Jennifer Calheno Leads LUSO to Stunning Growth
Giving Credit Where It’s Due
Jennifer Calheno started working at LUSO Federal Credit Union as a teller when she was just 17 — actually, a much different LUSO than the one that exists today.
Back then, this was a tiny operation — three teller windows, a handful of employees, and a small back room in a nondescript building on East Street in Ludlow. There were just a thousand members or so, all of them part of the town’s large and very proud Portuguese community.
At the time, the credit union closed mid-afternoon on Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays and reopened in the evening; Calheno, daughter of one of the institution’s board members, would work that 6-to-8 shift, not ever thinking that her very part-time job would become a career.
Today, as noted, it’s a much different LUSO, with more than 6,000 members, $220 million in assets, a gleaming new 15,000-square-foot headquarters building further down East Street, a second branch in Wilbraham, and more than 40 employees.
And Calheno, working in concert with an ambitious, forward-thinking board and that growing staff, has a lot to do with all that growth. If not the architect of that transformation — and she took on that role to some extent as well — she was certainly the builder. Taking full advantage of a spate of mergers and acquisitions within the financial-services industry and new regulations that have allowed credit unions to move well beyond their original charters and customer bases, she put LUSO on a strong growth trajectory.
And kept it on that path over the past 20 years.
When hired, she was charged with taking the credit union from $36 million in assets to $100 million in 10 years, and without diluting capital. She did it in seven years, primarily through much more aggressive marketing and building name recognition.
“I do not find myself to be an expert in everything, because then I wouldn’t be good at anything. I bring in people who are good at what they do and I listen to what they have to say, and I take their opinions into value.”
“Marketing was my focus while earning my bachelor’s degree, and I always thought that was something that was weak here,” she recalled. “We had to get over that stigma of being just the Portuguese credit union because of our name, and we did that.”
Specifically, LUSO, which originated with the Portuguese-American Club in Ludlow, changed and expanded its charter to serve anyone who lives, works, worships, or attends school in Hampden County.
“That was the pivotal changing point for us,” she noted. “That allowed me to expand my marketing, expand my targeting, and to really get out of that mindset that we were the Portuguese credit union serving the Portuguese community; slowly but surely, the message caught on.”
And while LUSO has grown in terms of assets, members, employees, the use of cutting-edge technology, and every other suitable measure, Calheno says she’s grown as a manager and a leader, learning, among other things, about how to manage work and life, grow a thick skin, listen effectively, and surround herself with individuals whose talents complement, but don’t necessarily duplicate, her own.
“I do not find myself to be an expert in everything, because then I wouldn’t be good at anything,” she explained. “I bring in people who are good at what they do, and I listen to what they have to say, and I take their opinions into value.”
In doing all that while growing assets and membership, Calheno has also raised the institution’s profile and gotten the credit union and its employees more involved within the community, especially with young people and the all-important realm of financial literacy.
Indeed, every Wednesday, without fail, Calheno returns to her teller roots and sits behind a small desk at St. John the Baptist School (which she attended as a child), taking deposits from the students — and teachers — there.
She says these duties represent equal parts role modeling for employees who are also active within the community and simply giving back to the town that has been her lifelong home.
“It gets me out of the office, and it’s really fun,” she said, referring not only to her banking duties, but her work teaching classes for Junior Achievement.
For this issue and its focus on women in business, we talked with Calheno about LUSO and its profound growth, but also the many roles she takes as president and CEO of the credit union, including mentor, role model, and yes, teller at St. John the Baptist School.
By All Accounts
Calheno remembers the considerable amount of flak she received from the community when plans for LUSO’s new headquarters building were announced back in 2005.
It wasn’t the bank’s expansion that had people riled up, but the chosen location — the long-time home to the Double D Dairy Bar, a small mom-and-pop restaurant and local institution.
“They made the best ice cream … everyone loved the Double D,” said Calheno, who placed herself firmly within that constituency.
What the general public didn’t know, but Calheno did, was that the mom and pop behind the Double D were quite ready to call it a career, and the landmark’s days were numbered anyway.
Today, it’s home to a start-of-the-art facility that clearly speaks to how far the credit union has come over the past 20 years, or since Calheno decided to take her career back to where it started not quite a decade before.
By that time, Calheno, just 26, had earned her MBA from Northeastern, spent some time in banking — as manager of one of WestBank’s in-store branches in Chicopee — and taken a job with the Secretary of State’s office, one that didn’t have much growth potential, as she recalled.
Meanwhile, the manager of LUSO at that time, someone Calheno worked for during her teller days, was getting ready to retire. While looking to replace her, the credit union’s board was also looking to grow the institution — and also for someone who could make that growth happen.
“The board had come together with a strategic plan — they wanted to grow the member base, they wanted to grow the asset size, and they felt they needed a new organization chart, a new structure, in order to that; they wanted to bring in a CEO,” she recalled, adding that, because she had an MBA and some experience in the business, she was asked to put together a job description for this CEO in waiting.
She did so, and while drafting it, she began to see a match between the board’s needs, her own skills, and her desire to find employment that challenged her professionally and personally.
“I thought to myself, ‘with my background and my experience, and knowing LUSO the way I do, I think this is something I can do,’” she recalled. “I looked at other opportunities, but I felt that this was a chance to come back to the organization that gave me a start, and I felt more confident coming into an organization I already knew so much about. I knew the culture, and I’d lived in this community practically my whole life.”
She recalled that she was probably the least experienced of the 15 eventual candidates for the position, at least when it came to management. But she also believed she would work the hardest to gain the respect and recognition of the board and achieve the aggressive goals spelled out in that aforementioned strategic plan.
Fast-forwarding a little, she was awarded the job, and took it with the expectation of still being in it 20 years later.
“I clearly recall a conversation I had with Mr. Dias at that time,” she said, referring to Joseph Dias Jr., founder of the credit union. “I told him I wasn’t looking for this to be a jumping ground to something else; I’m looking at this opportunity to be my career. I told him I wanted to succeed, and if I succeeded, then LUSO would succeed.”
To make a long story short, that’s exactly what’s happened; over the past 20 years, both she and the institution have grown immeasurably.
While only 26 when she took the helm, Calheno said she already understood that she was only as good as the team in place around her, and by team, she meant both the board and the employees she worked with.
“I don’t think that any opinion is not worth listening to. If that opinion jibes with where I was already going, excellent — then, it’s an immediate ‘awesome, let’s go with it.’ If it’s something different from what I’m thinking, I’m going to pursue it further.”
In both cases, there was passion for the institution and a shared vision, she said, adding that both are necessary ingredients in any success formula.
“They give me a lot of freedom, and they give me a lot of trust,” she said of the board, adding that she has taken full advantage of both to meet the ambitious goals for assets and memberships, build and open the new building, add the branch in Wilbraham, and, overall, take LUSO to a much higher plane, one she probably couldn’t have been envisioned when she was working the night shift while in high school.
In turn, she awards those working with and for her a large amount of trust — at least when she feels it’s been earned.
“I don’t micromanage — I don’t have time to micromanage,” she said. “And I do have a lot of trust in the people here. I wouldn’t have put the management team in place the way I have if I didn’t believe in them to do things the way I want them done.
“But if you start to do things not the way I want them done … then we have a problem,” she said. “If you were to ask people here about my management style, they would say, ‘the less we see of Jen, the better job we’re doing.’”
She said the most important skill she’s developed over the years is listening and valuing the thoughts and opinions being expressed.
“I don’t think that any opinion is not worth listening to,” she told BusinessWest, adding this constitutes sound advice for all managers. “If that opinion jibes with where I was already going, excellent — then, it’s an immediate ‘awesome, let’s go with it.’ If it’s something different from what I’m thinking, I’m going to pursue it further, and I’m never just going to disregard someone.”
As for work-life balance, this is for her, as it is for most women with ‘president and chief executive officer’ written on her business card, a real challenge, one that isn’t really mastered, but dealt with to the best of one’s ability.
“My family sometimes does say to me, ‘put the phone down’ or ‘get away from the computer,’ because my job is not a 9-to-5 job,” she said. “My job is 24/7, and I do tell my family that sometimes, LUSO has to come first. If I can do both, I will. Multi-tasking? That’s what I do all day, every day.”
Dollars and Sense
Calheno’s office in the new headquarters building is large, modern, and bright — there are four glass walls, after all.
Through those walls she can see the offices around her, Ludlow Country Club across the street, and the parking lot where the Double D once served up ice cream. Figuratively speaking, though, what she can see is how far she and LUSO Federal Credit Union have come in 20 years, and especially since she was a teller there in high school.
What she can see is how those remarks she made to Joseph Dias all those years ago — about how she wanted to succeed, and if she did, LUSO would succeed as well — have come to fruition.
From all angles, and in every way, it’s quite a view.
George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]