CEO Profile: Juan Fernandez, President/CEO, Credit Union Association of New Mexico
We have seen a lot of activity in New Mexico recently. Many credit unions that are members of your Association are trailblazers in the financial inclusion field. Please give us an overview of the Credit Union Association of New Mexico—its history, members, and legacy.
New Mexico credit unions have been a part of our state since the very beginning. Most credit unions were formed in the first half of the 1900s as New Mexico credit union pioneers worked to equip our communities and employer groups with the tools they needed to achieve financial wellness. Many of our credit unions were started by the church to promote thrift and fair lending at a time when only those with means could access these tools of financial empowerment.
In recent decades, we have been blessed to have true credit union pioneers who took it upon themselves to continue this mission and serve those who would be taken advantage of by unscrupulous lenders. Some of the first credit unions who carried the Juntos Avanzamos mission were in New Mexico. Credit unions like Guadalupe Credit Union, who under the leadership of Winona Nava, wrote the playbook on how to successfully serve immigrants in a way that enabled them to reach their dreams, while helping the credit union achieve financial strength.
Tell us a bit about yourself. What was the road that led you to the highest leadership position in the Association?
I started in credit unions as a part time teller at a credit union in Upstate New York. I quickly fell in love with the idea of cooperative financing and realized the power that credit unions have to help people achieve financial independence and knew I wanted to build a career in our credit union movement. After working at three different credit unions in various branch and lending roles, I did an internship at the New York Assembly. I was lucky to have been placed in a legislative office with someone who became a mentor and role model for me – he was young, Dominican (like my family) and told me I could attend any meetings he held. In one of these meetings, I met the CEO of the New York CU Association. He recruited me to become their first Community Development Coordinator.
Two years later, I made the move to the Credit Union Association of New Mexico where I led our governmental affairs efforts. I am grateful I had some great mentors and role models – people like Pablo DeFilippi and Larry Blanchard who believed in me and pushed me to finish my college degree and attain my master’s degree. They also taught me many lessons that have helped me achieve this position, and now I can pay it forward and advocate and help other Latinos achieve leadership positions in our credit union movement.
You are the first Hispanic CEO of a Credit Union League or Association born outside the mainland United States. What do you believe is the significance of this in the context of the credit union industry and financial inclusion in general?
While I was born a US Citizen, I moved to New York not speaking English. I had to face adversity and discrimination, just like many immigrants. I can’t claim to have experienced the same difficulties as immigrants, but I certainly had a taste of it. This also means I witnessed and was inspired by my father, who worked most of his life as a janitor in order to help my sister and me achieve our American Dream. My father is one of the people who I admire most in my life. Coming from this background, I know what it is to make financial decisions about whether to eat or not.
My lived experiences are those of many working class and immigrant families. These experiences guide me in helping our industry work to fulfill its potential to change lives and communities. This is why the work we do each and every day is so important. This is the purpose of our movement and what keeps us relevant.
The pandemic has been particularly hard for low-income people and communities of color. Could you provide us with some examples of how credit unions in your footprint have responded to the needs of their community?
One of the most inspiring things to me during the pandemic was seeing how credit unions, of all sizes and geographic locations stepped up to the call and started issuing PPP loans. Many credit unions who had never issued business loans, or had previously set up a business lending program, had a PPP loan deployment program operating within days to provide small businesses the access to funds they needed in order to keep their employees on the payroll. Many of these businesses were owned and staffed by immigrants. This was a lifeline that kept our economy afloat and food on so many New Mexicans tables.
What would you say is the biggest challenge facing credit unions in your footprint?
Everyone is short-staffed. I have never lived in a time when anyone that wants a job can get a job. This makes the job market very competitive and places our smaller, rural credit unions at a competitive disadvantage in the war for talent. This is why I strongly believe now is the time to think outside of the box and establish new collaborative partnerships that will help credit unions better compete and focus on serving their members.
What would you say is the importance of reaching out to underserved populations, particularly the Hispanic community?
It is the future. At a time when we are all trying to figure out our niche and trying to realize our potential, the fastest growing segment of the population is our Latino community. Credit unions must adapt and learn how to seize this opportunity for growth, and most importantly, for doing good.
Your Association is a Juntos Avanzamos industry partner. What would you say to credit unions out there that are considering adopting the Juntos financial inclusion framework?
The Credit Union Association of New Mexico has partnered with Inclusiv to increase awareness of the Juntos Avanzamos designation. I encourage all our members and credit unions around the country to adopt the Juntos Avanzamos inclusion framework because it is the most important thing you can do today to be relevant and prepared for the future, while helping to serve a community that needs the credit union difference.