Hard work paid off for credit union CEO



As a teenager, Sherry Saxon opened a bank account as an act of rebellion, but soon switched over to a credit union. Her mother had been working for credit unions since Saxon was 5 years old.

In her 20s, Saxon didn't want the responsibility of managing a department in a drugstore, so she took a job as a teller at a credit union.

Today, Saxon is its president and CEO. She worked her way up from the bottom of Augusta Metro Federal Credit Union and has held the position for 14 years.

Saxon didn't take the traditional route of most executives -- she didn't attend college. She married at 18 and had her first child at 22, so she knew she had to work hard.

"Because I started at the bottom, I've learned so many different aspects of the credit union," Saxon said. "There was always something new to learn, and there was always something changing. I never got bored. Learning everything you can has been the most exciting thing."

Saxon has worked at Augusta Metro for 26 years. Next year, the credit union will celebrate 50 years in business.

It started with 10 employees who pooled $50 to get organized. Today, it has approximately 12,000 members and $58 million in assets. It has 45 employees at four locations: Lumpkin Road, Mike Padgett Highway, Davis Road and Waynesboro, Ga.

The recession has made it challenging to operate the credit union. Interest rates are down, so income levels are down, Saxon said.

"When we take in deposits from our members, we can't pay them that much in dividends because we have operating expenses to deal with. When we take money and invest it or loan it back out, the market drives those rates," Saxon said.

The credit union also hasn't received as much from loans or investments. Augusta Metro has a good capital position, which has helped it withstand the tough times, she said.

In the near future, Saxon plans to offer indirect lending.

"Ninety percent of automobile loans that are purchased nationwide are financed right at the car dealership. So currently, credit unions only get 10 percent of the market," Saxon said.

Auto dealers prefer for customers to finance their vehicles on-site because there is money to be made for the dealer. Augusta Metro has been reluctant to enter this market, but in order to grow its automobile lending portfolio, the credit union must partner with dealerships, she said.

"We are up for the challenge. We are so excited about indirect lending. Our members will be able to walk into local dealerships and get a loan with the credit union at the dealership," Saxon said.

Charles Grant, chairman of the board at Augusta Metro, said the board has a lot of trust in Saxon and is comfortable with her leadership.

"She's an excellent leader. Her style is one of not being intimidating but seeking to get the most out of those persons who report to her. She is level-headed and calm in her demeanor. She's focused on what needs to be done to keep the credit union going in a positive direction," Grant said.

Grant said Saxon has proven herself to be a skillful manager, minimizing losses and growing the loans of the institution.

"We've really held our own in this turbulent marketplace," Grant said.

Grant said Saxon is pleasant and warm, and people tend to gravitate to her because of her outgoing personality.

She knows a lot of the members, having personally signed them up during her time as a teller. Despite her role as CEO, they still call her to ask about their accounts.

"Everybody, I think, that works for her really respects her. The board members all really love Sherry as well, as a person, not only as the CEO, but her character in general," said Sidney Saxon, her husband.

Family Ties

Saxon has known her husband since she was 13 years old. In high school, they served as officers for Vocational Industrial Clubs of America. She was president and he was vice president. They've been married for five years.

"It's so interesting because we never, ever dreamed in a million years ... we never had any interest in each other when we were younger. We were just friends," Saxon said.

After high school, Saxon married someone else, but she divorced when her children were young.

She remained friends with Sidney over the years. About nine years ago, she hired him to repaint her house.

They started dating and he proposed to her during a Wednesday night church service four years later.

Saxon and her husband enjoy snow skiing or hanging out on the beach. They go skiing two to three times a year.

"On a sunny day, it's not unusual for us to decide that morning and throw our bathing suits in the vehicle and head to the beach," Saxon said.

Daddy's girl

Saxon got the chance to see the world at a young age. Her stepfather, Lloyd Burkhart, was in the military. Her mother, Joyce Burkhart, remarried when Saxon was 9, and the family moved to Germany, where they lived for four years.

"My stepdad is the most wonderful stepdad you could ever imagine. He was so good to my sister and me. He would take 30 days leave every summer, and we traveled for 30 days -- camping -- to France, Switzerland, Austria, Holland, Italy and Spain," Saxon said.

She and her younger sister, Patty, also toured numerous castles.

Saxon and her stepfather were close and even celebrated their birthdays, which were within five days of each other, together. He died in 2003.

"He was one of those men that taught us so much growing up and exposed us to so many things that we would have never gotten to see," Saxon said.

The family moved to Augusta when he was transferred to Fort Gordon. She graduated from Butler High School.

At 15, she started working at Eckerd drugstore as a part-time clerk. Within five years, she became a full-time cosmetician. She made decent money and had a regular 9 to 5 work schedule but wanted to leave the position. She was in charge of supervising employees and ordering products.

"I was overwhelmed with the responsibility," Saxon said. "They tried to get me to go into management at the drugstore but I didn't want to work all those hours. In retail, they work 60 to 70 hours a week."

Her mother was the manager at Gracewood Federal Credit Union. Saxon kept asking her mother for a job. Saxon got an interview at Augusta CCC (Continental Can Co.) Credit Union and got a teller job.

"I went from, 'I don't want any responsibility' to a teller. And here I am, the CEO of the credit union, so evidently, being a leader was in my blood even back then," she said.

The CCC credit union changed its name to Augusta Industrial Credit Union. Previously, it had accepted members only from Continental Can Co., but it added an employer group, Augusta Newsprint.

The credit union had five employees, and each had to learn to do every task. As the credit union grew, Saxon continued to learn every aspect of the organization.

In 1996, Saxon was managing the lending department, and Jo Knight, the previous CEO of Augusta Industrial, was planning to retire. Knight had been grooming Saxon for three years to become the next chief executive.

Knight taught her that when you learn how to do something, you should teach someone else how to do it. Then, you can move on to learn something else, Saxon said.

During Knight's last year, she allowed Saxon to make most of the decisions.

"A lot of credit union CEOs, when they retire, they stay on as board members or get involved in committees. Jo told me that she would not do that to me," Saxon said. "She wanted me to be able to do this on my own and not have her in the background. It was one of the best things she could have done for me and my career. She was a wonderful mentor."

She's the boss

In 2001, Saxon supervised the merger of two credit unions, Augusta Industrial Credit Union and Metro One Federal Credit Union. She was responsible for merging two staffs, which had been operating on different systems.

"It was a challenge, but it was one of the best things we could have ever done. Since then, we have been growing by leaps and bounds," Saxon said.

Saxon came up with the idea to combine the names of both credit unions into Augusta Metro Federal Credit Union. She thought it was a strong name because it wouldn't have to be changed, unless the credit union expanded throughout the state.

When Saxon joined the credit union, it was located in a double- wide trailer at Continental Can Co. Eventually, it moved to Lumpkin Road, and later opened its others branches.

Two years ago, Augusta Metro moved into a new building on Davis Road. Saxon started building the credit union as a typical financial institution with a teller line, but she was inspired during a visit to the Delta credit union in Atlanta. It had adopted a new concept called dialogue branches.

"The whole idea is to remove the barriers. The members can actually stand there next to you and look at the account on the screen. When you're behind the teller line, you can't see what they're doing to your account. But here, you can stand there and watch," Saxon said.

Saxon brought her entire management team to the branch to show them how it worked.

"Everybody embraced it. It's the first dialogue branch environment in the Augusta area. Our staff has just been ecstatic about working down there," she said.

In addition, members have access to an Internet station where they can access their accounts online, and a member lounge with gourmet coffee, water, comfortable seating and a children's play area.

Stan Howe, owner of Howe Construction Co. in Roswell, Ga., worked with Saxon on the design and construction of the new building.

"Working with her was a pleasure for us in terms of having a client who put that much thought, effort and research into what she wanted and her vision for the next 10 years," he said.

Now other credit unions want to mirror Saxon's plans, he said.

"They've come in to meet with Sherry, toured the building and looked at some of the concepts and ideas that Sherry implemented there with her building. She's very much a visionary," Howe said.

Saxon's advice to aspiring female executives is to work hard and learn as much as they can.

"Don't be afraid to step out of your comfort zone and accept new responsibilities. Find someone else who is successful and learn from them," she said.

Sherry Saxon

TITLE: President and CEO of Augusta Metro Federal Credit Union

BORN: Jan. 15, 1964 at Fort Campbell, Ky.

EDUCATION: Southeastern Regional Credit Union Management School, graduate

FAMILY: husband, Sidney; children, Lorina and Alicia; grandson, Landyn

CIVIC/EXTRACURRICULAR: Sherwood Baptist Church, Legacy Circle for Girl Scouts, CSI (Cooperative Services Inc.) board member, Leadership Augusta, 2009 graduate

HOBBIES: Reading, snow skiing and going to the beach



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