Public Pension Profiles: El Paso Firemen and Policemen’s Pension Fund Trustees
In honor of Women's History Month, NCPERS spoke with current trustees Lee Ellen Banks, Susanna Visconti, and Leila Melendez about why they serve the El Paso Firemen and Policemen's Pension Fund's members and the importance of diverse representation at the board level.
By Lizzy Lees, NCPERS
The El Paso Firemen and Policemen's Pension Fund has a long history of elevating women to leadership roles. Since 2003, the fund has had at least one woman on its 11-person board of trustees, and three women have served nearly continuously from 2011. Today, three women from diverse backgrounds help oversee the fund's $2 billion in assets.
In honor of Women's History Month, NCPERS spoke with current trustees Lee Ellen Banks, Susanna Visconti, and Leila Melendez about why they serve the El Paso Firemen and Policemen's Pension Fund's 3,958 active police and firefighter members, and its 1,937 retired and beneficiary members, and the importance of diverse representation at the board level.
Q: What made you interested in serving on the El Paso Firemen and Policemen's Pension Fund's board of trustees?
Lee Ellen Banks: I have a financial background and had previously served 11 years on the New Mexico State University Foundation board for scholarships and endowment. I so enjoyed the professional camaraderie there that I jumped at the chance to serve on the pension fund board after I was invited by the then current Mayor of El Paso. I believe that serving on Boards is a very important and positive way to contribute to my community. Along the way I have become extremely impressed by the commitment of public servants to their jobs, the community, and the pension fund. I soon came to realize they are as smart and sharp as any of the financial advisers I had worked with previously – they had just chosen to bring their talents to the police and firefighting forces of El Paso.
Susanna Visconti: The challenge! I had never served on this type of board before. I did not and still do not have a financial background and was a little cautious when I entertained the idea of joining the board of trustees. I was even more dismayed when the mayor at the time asked me if I knew how to read actuarial reports! As I thought through my decision, I realized that what I do not know, I can learn. I knew it would be challenging and that I would have a lot to learn (I am still learning), but I wanted to experience something different and prove to myself that I could serve on a board that I knew nothing about. I still do not know how to read actuarial reports and that is ok, but I think the Board has benefited from my input on legal issues as they arise.
Leila Melendez: Having worked in the local municipal government, I always felt public safety was an insulated world. I worked at the City when the Pension Fund faced a funding issue and knew only what I heard on the periphery. When the opportunity to fill a vacant seat came up, as somewhat intimidating as it was, I took it as an opportunity to challenge myself and learn about it. Indeed, it has been very interesting and I'm proud to be a member of the Board, bring my contribution, and having expanded my professional network.
Q: What do you enjoy most about your role as a public pension trustee?
Lee Ellen Banks: It has been very gratifying to work alongside all the Trustees and to produce such great results for our first responders and the entire City of El Paso. Our pension fund stacks up as one of the top three in Texas among the 13 multi-billion dollar pension systems for all the big cities and indeed the state of Texas. It is very rewarding to go to the statewide pension association's conferences and to be recognized for our achievements. Everyone there knows our executive director and our Board chairman for their contributions and accomplishments. Being part of a successful enterprise is rewarding.
Susanna Visconti: Serving on this board has been a very rewarding experience for me. Working side by side by my fellow trustees has been interesting and challenging and I have learned a lot from my colleagues who are so knowledgeable. I am very pleased and proud to serve on a board that does so much for our first responders in El Paso. The quality and integrity of our trustees, our executive director, and the staff, is reflected in the outstanding performance this fund has had.
Leila Melendez: I enjoy the challenge of learning about the fund performance and how it's determined what is successful and what is not. I also enjoy when we hear about member benefits and their particular cases. It reminds me of the personal impact a pension has on a family.
Q: You each have very different professional backgrounds – ranging from financing to law. How did your career path prepare you to serve as a trustee?
Lee Ellen Banks: In addition to my service on my university's endowment and scholarship board, I worked for five years for a private investor, analyzing and evaluating the opportunities that came his way. I have been able to contribute this experience to the work our Board does in evaluating the investment opportunities that come through the door.
Susanna Visconti: My career as a lawyer has helped to evaluate and analyze and then make a decision based on my evaluation. This has certainly helped me in my role as trustee. We are constantly asked to evaluate a manager's presentation about the performance of a fund. Although my financial expertise may be limited, I can still ask the right questions to help me understand and make informed decisions. This also pertains to the benefits side of the pension fund, especially when we have to evaluate cases and make determinations based on the facts presented. The analytical skills I have developed throughout my career have definitely helped me to serve on this board.
Leila Melendez: My background has mostly been in economic development and also in direct service delivery to the public. A part of me finds the actuarial data very interesting and I am able to contribute questions about the future of the fund based on the new “workforce” entering the field. Given the challenges the workforce recruitment and retention field has faced in recent years I offer questions and incites as to how is that affecting new applicants, their longevity in the jobs, and their contributions to the fund.
Q: Do you think having diverse representation on boards and in the c-suite is important? If so, why?
Lee Ellen Banks: Diverse representation of experience, gender and race all contribute to making organizations well-rounded and able to approach challenges from multiple viewpoints. It takes a TEAM – together everyone accomplishes more. We have Susanna's legal expertise and Leila's workforce experience. We have another Board member's financial background. And all the police and firefighters bring superb managerial and analytical skills to our problem-solving tasks.
Susanna Visconti: I agree with Lee Ellen. It is extremely important to have diverse representation on any type of board. Our combined experience and knowledge ultimately leads us to the right outcome.
Leila Melendez: Absolutely. Every single one of us has had a different path to the c-suite and we shouldn't forget the experiences we had along the way. Those experiences have formed our opinions and decision making. The diversity in our experiences, opinions, solutions is what makes a well-balanced Board.
Q: What advice would you give other women looking to serve on a pension board?
Lee Ellen Banks: Women need to put their name in the hat regardless of whether they think their background checks every box of what they think they an organization needs or what it is asking for. Women should not be self-limiting in their search for ways to serve their community and its organizations, like Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, charitable aid organizations, et cetera. You won't get asked to these positions – you have to seek them out and get involved. Your community needs you. Your connections and ability to help will grow because of serving. You can start anywhere just by attending meetings. I see it at the pension fund, when active police, active firefighters, and retirees attend meetings. They can become the next set of Trustees when needed.
Susanna Visconti: My advice to another woman seeking to serve on a pension board would be not to hesitate. Regardless of background and experience, their input, time, and knowledge is extremely valuable.
Leila Melendez: Even if you are the only woman on that Board, you're not alone. There are women on other pension boards. Seek one of us out for advice or support along the way. (Or to vent after a meeting - ha!) Your world doesn't end at your Board table. Go beyond it and you'll find other women supporting you. Also, in your service to a pension fund, you should learn to rely on the staff. I'm sure there are women on staff that will support you and understand the environment you're entering. Two of our woman staff members at EPFPPF have been very supportive of my work on the Board. Power in numbers creates a balance in that room.
Please note: If you would like to participate in a public pension profile interview, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.