With about 31,000 members, Island Federal Credit Union is sizable, but on Long Island it operates in the shadow of three giants: Teachers Federal, Bethpage Federal and Nassau Educators Federal, with 231,500 members, 222,000 members and 154,000 members, respectively.
As Island's president and chief executive, Bret Sears has the job of overcoming the disadvantage in size.
A certified public accountant, the 53-year-old Syracuse native joined Island in 2004 as vice president and chief financial officer.
This summer, Island expanded, acquiring the 4,200-member CWA Long Island Federal Credit Union, a single-branch operation in Ronkonkoma with $17 million in assets.
The Communications Workers of America credit union's office was closed by Island because Island's Selden office is nearby.
Island also opened two new branches this year, in Riverhead and Massapequa, bringing its total to seven -- three in Nassau, four in Suffolk.
Are you planning to grow this credit union through any more mergers?
We are looking for any mergers that make sense and fit into where we want to be, that are located somewhere we're looking to go or with a membership that fits in closely with ours.
Why do you want to do that?
One of the toughest things we have to overcome is that people don't understand what credit unions are. So it's hard to get people to come in from banks. So when we can bring in a group that's already familiar with credit unions, we have a much better opportunity.
Do you have any geographical expansion plans?
The last time I said anything about this, I had about 500 Realtors call the next day -- but we are looking in northwestern Nassau.
What makes you pessimistic and what makes you optimistic about the Long Island economy?
The pessimism is, we hire a lot of younger people, and I just have a difficult time understanding how they survive here on Long Island [because of the high cost of living]. I grew up off the Island, and coming here was like a baseball bat to the head. Fortunately, there's such a great base of people on Long Island that it makes it easy to get employees, qualified people, who are enthusiastic and love it here [on Long Island and at Island Federal].
How does it affect you as a lender that the value of housing still hasn't recovered from the recession?
The biggest issue we see is how it impacts our members, whether or not they are able to refinance. We haven't experienced a huge problem with people whose houses are underwater [with mortgages higher than home values], but there's been a big problem in another respect: people going to buy houses and not being able to get an appraisal [at a price as high as they expected], so they couldn't get the loan [amount they were seeking, possibly killing the sale].
Both Long Island counties are in dire fiscal straits. How does that affect you as a credit union?
We're operating without any glitches, but I'm worried about how it affects our customers if you get huge tax increases or anything along those lines or there are layoffs that roll down to our membership -- they'll have problems.
What do you see about the Island's economy that makes you optimistic?
The pickup in home prices. And just the way the Island recovered from Hurricane Sandy makes me pretty optimistic. I think it made people a lot more optimistic about Long Island seeing how fast it recuperated and how everyone worked together. And the workforce makes me very optimistic.
Some local economists say the biggest problem facing the Island is the loss of high-paying jobs, which are being replaced by lower-paying jobs. Do you agree?
The people with higher-paying jobs generally buy more expensive cars, more expensive houses, generally have more cash they bring in and deposit with us. So our borrowings and savings rate are definitely impacted if they leave.
Name: Bret W. Sears, president and chief executive, Island Federal Credit Union, Hauppauge.
What it does: Fourth largest credit union on Long Island
Assets: $936.7 million
Net income: $7.7 million
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misstated the terms of Island Federal Credit Union's merger with CWA Long Island Federal Credit Union.