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Unexpected succession: How Members 1st moved on after beloved leader's sudden death

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A year after Bob Marquette's passing, Members 1st Federal Credit Union CEO George Nahodil remembers his beloved boss and talks about the importance of succession planning.
A year after Bob Marquette's passing, Members 1st Federal Credit Union CEO George Nahodil remembers his beloved boss and talks about the importance of succession planning. - (Photo / )

It was over the July 4th holiday weekend last year when George Nahodil received news of Bob Marquette's passing.

Fighting tears, Nahodil gathered together two senior staff members who were also on vacation, went to the Members 1st Federal Credit Union headquarters in Lower Allen Township and called John Devlin, the board chairman.

“I’m trying to compose myself. The first thing in my mind was, ‘I have to let John know because he’s the chairman of the board, and we’re going to have to have a meeting.’ You’re a little disheveled and disoriented. You had no idea that this was going to happen. It was so unexpected,” Nahodil said.

Marquette led Members 1st Credit Union from 1997 until his unexpected death in 2017. He was 68.

A big personality

Marquette is remembered by his colleagues as a thoughtful man with a big personality and the propensity to say whatever was on his mind.

But it is Marquette’s humor that Nahodil misses the most.

“I think that’s the thing I miss the most. I miss the laughter. He would do the craziest things,” Nahodil said. Marquette loved a good prank.

For example, Nahodil recalled the time that Marquette once hid a remote-control fart machine underneath Nahodil’s desk right before an important meeting, during which, Marquette set it off.

To Nahodil’s guest, it appeared that he was passing gas. Embarrassed, Nahodil realized he was the butt of another one of Marquette’s pranks after he heard Marquette laughing from the other room.

Marquette did things like that, his colleagues said. He loved the shock value.

But Marquette was known for more than his jokes.

A strong businessman, Members 1st grew from seven branches to 60 during his time at the helm.

His death sent shockwaves throughout the organization. No Members 1st board member had ever dealt with the sudden passing of a CEO.

Some of the 14 board members were on vacation when the news of Marquette’s death reached them, but they were able to convene via conference call, chairman of the board, John Devlin said.

Coincidentally, the board had participated in a crisis management seminar just weeks before, so they had a plan in place in the event that something happened to Marquette, Devlin said.

“Everybody just stepped up. When I called them they got down to business. You have time to grieve, but we had to do what we had to do. And it all worked,” Devlin said.

During the conference, the board named Nahodil acting CEO and prepared a communication plan for the weeks to come.

John Martinka, author and intermediary at Martinka Consulting Seattle said seamless emergency successions are rare.

“They’re one of the lucky ones,” said Martinka.

Not only did Members 1st have a plan, but they also had a management team member who was able to take the reins, and that helped immensely. Not all companies are that prepared, Martinka said.

Nahodil had the skills, though it felt very overwhelming to him when the board put him in charge. He had just lost his friend and colleague with whom he had worked for 18 years.

Add to that, he was suddenly responsible for a $4 billion credit union with nearly 400,000 members. The weight of his new role, Nahodil said, was palpable.

“Literally one day your life is good, everything is churning along fine and then all of a sudden, your life is flipped upside down. When you’re the CEO, it’s a very different space than being an EVP or an SVP or a VP because the buck stops with you. It’s very unsettling, especially when you’re not prepared for it,” Nahodil said.

Once Nahodil became more comfortable in the role, it soon became a position for which he was vying.

The board hired a firm to conduct a national search to find Marquette’s replacement. Nahodil was the only internal candidate for whom the board was considering.

Unsure whether or not he would be make the cut, Nahodil found the four-month search process deeply unnerving.

“You have this stress of losing your friend and then you have this stress of being in charge, but then you have this third stress which is, ‘Okay are you in, or are you out?’ I wouldn’t wish that on anyone,” Nahodil said.

But Nahodil impressed the board with his long-term outlook and secured the position of CEO in November 2017.

“When the board made that announcement, it really did take some of the stress away. And it was almost like you could breathe, and I could move forward and build my team,” Nahodil said.

During this tenure, Nahodil said he’s taken to heart Marquette’s wisdom of paying attention to the details.

“The details are the things that can kill you. You can’t just let the details pass you by. When you are the CEO you have to make sure you’re covering every little detail, and Bob did pass that on to me,” Nahodil said.

He hasn’t let the board down, Devlin said, noting that Nahodil as grown nicely into his new role, though his management style is nothing like Marquette’s.

Nahodil encourages long discussions during meetings and believes mistakes are vehicles through which to learn.

“Bob and I are different. We’re different animals. He would probably cringe at the way I run a meeting,” Nahodil said.

Members 1st employees have noticed the change in leadership style.

“George has been here for 18 years and he’s always been highly visible, highly engaged with departments so that was fantastic and reassuring to people here because you rallied behind all of that. The leadership style now is absolutely more of a collaborative one,” said Mike Wilson, senior vice president of marketing.

No matter how uncomfortable it is to think about succession planning, Nahodil said, is imperative for an organization’s success.

“A lot of people who are in leadership roles are so egotistical that they can’t put their own shortsightedness behind them and say, ‘What if I don’t show up tomorrow for whatever reason? What is my organization going to do?’” Nahodil said.

The most important thing a manager can do, he said, is find their replacement.

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Shelby White

Shelby White covers banking and finance, law and Lancaster County for the Central Penn Business Journal. For tips, email her at swhite@cpbj.com.

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