March 4, 2019
Business Leaders of the Year

Sbrega's latest calculated risk taps GFA into a $1B industry

Photo | Matt Wright
Tina Sbrega

In the more than three decades Tina M. Sbrega has worked at GFA Federal Credit Union, the Gardner institution has grown by multitudes: from one location to nine, from a dozen employees to 100, and from $70 million in assets to $500 million.

Sbrega, GFA's CEO for the past decade, has overseen five mergers over the years, most recently in 2012. Last year, she led the credit union into what would seem to be by far the biggest endeavor in its 80-year history: It became the first financial institution in Massachusetts to serve the legal marijuana industry.

"We promised the board we'd approach this very methodically," Sbrega said of the long process of studying whether to enter the cannabis business, which included a trip to talk to bankers working with Colorado's more mature industry. "We've certainly learned a lot in a relatively short period of time."

The decision put little GFA on the map as a major player in an industry that – with only a few pot shops open statewide – has rung up more than $30 million in sales since the first stores opened late last November. The Massachusetts Department of Revenue expects the recreational part of the industry alone to generate more than $1-billion in sales in its first full fiscal year.

"Before she ventured into cannabis, whenever you move forward, there's always some risk involved," said Daniel Asquino, the former Mount Wachusett Community College president who has worked with Sbrega for 25 years. "She made certain that she connected with the right people and hired the right people."

That's not all going on with GFA these days. The credit union is building a 26,000-square-foot addition to its Gardner office and is considering adding a 10th branch this year or next.

Still looking to catch up

In an industry where mergers and acquisitions are common, GFA has no desire to absorbed into a larger competitor, Sbrega said, describing GFA as having a strong enough capital base and name recognition to keep growing on its own.

"Size does matter, absolutely," Sbrega said. "The cost of compliance and technology continues to increase. Is it difficult for a $500-million credit union to remain relevant? I would say absolutely not. Is it difficult for a much smaller organization? I would say there certainly are challenges."

Sbrega didn't think she'd be the one to someday fight to remain relevant and fend off those challenges. She began her career – though she didn't see it as a career at the time – as a teller, later working as a treasurer and manager, learning accounting and making loans.

Sbrega later joined GFA as a temporary hire. She said she'd leave once the credit union was caught up on the help it needed at the time. Sbrega, of course, never left.

"I tell people, 'I guess they're still looking to catch up,'" she said.

Sbrega was at first a temp in the accounting department and was later an administrative assistant. She moved into a few officers roles before becoming president and CEO in 2009.

Her expertise and abilities have been shared beyond GFA's headquarters. She's served on area boards from the North Central Massachusetts Chamber of Commerce to Heywood Hospital.

"She's always been able to connect with people that very few leaders can," said Asquino. "She has what I describe as 'it.' She has the ability to connect with people."

Sbrega has served alongside Asquino, and also as one of his bosses, as a trustee at MWCC, including a term as chair.

"I've seen her in action for two and a half decades," Asquino said. "Tina does her homework … As chair of my board, she kept me on my toes. I've never seen her unprepared."

Servicing a formerly illicit industry

Managing a tricky rollout of serving the marijuana industry has put Sbrega's name out broader than ever before.

The list of marijuana businesses needing banking services is long, including any shops, growers, manufacturers, employees or those deriving any income from the industry. GFA isn't explicitly endorsing or condoning legal marijuana itself, she's emphasized.

Sbrega shares credit for GFA's bold move into marijuana and the success the credit union has had during her tenure.

"It takes a village," she said. "The success that GFA has enjoyed is thanks to the dedicated employees that we have and the hard work they do every day."

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