Anabela Pereira was a 19-year-old teller when she first started working at Pioneer Valley Credit Union. The small credit union operated out of space provided by its original sponsor—the U.S. Postal Service— and it offered only the basics: savings accounts, certificates of deposit, and money market accounts.
Back then there were two employees and a typewriter. Pereira was on staff before computers were in use—they came a few years later.
That was 28 years ago, and a lot has changed since then. Pioneer Valley, Springfield, Mass., now has 20 employees, 6,200 members, and $40 million in assets. In 1991, the credit union built its current headquarters.
CEO since 1998, Pereira has been integral to Pioneer Valley’s expansion for the better part of three decades and has been its main visionary for the past 15 years. She was only 32 years old when she took the helm of the second-oldest postal credit union in the country.
“She grew up with the credit union,” says longtime board member and current Board Chair Kathy Fratamico, who has known Pereira since 1985. “She’s come a long way from being a teller.”
Pereira received a 2012 Credit Union Hero award from Banker & Tradesman newspaper. The award goes to those who “have made outstanding contributions to their institutions and communities, giving freely of their time.”
Pereira is easy to talk to and wonderful to work for, says 20-year Pioneer Valley veteran Debra Hayward. “She must be if I’ve stayed this long,” the vice president of lending says. “She’s a good communicator and an excellent role model for the entire credit union. She’s interested in the members, and has a lot of respect for her employees.”
That respect comes in part from experience. Over the years, Pereira has worked in every department and has done everything from handling cash to underwriting loans.
“My job was never boring,” Pereira says of the early days. “I liked interacting with our members, especially the regulars that I got to see every day.”
Her role has evolved along with the credit union.
“It’s mind-blowing,” she says of the changes she has witnessed. “It was simple back then. Now it’s intricate and complicated. There’s a slew of steps that comes with implementing one product, including compliance, service, and security.”
Having moved up the ranks herself, Pereira believes in growth from within and enjoys nurturing employees to help them gain skills and grow into new responsibilities. “My focus has been to work from the inside out,” she says.
Pereira was instrumental in bringing to the credit union, among other services, mortgages, home equity loans, and online banking. She expanded the ATM network and added textbased services. Soon Pioneer Valley will launch mobile banking, something Pereira is thrilled to offer.
“Technology is awesome,” she says. “It’s amazing that you can do your banking from your phone and you don’t have to drive to the credit union branch anymore. That will mean we can expand our services and reach so many more members. Technology has changed the industry completely and has given us the ability to compete with larger banks.”
Above all, Pereira believes in the credit union movement. She knows all credit unions play a crucial role in people’s lives by offering true financial service and not simply selling products without regard to members’ well-being.
Pereira alludes to the mortgage crisis that contributed to the recession, and she believes there’s much more to do to prevent people from falling prey to predatory practices again.
“Our members’ financial lives have changed, their credit scores are eroding, their homes are being seized, and their household incomes are decreasing,” she says.
Pioneer Valley has responded by creating products to help members in financial distress. These include emergency savings accounts and “Fresh Start” checking accounts for members with tarnished credit history.
While these efforts are necessary and helpful, Pereira believes credit unions must do more.
“I understand that just creating a product isn’t enough, so I’ve started to shift the credit union to a consultative culture. We have to make education a priority and provide the necessary tools to our members to empower them to make sound financial decisions,” she says. “This will start to shift the paradigm from reactive to proactive, and that’s the only way our members will get ahead.”
To that end, Pioneer Valley has launched its “Change the Future™” program, which focuses on financial literacy. All lending staff are trained and certified through CUNA’s Certified Credit Union Financial Counselor School. The credit union also offers financial literacy seminars for members as well as one-on-one counseling.
Beyond that, Pereira partners with local colleges and high schools to bring financial literacy to students, something she thinks is imperative to raise the level of financial capacity. Financial education typically doesn’t happen in schools, she notes, and that contributed to the lack of awareness that played a role in the mortgage crisis.
“I believe credit unions do so much good,” she says, “and there are so many novices that would otherwise be taken for a ride with the help of large banks. I like being part of programs that help young consumers with their financial lives.”
Pioneer Valley’s Hayward has no doubt that the credit union and Pereira will make an impact on financial literacy.
“Whatever she sets her mind to, she’s going to do it,” Hayward says, noting that her boss has never set a goal she hasn’t reached. “She just doesn’t give up. It might take her one, two, or three years, but she’ll do whatever it takes. She will succeed.”
And Pereira is always up to the task. “I like growth. I like goals. I like a challenge,” she says, “and managing a credit union in today’s environment is definitely challenging.”
Maintaining CU Values
As the U.S. Postal Service downsized, Pioneer Valley had to take a critical look at its field of membership. Pereira and the board of directors realized they would need to branch out to other select employee groups (SEG).
“Through much patience and persistence we were able to add the largest health-care employer and the largest military base in western Massachusetts,” Pereira says.
“It took three years to accomplish, but the new SEG additions were instrumental for our future growth and sustainability,” she adds.
Staying vital and relevant is important to any CEO. But for Pereira, there’s more to it. She feels a sense of duty to the credit union’s founders to keep Pioneer Valley independent and to maintain its values.
She hasn’t yet felt pressure to merge with another credit union, and she believes she won’t as long as Pioneer Valley continues to grow and thrive.
Board Chair Kathy Fratamico agrees. “This is personal for her,” she says. “If this fails, she fails, and she’s not going to let that happen at all.
“She’s a risk taker, and she’s smart. She’ll do whatever it takes to keep this credit union above other financial institutions,” says Fratamico.