be a collaborator. You need to enjoy your job and be excited about it. You need to share information,” she says. “We hire on attribute over skill.”

She says the workforce is achievement based, but “we're all in it together. We don't want lone wolves.”

In recruiting, the credit union has hired former employees of Bank of America, TDBank and Key Bank. “You may be on a corporate track, but you want to be more community focused,” she says of the employees.

On leadership, she says: “Like the old expression, leadership starts at the top. You have to set the tone. I lay out our strategic plan, our own vision, our mission, our core values.”

She communicates with the senior managers, the “M team,” middle managers, and the employees—often with what she calls “microwave meetings,” when people are heating up their food at lunchtime.

“She considers all options before making suggestions,” says Sandy Cloutier, chief risk officer at Infinity FCU.

Hayes hosts CEO lunches every other month and asks employees: “What do we do well? What can we do better?”

“Leadership is not just speaking on a podium. You have to communicate by email. You have to communicate one-on-one,” she says.

“Liz is a critical thinker,” says Mark Meyer, CEO of the Madison, Wisc.-based Filene Research Institute, a nonprofit think tank devoted to issues in the consumer finance industry. “She understands what people want and need in their financial lives. In our innovation group her voice stood out amongst many entrepreneurial minds. I am not surprised to hear that her leadership attributes have created dynamic growth at the credit union. When a leader of an organization understands what's in the hearts and minds of the people it serves, it's a formula for success.”

Hayes likes a quote from the Chinese philosopher Lao-Tzu that she uses to illustrate the need to work independently and make the best decisions you can. She urges her staff to try to figure things out first.

“Don't go to the play manual right away,” she says.

She urges managers to ask questions, listen, learn.

With skeptics, she urges leaders to find one or two people and communicate one-on-one, ask them to take on added responsibility.

“[Employees] do ask tough questions,” she says. “Tell it to them straight.”

Read more

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