After 9 Years, Larry Biernacki Leaves Bigger Arkansas Federal Credit Union

Walter L. Biernacki Jr. — Larry to his friends — is a voracious reader, especially of business and management books, and his conversation is peppered with phrases from his favorite, Jim Collins’ 2001 classic “Good to Great.”

Arkansas Federal Credit Union was a good organization with $405 million in assets when Biernacki arrived nine years ago this month, having been well and carefully managed into its position as largest credit union in the state by Hank Klein.

But Biernacki came from a much larger credit union, San Antonio FCU, and had some BHAGs — Collins’ acronym for Big Harry Audacious Goals: to double AFCU’s assets in five years and triple them in 10.

Actually, Biernacki knew even then that he wouldn’t be around in 2015, and so did the directors of AFCU.

“They knew I was going to retire at 62 when they hired me,” he said, and that happened in April. Aug. 1 will be his last day on the job, and AFCU’s board of directors has not yet announced a successor.

(Get the list of the largest credit unions in Arkansas, available as either a PDF or spreadsheet.)

AFCU did meet that first BHAG, reaching $806 million in assets in the first quarter of 2010. But the third $400 million has been slow to materialize, with assets bouncing above and below the billion-dollar mark in recent months.

At the end of March, total assets were officially $966.3 million; Biernacki’s projecting $1.04 billion at the end of 2014. By next summer — 10 years after his arrival — AFCU is likely to have 2.5 times the assets he inherited from Klein.

“The economy didn’t help us,” Biernacki said during a recent interview at the Jacksonville office that he had already begun cleaning out. “But no excuses.”

While a lot of commercial bankers have complained about sluggish loan demand, Biernacki seemed to be pooh-poohing that idea.

“Yes, I am,” he said. “And I have the balance sheet to prove it.”

Point-of-sale lending is a specialty that Biernacki brought with him from his days with larger credit unions, and being able to finance members when they are buying big-ticket items like vehicles and boats has become about 35 percent of AFCU’s lending. “But direct lending is through the roof, too,” he said.

During Biernacki’s tenure, AFCU’s loan-to-deposit ratio — how much of members’ money has been loaned back out to other members — has increased from 77 percent to just over 100 percent.

And while credit unions, especially the small ones in Arkansas, have traditionally stuck with retail consumer lending, AFCU has dipped “a little bitty toe in the water” of commercial lending, Biernacki said, including some loans in the $2 million to $3 million range.

New regulatory burdens have run up the fixed costs of commercial bank loans, Biernacki said, so banks have become less interested in smaller commercial loans. That demand has started to find its way to the credit union, he said.

At this point, Biernacki recommends “What Got You Here Won’t Get You There: How Successful People Become Even More Successful” by Marshall Goldsmith and Mark Reiter.

Branching Out

When Biernacki arrived in 2005, AFCU had five offices. Today it has 15 stretching from Searcy to the newest one at Rogers and has purchased two more locations from Simmons First National Bank: one at Salem Road and Dave Ward Drive in Conway and one on Highway 71 in Springdale.

The Conway office, formerly a branch of Metropolitan National Bank that was acquired by Simmons last fall, will open as an AFCU branch in the fourth quarter of this year. The Springdale branch, one that Simmons closed while digesting the Metropolitan acquisition, will likely open in the first half of 2015.

In his final months in the job, Biernacki has remained busy improving the branch network. The Hot Springs branch office has been relocated to 3948 Central Ave. just south of the Highway 70/270 bypass, the west Little Rock office at 1221 S. Shackleford Road has been remodeled, and the Cabot office at 100 S. Rockwood Drive is about to get a makeover as well.

And AFCU purchased a building across the street from its headquarters office at 2424 Marshall Road.

In Retirement

Biernacki’s long-planned retirement will be split between homes in Texas and Cabot, and it will be a real retirement. “If I was going to continue working, why would I leave this place?” he asked.

Instead, he plans to increase his volunteer work in the suburbs that have embraced him.

“I have no intention of leaving Cabot or this area,” he said. “You people have made me feel like I’m too much a part of this community, and the coolest part is you guys let me be me. I didn’t have to change.”

Instead of management books, he’s now finding his inspiration in Bob Buford’s “Halftime: Moving from Success to Significance.”

Biernacki is already involved in the work of A Woman’s Place Pregnancy Resource Center, and he plans to ramp up his fundraising for its work.

“Let’s talk about what we need to save more babies’ lives,” he said.