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#119 Kirk Kordeleski On Mentorship, Staff Retention, SERPS, Split Dollar Plans & More

WFC 119 | Split Dollar Plans

Join me as I catch up with Kirk Kordeleski ofOM Financial. Together, we explore a diverse range of topics, including the power of mentorship, the intricacies of executive benefits, and the secrets to retaining top-notch C-suite staff. We also take a trip down memory lane through significant events like the 2008 Great Recession, the Corporate Credit Union Crisis, and the conservatorship of WesCorp and US Central. Brace yourself for an enriching conversation filled with insights and anecdotes that will leave you craving for more.


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Kirk Kordeleski On Mentorship, Staff Retention, SERPS, Split Dollar Plans & More

I'm here with one of my three favorite Kirks. It's not Captain Kirk. It's not Kirk Cousins. I'm a big Minnesota Vikings fan. It is Kirk Kordeleski from the OM Financial Group, an Executive Benefit Consultant I’ve known for many years from back in the day when he ran a credit union in New York, and I was the Regional Director in New York. Kirk, how are you doing?

I'm doing great, and thank you so much for having me on the show. It's exciting to be on with you and it's exciting to see how your consulting practice has taken off over these last few years. I don't know exactly the date range, but you and I have now a chance to see each other with some frequency on the road as we both do the conference work. I'm hearing nothing but wonderful things about what your firm is doing in the marketplace and helping credit unions grow, deal with the NCUA, and expand their charters, and do all the exciting things that are now opportunities for credit unions.

Kirk, I appreciate that. We saw each other a few weeks back. We’d had it on the calendar to try and get something lined up, and we ran into you at the beautiful Sagamore Hotel there with the New York Credit Union Association which was one of those great meetings that you're referring to. I ran into you at GAC. I used to run into you at GAC back in our previous versions of what we did along this credit union journey. The same for me, once you have credit unions in your blood, it doesn't matter whom you're working for or what you're exactly doing. If you're going to be doing something, it probably needs to be tied to credit unions. Do you feel that way?

I couldn't say it better. I'm still as passionate about it as now as I was. Many years ago, I started as a part-time teller, had the honor of becoming CEO of Bethpage, and had that exciting opportunity for fifteen years. I have done some consulting work over the last years in a number of interesting ways because our industry's changing so much. I had an opportunity to lead a consulting firm that did some strategy. I did some work on the founding of a couple of FinTechs, but the digital and data strategy that we worked on for a couple of years was an amazing transition that happened. Now, I'm a Partner at OM Financial where we do a lot of work in supplemental executive retirement programs.

I did want to say one thing about our days together when we worked together, and I don't know if you remember this moment, but in thinking about our show. I remember so distinctly in ’08, you gave me a call. It was a Sunday evening. It was late at night as I recall. Everything had broken with the corporates, and you did this amazing job. We were all as nervous as we could be, and there was a lot of good reason to be fearful. Bethpage had $10 million in capital in a split between a few corporates. That was at a time when Bethpage was smaller and $10 million was 2/3 or 3 quarters of a year's income. It was big dollars. We had the insurance fund scare.

You did such an amazing and marvelous job of keeping it calm, reassuring me at Bethpage, and how the NCUA was reacting to this and the professionalism at that time. That level of comfort helped us think through and calm down and get through that timeframe. I wanted to thank you for that. I promise you it is a memory that is distinct. I can recall the telephone call as if it was yesterday.

You're sending chills up my spine, thinking about that. You remembered that, and I'm glad that you received that call as well as you did. Going back to those days I was the Regional Director and the crisis was happening. They asked me to come in and the individual in the corporate program had retired and they needed some assistance. At the time, I had conserved the biggest credit union that had ever been conserved. We'd conserved WesCorp and US Central on the same day. We had Keith Morton, one Regional Director, who went to US Central, and Scott Hunt, who's now in charge of the Office of National Examined Supervisions, and I went out to WesCorp.

We conserved him on Friday. It was that weekend. We called all the capital holders and said, “We know you're not happy, but we had to do this. Keep your deposits in so we can hold these investments and let things get better.” The message was well received. It wasn't going into that morning, Scott and I were like, “How bad is Monday going to be? Are people going to see past the anger of what's going on, and understand what's best for their fiduciary responsibility to their credit union?” One thing when this topic comes up, we had to put teams together to go to US Central and to go to WesCorp.

We had a lot of people at WesCorp because you hope for the best, but you plan for the worst. When you do conservatorships of a natural person credit union, you might have 5, 10, or 15 people. We had substantially more than that because of the role that WesCorp played in all the West Coast, and East Coast Credit Union because of the firm membership. I remember meeting with that group and I'm going, “I'm hoping this is going to go well.” I remember this message that I put together for them, and my goal is that you look at each other and say, “I don't know why they flew me here. We didn't need so many people.”

I said, “If I can make you go home Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday, and get back to your regular job, that's a win. You're here in case the fires start, and I don't have to bring you in.” The goal is that you go, “Why did you bring me in?” The credit union community responded to understand that staying united was the way to approach it. Most of them were able to go home Tuesday or Wednesday. Even after I retired and you moved on to different roles, the repayments of capital kept coming. In 2023, WesCorp didn't get some, but the US Central folks did. Most of the corporates had some money that went back and was able to go back onto the balance sheets of credit unions. Another example of working together.

Maybe that's the reason why both of us are so passionate about the industry and still connected to it. It does work together in ways that are hard to explain sometimes to our friends that come in from the banking world and are in the more for-profit world. The collaboration is still very real and it's still a superpower for the industry.

WFC 119 | Split Dollar Plans
Split Dollar Plans: The collaboration is still very real and still a superpower for the industry.

One of the sidebars to that note is you wouldn't have any way of knowing this, but that weekend, we were doing strategic planning in New York City. You can imagine having spent the previous year doing the data, doing the research, and planning for the events. In the middle of this, Lehman has gone down now and Congress has voted against the stimulus. We're sitting there. We're watching the stock market drop as we're making our presentations about the next few years. We had to throw all of it away.

I called and said, “Some debts depleted,” but remain calm.

We can laugh about it because of how it was successful. Ultimately, the three corporates did go down but credit unions did well. The NCUA once again, parsing it out now for years of the insurance costs made all the difference in the world.

That was again an organized effort by NAFCU, CUNA, and the NCUA board. It's not easy to get Congress to take action, but when there's a real crisis going on, they tend to have a little bit more clarity. There were some things that were able to get done to average it out over time and all that. One last funny story tied to that, the day we conserved in California, you never know what's going to happen on the news. Are the news trucks going to line up?

You're always worried about that because you don’t want to say, “No comment,” but you want to say something that's appropriate and you hope you don't have to say anything. That night, the Octomom had her eight children in LA and it was all over the news. We only had about 10 seconds of coverage, because they were all over those cute 8 babies out there.

That is the world of PR. It's all about timing.

Sometimes it's better to be lucky than good. We were good and lucky at that junction. Enough about those days. Tell me a little bit about OM Financial Group, and the things that you're doing to help credit unions compensate so that they can retain is what pops into my head when I think about it. Let's chat a little bit about what you and OM Financial Group do for credit unions.

OM has been around the longest in the industry for Supplemental Executive Retirement Plans, SERPs, for split dollars. There are two brands or options that executives have and boards have to provide to executives. 457(f)s, the large bonus plans that I had at Bethpage that are traditional in place, and then the split-dollar plans started to come in around 2001.

The NCUA approved the mechanism or the options in 2005 for thereabouts. The O and the M, or Bill O'Connor and Joe Maloof, were the ones that were in New England and had started being asked by some of the Massachusetts and Maine credit unions, “Could these types of insured-based retirement plans be brought over from the bank side to the credit union side to help executives plan for their retirement and have the funds?”

The beauty of the split-dollar plans is that they have their insurance base, their whole life, or index universal life. We primarily do whole life, but they're whole life insurance-based products. As they accumulate cash value over the tenure of the executive from the time the plan is put in place to their retirement date, that cash value then can be withdrawn during the retirement years tax-free. The executive gets a tax-free benefit, the policy is set up to be large enough to pay the credit union back with interest. It becomes another asset rather than an expense that the 457(f)s typically are. It's grown in business.

The latest data that we've seen, which is the NAFCU annual survey, shows that now split dollars are the more dominant SERP policy in place, particularly for any credit union over $250 million in assets. It's because of that value proposition that the executive gets tax-advantaged and the credit union gets paid back. We see that, and what has changed so much is two aspects of the industry. One is the demographics, my age group. We have a massive exchange of talent. I've looked at this from a number of different angles. We might want to talk about this some other time or go into it at some point, but we're in a fifth generation of leadership that has happened now.

If you think about it, are the original group of volunteers, and there was an asset size and a product mix that had to do with that. There was a general manager more that switched from volunteer to administrative. There was a third generation, the folks that could have taught me the business. They started building capital. The regulations came in that were expanded during Ronald Reagan's timeframe, and the product mix was allowed, and they grew in assets and now became multiple $100 million institutions.

My generation came along and started looking at multiple SEGs, not a monopoly model and an expansion of the products and services into different markets and regions. Bethpage was fortunate enough to be granted the largest federal charter in the country at the time in 2003 when we got all of Long Island. That was part of the NCUA's support of that expansion. Now we're in a new generation and those of us that are retired. You see that retirement every week, a new large credit union retiring. Now that the new generation's digital and data, secondary capital and derivatives and sophistication, and brand, and many aspects of the business as assets grow.

That's the second piece. We not only have had the demographic change, but we've also had these assets increase, compensation grow, and more of a need for SERPs. You see those two things pushing the business. Now, new CEOs are coming in. If you want to recruit them, you probably need to SERP and C-level teams of those credit unions over $500 million. If you want to retain them for succession plans or recruit them, you probably need to SERP.

Those asset thresholds, can you revisit that? At what level do these benefits start being offered to maybe the number one person? You mentioned the C-Suite. Did I pick up on that right? There's a level where you tiptoe into it with one person, and then there's a level where you started expanding it to the C-Suite.

I'll give you the general numbers we ran this last 2022. I would guess they've increased a little bit, but that's okay. At about $100 million to $250 million, there is an opportunity to do one SERP. It is very difficult to do more than one because as you're aware, you can allocate 25% of your net worth to a SERP option to be funded. At a typical $100 million credit union, you might have $10 million in capital net worth and $2.5 million would be eligible for a plan. We are working hard, by the way, with the small credit union groups, CUNA, and others to help put in some plans that would retain talent in those smaller credit unions.

One of the great risks to the industry is the loss of the smaller credit unions and part of that is talent. If they're qualified, they get absorbed into the system to bigger assets. To specifically answer your question, $250 million to $500 million, you start to see the CFO and COO being included in the plan, particularly if one of them is in the succession plan, then there's a real need to lock them up.

One of the great risks to the industry is the loss of the smaller credit unions.

You think about the retention of that talent with all the CEO positions that are opening up. Those are the folks that are primed. They're the ones that have sat at the table, met with the NCUA, done the investment decisions, and done the pricing. They're in line if they're of the right age group. As you get over $500 million to $1 billion, you start to see at least three included, and sometimes more particularly as you get closer to the billion. When you're acquiring talent from outside of the industry or within the industry, recruitment of those folks.

Now if you're getting people from banks or from FinTechs, the replication of stock options starts to become part of that conversation. How do we create wealth for you as time goes by that you could have gotten in the for-profit marketplace? You're now talking $3 billion to $5 billion and over $10 billion, sometimes $8 billion. Executives are involved.

You talk about the number 2, the number 3, or the other C-Suite people. You start having all these retirements, the ability to keep them happy where they're at so that you don't lose too much corporate knowledge at one point in time. That was something when I was at NCUA. You have these pendulums where NCUA would hire a certain amount of people, whether it was the NCUA board approving a 25% increase in staff. Those 25% increases in staff walked through a timeline together because when I started in ‘86, they doubled staff in the budget year that I was hired. There was this huge group of people moving through which, at different times, had advantages and disadvantages.

If you lose too many people at one time, it can create issues. If you know that you have a number 1 that's retiring in 1 year and a number 2 that's retiring in 2 years who might be taking over for a handful of years, it's important to be able to have programs in place that are going to allow you to retain. You keep that corporate knowledge, the history that's been passed on from generation. You talk about the different generations within the credit union.

It's great to see that this is growing and OM is doing so well in providing this benefit out there. Putting my examiner's hat on, it all comes back to the M in CAMEL. Management is the key, it's all about the members, but it's that board and executive team that keeps the institution safe and sound, and being able to retain is job one as it relates to that.

Maybe you would agree with this. Running a credit union is the toughest job in retail banking. The reason for that is that even though our banking friends may not agree, there are pretty significant restrictions on investment options, secondary capital, on charters that credit unions can do. They've been expanded and the NCUA and states are doing a great job of modernizing those models. It is tough to grow and be successful organically without access to capital and meet those needs. The greatest asset of any company is its leadership. That does not demean anybody else in this organizational structure, but it is the leaders who are responsible for the vision and setting and meeting those goals, and all those pieces.

WFC 119 | Split Dollar Plans
Split Dollar Plans: Running a credit union is the toughest job in retail banking.

Now as credit unions grow, have the great opportunity to expand, and be even larger market shares, they need these leaders. Leaders are going to have to compensate. There is a clear connection between asset size and compensation. As assets grow, so does the compensation makes it logical. We saw a period in 2021 where assets grew by about a third at most institutions. That pushes compensation up and creates a bigger gap in the retirement plans because most credit unions only have a 401(k) and social security. Without the traditional older retirement plans, you have this gap that gets bigger with compensation and you got to fill it with something. That's where the SERPs come in.

Two questions pop into my head. I remember when this started to be contemplated to be allowed in credit unions, NCUA learned a lot from the state regulators because they had seen it in banks. That's where NCUA came up with some comfort, but I'm sure as you look at the time you've been doing this, the education of the examiner is part of the process. They need to understand that whatever the credit union is doing, A) It’s affordable and B) It’s within the rules that are allowed. NCUA has had a lot of staff turnover, there's always that first discussion where an examiner sees this the first time and the CEO, the board, or the executive team needs to provide the documentation and explain that it's within the guardrails and all that.

Is that something you've seen over time has gotten better understood at NCUA or any advice to someone who is thinking about doing this or after they read this, wants to call you and say, “How might I do this for my credit union?” How do you manage the NCUA side of that at a credit union that’s looking at it or has got this new product?

This is a very important question because there are two things that come into play. Education is essential to this. I would say that all the vendors that are in this space do a great job of this and spend a lot of time educating the board about how these plans work and the executives on how they work. They provide a package that has been approved by the NCUA through other exams to each of the new credit unions that are coming on. All of it is documented and can be followed through in the terms that the NCUA is expecting. That becomes a big part of it but they are reasonably complex. The important part is doing an annual review with the board and the executive, particularly after the first couple of years, the illustrations perform as you would imagine.

There's no real change in interest rates or anything, normally. Getting back in front of the board and making sure that they're doing it. We do things like providing a weekly webinar class we call 101s. We do four standard webinars. The 101 though is the basics of what is allowed by the NCUA and how these plans, either 457(f) or a split-dollar, work internally counting-wise, compliance-wise, illustration, and produce retirement benefits-wise.

The boards always have a chance to come back and relearn it. We think the crucial part here, because there is risk in these plans, is that the boards and executives understand them. The last thing anybody wants in the industry, including our friends at the NCUA, is that these plans don't work. There is a challenge to having to refund them or do something else that becomes a financial burden to the credit union.

WFC 119 | Split Dollar Plans
Split Dollar Plans: The last thing anybody may want in the industry, including our friends at the NCUA, is that these plans don't work. Then there is the challenge of having to refund them or do something else that becomes a financial burden to the credit union.

How does it work? A big part of what we're talking about is retention. If someone’s the number 3 person at Credit Union A, and they're in New York and they end up getting a good opportunity in California where they can be the number 2 or 1, how does that transition work relative to these products? Is it ending here and it starts there? Is it you have one here, it somehow can piggyback off over there. Am I barking up the right tree there at all?

With all the movement that we have in the industry right now, you see a lot of this occurring. I'm going to take the two different plans and talk about them in different ways. The 457(f) is a contract with the executive to be paid at a certain time in the future. They are different. They're not always at retirement. For a younger exec, it might be to retain the CIO for five years. There are different ways that the plans are used, but if that executive leaves, they typically leave that money on the table. That doesn't go with them. Sometimes if they're being recruited, they'll be able to negotiate the adding of that back on at the other site.

On the split-dollar, on the insurance-based ones, there's a vesting schedule that's typically set up between now and the time that the executive is going to retire. Let's say it's ten years for ease of math. The vesting's going to increase by 10% a year, 20%, 30%, 40%, and so forth. If the executive leads in year five, it will move with them the 50% of the plan, and will still get paid at 65%, but won't be paid immediately if 65% is retirement. The other 50% reverts back to the credit union and they can use it for whatever they want, next executive, whatever that may be. The split dollars are more transferable and based on the vesting schedule, whereas the others are more at the organization that originated.

That's an a-ha moment for me. With all the movement around, there had to be some ways to work both sides of that. That's fascinating. That's good intel.

If they want to retain the younger execs, they'll slow down the vesting schedule. That's how you ensure the retention works.

The negotiation, if you're the younger person is, “Okay, but then give me a little bit more. I'll stick around, but make it worth my while.” It’s fascinating. I do a lot of things on LinkedIn. Before we started, we were talking about a call you had. I noticed that you had posted on LinkedIn that you were offering an opportunity to anybody out there that wanted to chat with you about what it's like to be an executive or a CEO and mentor some of this new generation. You had floated that out there. I'm curious, has your schedule filled up so much from doing that? How's that going?

My schedule has filled up. It's been wonderful. I have about 25 people that have taken me up on the offer. It is invigorating to see the excitement of so many people. It breaks down into three different groups. It's interesting. Some people are ready. They've matured through their career and they're asking questions like, “How do you think about strategy? How did you get Bethpage to grow?” There's a next group that is talented as well, but they're in the beginning stages of their C-team, COOs, CFOs, etc. They're trying to figure out how to learn, how to engage with boards, and how to build a culture. They have a different set of questions.

You have a group that probably has another step before they become CEO. They have to become that CFO, COO, or one of those chief officers yet because they're at the beginning. They're asking about education but in a different way about what the CUES CEO Institute might do, or what are the other options available in the industry to learn about strategy and learn about how to communicate, and certainly about finance. It’s been wonderful. I've provided 25 people a couple of hours of my time but I get more out of it than they do, I'm sure.

The future of the industry is strong, my friend. There are excited new leaders coming around who believe. This industry is vibrant but it requires people that believe as well as understand how to run a business. It’s those two things that matter for successful leaders and those folks who are showing it every day that are trying to learn some more.

This industry is vibrant, but it requires people that believe as well as understand how to run a business.

A couple of things pop into my mind when you said that. I think of Stephen Covey’s sharpening the saw and beginning with the end in mind. Those are two of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Begin with the end in mind, so they have this goal of getting there and then sharpening the saw is that educational process. I've been having a lot of fun educating myself on how to be an entrepreneur and continuing to sharpen the saw in that way. I'm not surprised that you had such a good response to that, but it's great to see that vibrancy in that belief. When you said belief, I thought of Ted Lasso, the TV show with the sign up there, the Believe. If you have hope and you have belief, you can tackle just about anything on this planet. That’s great.

It was an amazing show.

It was one of the best in quite some time in so many ways. Readers, I did not ruin any stories about the sign. The Believe sign is a focal point of a few different episodes. I'll leave it at that. If you believe in something and have that passion, you can knock down walls.

Our industry will continue to knock down some walls. A very interesting conversation we could have one day is about our friends in the community banking industry and credit unions, and how they're going to fair over the next years. I'm a strong believer that credit unions are going to be the winner in that market share game.

That might be a show if we want to touch base again on that but that could be a whole episode. Kirk, this has been great. If there was 1 question that I should have asked you, or maybe even 2, what would those be? Is there anything else you'd like to add here before we wrap up this episode?

We've covered so much. First of all, I appreciate it. As I said, it's wonderful to catch up with you. I'm so glad the business and the show are going well. The one comment I would leave you with dovetails what we talked about regarding the future of the industry. It is important for boards to think about compensation and benefits. It is essential that they are educated on what compensation is. We don't provide compensation surveys or data. There are many fine companies out there that do so. If you would like to know what the other surveys are saying out there, I do accumulate that information and I'd be glad to provide it to people, but we don't do the surveying or consulting ourselves.

We have seen this asset growth changes in the strategies and in so many things in the industry. Compensation has grown substantially for top-tiered jobs, CEO, CFO, and COO. Over the last few years, CEO jobs particularly in the highest performing have been double-digit increases in total comp base and annual salary. Watch those numbers. Talent does need to be treated fairly. The industry doesn't have to be paid the most in the world, but it does need to be treated fairly if you're going to have the talent to compete and create great teams, great cultures, and wonderful member value.

The industry doesn't have to be paid the most in the world, but talent does need to be treated fairly if you're going to have them compete and create great teams, cultures, and wonderful member value.

That's a great place to wrap this up. If someone reading would like to reach out to you, either as it relates to understanding these products and how they might fit into their credit union, or if one of your 25 mentees graduates and you have a new slot that you can add somebody if they might be interested in that, how would they best reach you?

Thank you. I would gladly help anybody else that would like to do the mentoring for a couple of hours. The best way to reach me, you certainly find me on LinkedIn. That's probably the natural connection for all of us these days. Kirk Kordeleski and I'm at OM Financial Group. If you want to reach me directly,

That’s fantastic, Kirk. This has been a lot of fun. It’s great catching up with you. Thanks so much for your time.

Thank you. Greatly appreciated, my friend.

Readers, I want to thank you for tuning in. I hope you'll tune in again soon.

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