The accidental executive
By Mary Beth Galarneau
In 1977, Paula Stopera was a fresh-faced college student at Hudson Valley Community College, prepared to pursue a degree in education. She didn’t realize that taking a part-time job in a local bank would change her life’s course.
“You think you know what you want,” Stopera said. “I thought I wanted to go into special education.”
At the State Bank of Albany (now Bank of America), Stopera learned the basics of business. In fact, as the only commercial bank in Colonie Center, they handled the deposits for all of the stores in the mall.
“I was only there for a year, but it was a very good training point for understanding reliability, commitment and important basics for success in the future,” said Stopera.
From there, she went on to work at Pioneer Savings Bank full-time during the day while taking night classes at Russell Sage College.
“I loved what I was doing at the bank so I changed my major to business.”
In 1980, Stopera became the ninth employee hired at the Capital District Telephone Employees Credit Union in Albany, which was formed in 1953. At the time, they had $28 million in assets. Today it’s called Capital Communications Federal Credit Union (the name change was made in the late 80s) and there are 184 full-time employees and just under $700 million in assets on the credit union side and $230 million on the investment side, including financial services, retirements, mutual funds and stocks. In addition, there are nine local branches handling over 66,000 members and counting. It is the second largest credit union in the Capital Region.
For those unfamiliar with the concept of a “credit union”, think of a bank that is a member-owned cooperative. At the time, Capital Communications was formed around the NY Telephone Company and Bell companies (AT&T, Nynex, NY Telephone, Avaya). For the sake of survival, the credit union had to expand their membership as the number of employees at the phone company decreased from 21,000 to just 2,500. Today, a member is anyone who lives, works, worships or attends school in the Capital Region or anyone who belongs to one of the credit union’s 500 Select Employee Groups (SEG). And, once you’re a member, you’re always a member.
Stopera says it didn’t take long for her to “fall in love with the credit union movement.”
“It really is people helping people,” she said, relaying a story of a woman who came in this past winter and said she had no heat in her house due to late payments. She was a single mother, working the midnight shift with the phone company, just trying to make ends meet.
“By the time she left, she had the money and we called the propane company for her. We help real people through real struggles.”
Through its Capital Communications Credit Union Cares Foundation, the credit union has also given back to the community, donating as much as $700,000 through work with charities such as homeless shelters and community health.
It’s these kinds of “good deeds” that make Stopera feel good about her job. She is always accessible to members and that extends right down to her employees. Whenever a new employee is hired (full or part-time), she takes him or her out to lunch to discuss the credit union’s mission and review their job responsibilities.
As a manager, it also helps that she has performed most every duty there. “I grew up here and I learned from the same positions that our staff works in today.” She also reminds them to always have a positive attitude at the work place, something she practices.
“You have choices every day – it can be a great day or a lousy day.”
It’s no wonder that the credit union has ranked as a top place to work for four years in a row, including two years rated as number one employer in the Capital Region by The Business Review.
Capital Communications has experienced tremendous growth under Stopera’s leadership, with membership increasing from 42,000 to 67,000, branch locations expanding from three to 10 and assets nearly doubling from $357 million to $670 million. And the credit union continues to grow. Just last year, Stopera led her team through a merger with Excelsior Credit Union, which, although not uncommon in today’s market, often presents opportunities for enterprising credit unions.
“As credit union managers age, more of them wind up merging with larger, stronger credit unions,” she said. “We lost 300 credit unions in New York State in the past several years as a result of mergers and retirements.”
When she’s not busy putting in between 45-50 hours a week, Stopera is a devoted wife and mother of two teenage children. A Cohoes native, she still calls the place home. “It’s such a tight-knit community,” she said. (Incidentally, Capital Communication’s ninth branch recently opened in Cohoes at the corner of 787 and Ontario Street).
For women who want to have a family as well as a successful career, it seems that Capital Communications is the ideal employer. Even before the enactment of the Family Medical Leave Act, women at the credit union were given a three-month maternity leave. Employees also have flex-time and the credit union is striving to provide options to work from home.
“We allow people to enjoy their families. You are not going to lose your job or feel threatened because you have a family.”
Stopera had to remind herself of this fact 15 years ago. At 36, she was suffering from stomach ulcers. “I was trying to be everything to everyone, but not myself.” After that experience, she learned to take time for herself. “If I don’t, I won’t be good for anybody.”
Like many working mothers, she learned that you need balance. “About ninety-nine percent of the time I didn’t miss a play, game or field trip. I didn’t jeopardize or sacrifice being a mother or friend over time. [A woman] can do both.”
Having started out in such a male-dominated business almost 30 years ago, it’s hard not to wonder if Stopera experienced any prejudice.
Aside from having to work twice as hard as her male counterparts to get noticed, she said she was fortunate enough to work with a great group of people and to be offered great opportunities.
“I was part of a young group of people that really created what the workplace would be like at the credit union.”
One man in particular, Harold Horning, manager of the credit union for 10 years, is someone who Stopera calls her mentor. “He forced me to do things outside of my comfort zone,” she said, whether or not she liked them. Like dispatching her to a public speaking workshop.
“I was 29 years old and in this program with executives – mostly men in suits. I thought I wasn’t going to make it to the end.” Turns out that this experience was a “turning point” in her career as a manager and leader. “I gained more confidence.”
Though her intended career in education took an unplanned turn in college, her latest endeavor has revived that old dream by allowing her to develop a program that educates high school students about business. Part of the inspiration for this latest venture arises out of a perplexing lack of emphasis on business courses in local high schools, to which Stopera can easily relate. “I was a victim of the same thing,” she admitted. “I didn’t take a business class until Sage.” Stopera sees the same bewildering deficiency in today’s schools. “In high school today, kids are mandated to take all kinds of course requirements to graduate. The mandate for English, social studies, science and foreign language eats up most of three years.” Unfortunately, many of these same students leave high school as financial illiterates.
To help rectify that, a representative from Capital Communications has visited several area schools to teach financial literacy. And Stopera has embraced her new role, which combines her keen business acumen with her long ago dreams of instructing the younger generation. In a way, it’s as if her two career aspirations—education and business—have converged onto a new path that’s allowed her to revisit the road not taken. In fact, she currently is on the brink of setting up a student-run credit union in some of the schools.
“I’d love the opportunity to introduce business into a high school curriculum,” she enthused. “In my next life, I’m going to try and fix that.”
But why wait until the next life? It sounds like Stopera is more than capable of squeezing that goal into this life, no matter how busy her schedule.