Dr. W. Craig Esrael
CEO of the Year 2013 Winner
photograph by Cheryl Ramsay
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Craig Esrael is celebrating his 30th year as CEO in 2013, but don’t call him over the hill. It turns out, Esrael — as public a face of a company in advertising locally as Corey B. Trotz — is just 54 years old. Combining those two pieces information, math says that … can this be right? … Esrael started as chief executive of his financial institution when he was just 24 years old.
How he got to that point in his career wasn’t typical either.
Esrael grew up in Okauchee, Wisconsin, in the middle of lake country. The community had a lot of lower- and middle-class families and also many wealthy people like corporate executives who owned homes on the lakes.
Esrael’s family was the former. He was raised in a blue-collar household; his parents divorced when he was 8, and he experienced trying times. “Back then child support wasn’t always enforced,” Esrael says. “My Mom didn’t finish high school. We had nothing for a long time. I remember returning bottles to get money to get food. Those were tough years but they had an indelible mark. Even though we worried about having enough to eat, I was still happy. It made me a person who doesn’t require a lot to be happy.”
His mother remarried, and his stepfather was a heavy equipment operator. It lent stability to his childhood. “We migrated into the lower middle class,” Esrael says. “It was a good family.”
No one from his family had ever been to college, and Esrael says he always thought he would have a career in construction. “I was pretty well into my senior year before hearing about my classmates taking a test to get into college,” he says and then recalls with a laugh. “A test? What is it? It’s probably a testament to how stupid I was more than anything.”
His guidance counselor didn’t think much of Esrael’s prospects and encouraged him to look into a trade. But Esrael took the ACT and applied to all of the public schools in state. “I miraculously got accepted by them all. I didn’t know what I did on the test, didn’t even know what was good or bad, and my grades weren’t all that good. But it’s part of my good fortune.”
He started out as a psychology major, but his advisor told him how much schooling would be necessary to make a career of it: a bachelor’s, master’s, and maybe a doctorate. “I told him nobody would go to school that long, and that’s not what I want to do,” Esrael says.
He wound up a business major, and got his bachelor’s in marketing. One of the last classes he took was finance, which he had put off because he thought it was something he wouldn’t like. “After the first finance class, I was on fire,” he says. Feeling a calling to continue with his education, he turned down a good job and went into the master’s program. He finished his M.B.A. in a year and a half. (He’d wind up going to school for even longer than he would have in a psychology program.)
After that, Esrael interviewed for a number of jobs in banking across the country, including some credit unions. He didn’t know much about credit unions beyond studying them briefly in a class. His classmates were taking positions with Citibank and Bank of America when “the CEO of this little troubled credit union in Memphis called and asked me to interview.” He visited for the interview experience and to enjoy a good weekend in Memphis.
He was surprised when the institution, Navy Memphis Federal Credit Union, offered him a job as the executive vice president. He accepted and told his Mom it was a great opportunity and that he’d be back home after a year and a half of great experience. Besides, “where else can you go at 24 and be the EVP of any institution? I would’ve been a trainee anywhere else.” The CEO had been in banking about 40 years and was very smart but had no formal education. So the board thought they would hire someone with academic credentials and build a team.
He liked the board, but his hiring was an unusual situation. The CEO wasn’t involved in the hiring process, and, he says, “I knew even at that age that something didn’t seem kosher. It seemed odd, and it is odd.”
A few months later, the board fired the CEO and named Esrael his replacement. “So there I am 24 and named the CEO. They met with me privately and told me, ‘The CEO’s not working out, we really want you to be our CEO. We understand you’re still learning, and we’ll work with you to make you the CEO we want you to be.
“As a kid, I felt bad for the [old] CEO. I thought about leaving. This was my first white-collar job. It seemed ruthless. He was their seventh CEO in six years. I did some soul-searching, but I stayed and it was a very good move for me. It was a crazy course of events.”
It was just the beginning.
MBQ: What kind of shape was Navy Memphis Federal Credit Union in when you took over?
Craig Esrael: “It was awful. I wish I could say I knew it was a diamond in the rough and knew I could transform it. But the truth is I was a 24-year-old kid who had a great academic background but had no banking experience. I didn’t realize how bad the shape it was in. if I looked at it today, I’d say, ‘Heaven’s no, would I work in a place like that nor would I advise anybody I liked to work there.’”