ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — ESL Federal Credit Union, that bank that George Eastman built, is celebrating 100 years in business this year and Faheem Masood has been there for a good number of them.
A graduate of Allegheny College and SUNY Buffalo, Masood started with ESL in 1991.
His move into the role of president and CEO marked the full realization an American Dream.
Here’s Masood’s interview with Adam Chodak about his story and the role of banks in these times when so many are struggling.
Adam Chodak: 100 years, what does that mean to you?
Faheem Masood: Well, to me personally it’s like, wow, I’m part of an organization that’s been around for 100 years, what a history and a lot of pride in that, a lot of pride in what ESL has become from where it started, it is something that is impactful in our community, I believe, and has grown to really be part of this community. It started out very much Eastman Kodak oriented, founded by George Eastman of course with the objective of helping all the people he was bringing in from around the country really develop roots here in community. So that savings and loan at the time was to make people save and secure loans for mortgages and 100 years later we have been part of helping to build this community. Things have changed a lot in 100 years. Kodak is not Kodak as we knew it, awesome history, tremendous pillar of our community, catalyst for a lot of what exists here, but for us it’s 100 years of growing with our community and to now be sitting in a place where we are the largest financial institution in community, something to be proud of and something we have to be very responsible with in order to understand our place in the community that has helped us become what we are so that is a tremendous responsibility that we take very seriously, so tremendous pride in what the institution is, but also very strong understanding that it wouldn’t be what it is without what the community has allowed it to become.
AC: You talk about responsibility, the bank closing in on 380,000 customers, there has to be a certain percentage turning to ESL for help…
FM: Absolutely. The pandemic, no one expected this, came to us fast and furious, our members did not expect their lives to be turned around, this is a time for us to step up and say what can we do for them. So much like many financial institutions we have been actively working with our members asking them how we can be helpful. For many that means deferring loans, things to help their cash flow today, waving a number of fees to eliminate some of the worries. We also designed some products to get many questions answered. We also participated in the government programs to make sure they flowed very smoothly because the last thing people want is to be expecting a check and to have problems with them. So we also had to design things where we have actively been reaching out to our customers before they call us because we sense they might have some downstream challenges so that we can offer solutions to them proactively. Many of them have said, no, I’m fine right now, but it’s good to know we can call you if you need help. Some of them said thank you, you just took a worry off my shoulders. So we have a responsibility to try and be helpful in that manner, to the membership, but also the community at large because what happens to the entire community affects many of our members so whether it’s working through United Way, the Community Foundation, the crisis fund that was established under their leadership, stepping up to make contributions to that, so outside of the direct business it’s participating in the community-wide effort to help those less fortunate than us, so certainly our members directly, but also the wider community at large. The other thing we did that we felt was important to do, we think we’re going to have a financially successful year, typically in January, we take a portion of our profits and return it to our membership, back in May we did an assessment and it said this year is going to be just fine, our membership could use that money now so we had already distributed $20 million to members in January, we decided to advance next year’s dividend earlier this year, in May or June perhaps, we distributed anther $20 million because it can make a difference. It’s amazing what $30 can do, sometimes it’s hundreds of dollars that people get as a dividend.
AC: Those who aren’t getting a proactive approach from their bank, should they approach the bank?
FM: Absolutely. People should be very proactive. If they have concerns, reach out to the financial institutions. Financial institutions have vested interest in the success of their customers. And I’ll say that for all financial institutions because we compete a lot, but at the end of the day we all desire for our customers to succeed so, yes, consult be a partner, reach out to them and most likely they’ll be able to help. There are many supports available right now whether they be through the government programs or the programs the institutions have put in place, but, yes, there is help available and do reach out and relationships require strong communications between parties. When you you don’t know someone is in trouble, it’s hard to help them. Do take the initiative and reach out. We’ll do our part to also try and reach out where we’re seeing opportunities to help people.
AC: You’re in a position to take a larger view of the economic health of our community, what are you seeing right now?
FM: We need to get through however long this pandemic lasts, so let’s say it goes another 6-8 months, we need to get through this period and when I say we need to get through, we need to help our businesses, make it through this period, so at the end of it they can go out and do what they do and have always done very well. Likewise for consumers, we need to help them get on the other side. The other part is there are many members of our community that were already suffering before the start of this. A lot of the supports for them have further diminished, we need to get them to the other side. Economically we were doing quite well before the pandemic hit, as a country and as a community and there’s every reason to suspect we have the strength to do well after and one of the things we have done as a community is come together and find solutions to a problem so spending more time collaborating to figure out how we can help each other to get through this interim period will make us much stronger and there are many shining lights of that. Our not-for-profits have stepped up in a brilliant manner to find ways in which to help people throughout the community are trying to bolster those not-for-profits with funding to help them do what they do best. I am concerned about our not-for-profits. They’re funding streams are very strained, state funding, everything is taking a hit so we need to pay attention to that right now, but people are engaging in that which is great.
AC: You yourself represent the fulfillment of the American Dream, if you will. Came here from Pakistan for education, stayed here and now you’re the president and CEO of a significant financial institution. Pretty impressive.
FM: It’s an amazing dream at times. Pinch me. It is wonderful. I’ve had the opportunity to live in Rochester for more than half my life and this is my home. This community has given me much, wonderful life, wonderful career, my two children live here, my wife and I have a wonderful life here, we have a lot to be thankful for. As you said, I am living that classic upward mobility dream. ESL was a big part of it, gave me the opportunity to grow with the organization, it’s just been a tremendous experience and, as you said, I came from Pakistan and settled in a brand-new country, a lot to learn, but I’d say people are amazing, the communities I’ve lived in, you don’t do it by yourself, it takes a lot of people to help you get where you are and I’ve been surrounded by amazing people who have helped me there whether it be my family, my ESL family, friends, others in the community, I am very, very thankful and appreciative for the good fortune I have.
AC: My last question: if you run into an 18 year old who just moved here from another country with a very similar situation to you, what advice would you offer him or her?
FM: The general platitudes of work hard. I think be curious. Hold on to who you are, but also try to take in what’s good about your surroundings and adapt to that, absorb it, but don’t lose yourself. But yeah, work hard, you surround yourself with good people and do your part with initiative, good things will happen and I think optimism, always optimism, things do tend to work out when you’re optimistic.