The Company We Keep

On this episode of THE COMPANY WE KEEP podcast, host Jason Pearl sits down with CEO, 6-time Ironman, leadership expert, and family man Eric Hepkins. Hepkins serves as the CEO of Cornerstone Federal Credit Union and chats with Jason about his leadership mentality, commitment to teamwork and community, and how he prioritizes his family of five above everything else. Eric has done it all and has picked up some valuable advice along the way.

Show Notes

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Show Highlights:
(00:00) Introduction
(02:50) What it takes to be an Ironman
(05:33) How Jason and Eric met
(07:25) The responsibility of being a CEO
(08:32) Transitioning from larger to smaller organizations
(11:33) Leadership style
(13:13): Balance
(15:36) The company Eric keeps
(16:49) The fun stuff
(23:28) Recap

Mentioned On The Episode:
Cornerstone Federal Credit Union

What is The Company We Keep?

Jason Pearl is a second generation entrepreneur, bootstrapping business owner, loving husband, devoted dad, and raging Bills fan. He tosses aside the idea that you can't have it all and devotes his life to proving it wrong. Grab a cup of coffee and join Jason every Tuesday morning as he dives into topics to help everyday business owners and entrepreneurs think differently about growth and success, and how to achieve a better balance in both business and in life. He’s also shining a giant spotlight on some very smart people in his inner-circle that have helped ignite his success along the way.

Jason Pearl: Hello, and welcome to another episode of The Company We Keep podcast. I am your host, Jason Pearl. Excited for you to be with us again today. This podcast is for everyday business owners, entrepreneurs and leaders that want to think differently about growth and success and want to achieve better balance in both business and life.

Today, we have a guest that checks all of those boxes. Eric Hepkins is the Chief Executive Officer of Cornerstone Federal Credit Union. He is a six time triathlete Ironman finisher. So let that sit with you for a minute. He has completed six Ironmans and he is the father of five young children from the ages of seven to 11 months old.

He is a really impressive guy, has got lots of insight to share with you. And I'm really excited for you to learn about Eric. So without further ado, Eric Hepkins.

All right. All right. I am here with a special guest today, friend and former colleague of mine, Eric Hepkins. Eric is a dynamic leader that I'm really excited for all of you to learn about. Eric has worked for some international banks, he's held some awesome leadership positions with some local and some international banks. And we're going to talk about all those things today.

But before we get into that, let me break down a little bio of Eric: who Eric is and what he is all about. When I do this, you're likely going to say, where does this guy have all the time? But without further ado, here it is. So Eric is a devoted husband to his wife, Lizzie, and he is the father to five children and not just five children, five from the ages of seven to 11 months.

So he's, he's a super busy guy. He's also currently the Chief Executive Officer of Cornerstone Federal Credit Union, which is a really large credit union here in the local area that I reside in Lockport, New York and his, his credit union has over $500 million of assets. And he's in charge of over 120 employees.

He's had a decorated career in banking, as I, as I mentioned with HSBC, Evans Bank, and now with Cornerstone. And one of the most impressive things is Eric is also a triathlete and his competed and completed six Ironmans. So if you were feeling inadequate before, here we go. Eric Hepkins everybody. Good morning. How are you today?

Eric Hepkins: Great. Thanks for that introduction. I think it's not.

Jason Pearl: Yeah, absolutely. Ironmans. I mean, that's, that's gotta be crazy. I had another question I wanted to start off with, but let's talk a little bit about that. So six Ironmans you completed. Can you tell the audience what an Ironman actually is?

Eric Hepkins: I mean, just the technical aspect of it: it's a swim, bike and then run. It's a 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike, and then a marathon 26.2 miles, in a continuous format. So I mean, it, for me, those who have done Ironmans will be unimpressed by this, but it took me about 13 hours. Yeah. And typically, if you haven't done an Ironman, you hear that number. And you're like, oh wow. 13 hours. But then some people are like, man, you're slow,

Jason Pearl: Man, that is impressive. Where did you compete in the Ironmans?

I did

Eric Hepkins: Lake Placid six times.They have them around the country, around the world. Logistically, you know, that was easiest one for me to get to when I first, when I did my first one, but I just, I just love that area. I love the Adirondacks and that's where I actually made the decision to do Ironman originally. So it just has sort of a special spot in my heart. I was actually there watching one and the day after the race is over, they do a highlight reel and I was watching the highlight reel that they put together.

I mean, they produce it exceptionally fast, obviously it's the next morning. And they were in the, they were, they kind of, it was between the swim, it was when people were transitioning from the swim to the bike and they're in that like a changing tent. And there was this elderly gentleman, I think he, you know, uh, is changing into his bike clothes and these, they, they look over at them and they say, how are you doing?

And he says, he looks up and he goes, "63 years old, triple bypass surgery last year, just finished the swim and I feel great." And for some, you know, sixty-something. And I just looked at that and I said, I got to do that. You know? And I just thought, you know, what am I doing? I got this, I'm blessed with this body, this, you know, healthy, I'm a healthy individual.

Why am I just wasting? I felt like I was, I immediately felt like I was wasting myself. And so I said, I got it. You know, it was just like, I didn't even know how to swim, to be honest with you. I went to the pool after that, that summer, I went to the pool the first time and I couldn't make it across. I couldn't make it across the pool four foot pool because they didn't want to drown and half way through.

I just, I had to stand up. I couldn't breathe. So it was a journey. But that's why I really love, I love Lake Placid and, you know, I love the Ironman.

Jason Pearl: [00:05:33] That is, that is such a cool story. So thanks for sharing that. Um, in, in, in obviously this podcast is The Company We Keep, I wanted to kind of introduce how you and I got to know each other. So back in 2000 late, 2010, early 2011, I was transitioning from a career at Wells Fargo, which is another large bank that I spent the first 10 years of my career at. And after Wells Fargo bought Wachovia, the position that I was in at Northern New Jersey, um, was eliminated. And I was going to have to move for the seventh time in 11 years and just decided to take a buyout and move back to my hometown. And it kinda changed my career. So HSBC was gracious enough to hire me, a mutual friend of ours, Scott Wallace, you know, reached out to me and said, "Hey, heard you're on the market, you know, would love to create a position for you." So we did. And that's how I got to meet you. You were in a leadership position, running a territory and in a sales management type of role, you were super intimidating probably because you were just like cut differently.

I was like, this guy has got it all together. He's super cut. You're always really gracious and did a nice job. And so that's how we initially started to get to know each other. Didn't know each other very well. And then last year during COVID we kind of reconnected. A little known fact, you're also the brother-in-law of, of season two episode one's guest Michael McGreevey.

So you are part of this like crazy, impressive McGreevey family tree. Um, so, so that's kinda how we're all interconnected. So if you surround yourself with the right people, you find people like Eric Hepkins that'll join your podcast. It's great to have you on.

You've held a number of different leadership positions. So you have a decorated career. You've held a lot of large retail management leadership positions within a few different banks. And now you're the top executive at Cornerstone Federal Credit Union. When you're introduced that way, or people, people say that to you or say, you're the Chief Executive Officer, does that make you feel any different or how does that make you feel when, when you know, you're the number one executive there?.

So it was

Eric Hepkins: [00:07:25] an incredible honor and it's an incredible responsibility. And, you know, to, to have the honor of leading 120 people in my case, and just being there to support them, being there to support and nurture – that's my role. You know, my role is to help people to get to places that they wouldn't go on their own. You know, I don't open the account. I don't, I don't underwrite loans. I'm just there to be a support system to an incredible team. That's where the that's, when you really feel the pressure, when you have to be responsible to truly help people, to guide people, to, you know, to lift them up when they're feeling down. I mean, there's a lot of pressure. There's a lot of stress. People are the best part of my day, but they also can be the most complicated part of the journey as well. Weighs heavy on me when I, if I feel like I'm not helping someone enough or something pushing down on the culture. That's what I'd take the greatest pride and ownership.

Jason Pearl: [00:08:32] One of the interesting things is coming, knowing your background, coming from HSBC, which is an international bank. It's not a, it's not an American bank, right? It's an international bank. Um, having a transition from that, I know you had two different stops with HSBC in your career. Um, what was it like going from HSBC to then working through an opportunity as you're going through an interview process to say like, okay, I'm gonna leave potentially this opportunity that I have at HSBC and move to a more regionalized or localized credit union. How did, how did that the thought process work for you?

Eric Hepkins: Well, you know, I did that twice. But I I've always been like sort of that I want to be that master of my own destiny. Um, you know, I didn't want to be told what position I was going to be mapping into in a new organization. So I went from this big, you know, international bank to a, you know, comparatively smallish community bank.

It was a big shock going from such a large organization to a small organization. Lots of lessons to learn along the way. And then I got recruited back to HSBC at some point, um, a few years later. And when I went back, it was different. Now I was in a national role. I was a U.S. head of whatever, and I was doing a lot of international travel now: India, U.K., I was, it was a great experience, but what I realized through that experience was I was really driven through the local community ties, and really more the people management, because now I was in a role that I was doing more initiatives, project- based kinds of things. Less people leading. I really started searching within myself and I, and I started looking around as well.

And it, and it was an answer to prayer. It was, I feel like I'm supposed to be here. And then when I got the call that it was, you know, it was me, I was just. I almost hit the floor and it was just such a great feeling, but, but it was validation. It was like that from the moment that I saw the opportunity, it just clicked, you know, there was something there that said do it.

Jason Pearl: What's really interesting about that, Eric, is that we talk a lot on this podcast about defining your success. Like you as an individual, need to figure out what you think success is. And I certainly know that there are a lot of people that'd be like, wait a minute. It seems pretty sexy to be traveling to the U.K. and to India and repping one of the largest well-known international banks in the world. And being able to say like, hey, I'm traveling and doing all these things, but as you were going through this process, you had children, you were married, you're traveling. And success to you, that what it sounds like, what you found out, was that it was about serving the local community, being a part of something that was tangible, that you could help. And you could serve these people with the talents that, that you have.

Eric Hepkins: Being true to myself, using my gifts above anything else. Yeah. And I think if you do that, everything kind of works out.

Jason Pearl: [00:11:33] Kind of a follow up question to that, is as you've had these different positions, international bank, localized bank, international bank again, and then onto a community credit union, um, how has that affected your leadership style over the course of the past, you know, decade and a half?

Eric Hepkins: I don't know how unique my experience is, you know, going kind of back and forth twice between a large and small types of organizations, but I've had the opportunity to just see and learn from some really, really tremendous leaders. I mean, yourself included. I mean, that's how we met. You really have opportunities to learn from some really great people and I've learned good from good. And I've learned from bad, I've learned what not to do, and I've learned what to do.

Jason Pearl: Yeah. And, and honestly, it's what I think is really important for other people. Cause again, this is a podcast for business owners, entrepreneurs and leaders, right? You're the chief executive officer with a lot of responsibility. And if, if leaders surround themselves with the right people, what happens is people like you step up and say, "go do what you have to do."

Now, so as we continue to kind of transition in this line of questioning, we talk a lot about balance. So when we talk about balance, talk about family. You have this important role at this, at this credit union, you have 120 people that look to you for leadership, but most importantly, you've got a wife and five children that look, look to you for leadership, right? How do you find the time of the day? How do you balance it? What, what boundaries do you use to still be able to succeed as a husband and a father and succeed as a chief executive officer of a, of a large credit union?

Eric Hepkins: [00:13:13] You know, I think I'm probably learning that on a daily basis. I mean, I don't know what the, I don't know if there's a good answer for that. All I can say is my family is the number one priority, you know? And, uh, fortunately I'm able to fit in more priorities after that, I mean, because I have a very supportive wife. I have the time that I need, if I need to go to an event after work, that support is there. I've never been made to feel like you can't do that, or why aren't you home for that?

But on the, on the flip side, I also try not to abuse that. But what I try to do is create a human environment here where not these unrealistic expectations on people. And I think that helps that we're not expected to be here to all hours of the night, just to show that you're, you know, you're burning the midnight oil.

I think you can find the balance if you're with the right organization that has that sort of a mentality. So one, you got to stop worrying about taking the credit. You know, it's not about you, it's about those around you, but if you just say, I'm not going to play that game, then the balance becomes a lot more possible.

Jason Pearl: One of the reasons that I, I decided to do this podcast, and another reason I like to bring on people like you is that this world needs to hear that leadership and success is not about climbing to the top of the mountain by yourself. It's about serving people. And if you lead the right way, whether you're in a manufacturing company, whether you're in a bank or whether you're making widgets, if you serve the people that work with you the right way, you're going to enjoy what you do. You're going to get the most out of indivdiuals, and you're going to be able to enjoy both the business and the personal sides of whatever it is your life is. And that's the type of message that I think needs to continually be put out there because it's so important for the young people coming out of school, trying to figure out what they want to do with their life, and realize that if you just individually do what you think you're gifted in and you do it with a right heart and you serve people the right way, you will find success.

As we continue down this path of questioning. One of the questions I love to ask my guests is who is the company you keep and what fills your cup on a daily basis to be able to pour out the way you do?

Eric Hepkins: [00:15:36] Well, you know, I mean, largely the company I keep these days is, is my family. Michael, as you've referenced is my brother-in-law, he's an incredible individual. And if I don't admit how much I've learned from him along the way, my father-in-law as well, just amazing individual. He's done some really cool things after his retirement, started a company called Brew Dad, and he's been trying to educate teachers and school facilitators on how to build good culture there. You know, my father, um, I learned it all from my father. Integrity is number one. He always put the family in front of himself. And then individuals like you, I mean, you know, having reconnected was not by accident. I think as bad as COVID was, there's a lot of silver linings that have come out of it. And I have a few other close friends, but yeah, it's a small circle because I just, unfortunately don't have a ton of time, you know. I don't remember the last well, not because of hope COVID, but I don't remember the last happy hour I've been to.

Jason Pearl: Happy hour's normally trying to get dinner at the table at the same time. That's when everyone's happy.

Eric Hepkins: We're happy that hour of dinnertime.

Jason Pearl: [00:16:49] Yeah. Right. Oh, that's funny. So true. So true. Um, so what we'll do is we're going to transition to a couple of fun questions. So, um, as we, you know, as you talk about having five children and, you know, and, and, and what, what the chaos and amazing nature of what that would be like is, any funny fatherhood events that you've gone through that you think is worth sharing.

Eric Hepkins: Okay. I can, one just popped into my mind immediately. So, um, I'm actually walking in to my ALCO meeting. It's a monthly meeting: for non bankers asset liability committee. It's basically you sit down, it's one of the most important functions in a financial institution. You're talking through the balance sheet.

You know, I won't get into more of that, but I get a call from my wife as I'm walking in and she said, um, Ethan's not here. That's my son, my he's my six-year-old. And I said, uh, what do you mean? He's not there? My sister-in-law comes over every other Thursday. And she goes to her house every on the other Thursday.

And they spend the day together. She's got two kids, you know, we have five and they're about the same age as, so they play. Well, Ethan decided he wanted to go back to their house with them. So he hit in the back of their SUV as a stowaway. And to, I mean, it's, I'm actually impressed because, you know, as a six year old, he was able to sneak into this car, hide in the back behind the back seat and be quiet enough.I mean for a half hour. And Lizzie's looking everywhere for him. Can't find him, so she calls her sister, Sarah, andshe said, "Is there any chance that Ethan's with you?" And Sarah's like, "No." And then she goes, you know, when she calls back to the girls, "Is Ethan in the car?" And one of the girls goes and they're like, "No." And then one of the guys goes, "Yes, he's in the car."

And then he pops up, you know, and she's already back in Buffalo.

Jason Pearl: Right. Wow.

Eric Hepkins: And I'm like, you know, so she was obviously shaken up because of the whole ordeal, not knowing where he was. And I'm like, you've got to be kidding me. So I had to walk into my. ALCO meeting and say, "Guys, I I'm sorry, I gotta, I gotta go pick up my son and Buffalo. He just stowed away in a, in a car."

Jason Pearl: Yeah. You can't make that up. You can not make that story up.

Eric Hepkins: Unbelievable.

Jason Pearl: That is, uh, that I, that is a great story to your point, impressive for the six year old to think about that and to be that quiet. But as a parent, you're losing your mind, right? Because the safety, he's not buckled up. Right? Like he's, he's in the back stowaway.

Eric Hepkins: You know, what if she stopped it? I mean, don't even get me started, but yeah.

Jason Pearl: If you ever fly anywhere as a family, like you need to get one of those backpacks, you know, that has like the leash on it. So he's not trying to like go to Hawaii. Yeah. Oh, that's funny. Oh, wow. That is a great story.

Another fun question is, so we always have some type of musical questions. Um, with five kids, this may be hard to answer, or maybe it's going to be easy to answer, but, um, what's the last album you downloaded or bought or what was the last live show you went to?

Eric Hepkins: Well, my last download was just a song. Um, it was On The Road Again, I think that's Willie Nelson. Because what I did was I, we have a, like a UTV, uh, side-by-side kind of thing. We all got in it and we were driving through the woods and I, my camera mounted on the dashboard. And I had us all like going through the trail like this, and I took, I took like a 30-second snippet of that video. And set it to On The Road Again and show that to the family. I thought that it looked hilarious. So that was my, actually my last download.

Jason Pearl: All right. Very cool. You gotta love Willie Nelson. That's for sure. That's for sure. Um, now knowing that you're a triathlete, this may be a difficult question because you know, who knows what type of guilty pleasure you have because you probably eat clean and do all those great things, but is there any type of guilty pleasure you have, whether it be TV show or food or anything like that?

Eric Hepkins: Well, food wise, it's gotta be, um, Kettle brand salt and vinegar potato chips. I just love them.

Jason Pearl: I knew we were kindred spirits, man. I am a salt and vinegar freak. I love it. I actually like it so much that I give it up for months of time because I would eat a whole bag. Yeah. I love them.

Eric Hepkins: I count that as my one splurge, when it comes to eating

Yeah, I love

Jason Pearl: That's a good choice. That's a good choice. Well, so as we get ready to kind of close up anything you want to ask me or anything you want to share with the audience that we haven't talked about yet?

Eric Hepkins: You know, uh, a quick selfless plug for Cornerstone. We are not-for-profit, if people don't know what credit unions are. I really, I just ask that they take a look and check them out. Everyone should have a relationship with any credit union. Not mine, just a credit union, because we are a not-for-profit, 100% member owned co-op. If you've ever belonged to a co-op like a farmer's market co-op or, you know, that's what it is. It's just a bunch of people that own it and that use it. And we don't, we don't make profit for shareholders. We don't have quarterly earnings estimates to hit. We can make decisions for the community, the right decisions for the community. And we don't have to put profit as our motivation. We're not subsidized by the government. So we have to run a strong business, but if we make too much money, we don't keep it. We give it back to our members. So you find that we try to have better rates, but it's not just about the rates. It's about the advice that you're going to be getting from our people or the products that you're going to be getting from our people or the products that we develop are made for the member and the community. Number one. I mean, just need to make one more dollar than it costs to run the place. Yeah. And that's it. And that's how every credit union operates.

Jason Pearl: And knowing you as a leader and other leaders, um, in the credit union world, it is a really important point. It doesn't mean that banks are bad, but it just means that credit unions have a very different business model and it's serving the community as we talked about.

So that's such a good plug in if you guys pull that from this podcast, and that's the only thing you pull that it's a, it's a great thing. Support your local credit union because they're, they're there to support you so. Well, Eric, I have had a blast chatting with you. It's been great, you know, introducing you to the audience and letting them know about what true leadership looks like, which is, which is what you're seeing here on this screen and Eric Hepkins.

So I just appreciate who you are. I appreciate your time and, and what you're doing to serve the community that I live in. So thank you so much for your time. And I look forward to getting together in person soon.

Eric Hepkins: Yeah. Thank you.

Jason Pearl: [00:23:28] Yeah, you got it, Eric. Thanks.

Hey everyone. Thanks for listening to another episode of The Company We Keep podcast. Hope you enjoyed learning from and listening to Eric Hepkins as much as I did. It was great to have him on and great to catch up with him. If you're enjoying this podcast and you want to keep the conversation going, I'd implore you to visit my website for all sorts of ways to interact with me and keep the conversation going until next time. I'm Jason Pearl. I'm out. See ya.