IT’S HARD TO BELIEVE. But true. Kam Wong was not always a stellar student.
Today, the distinguished Baruch College alumnus and donor is president and CEO of the Municipal Credit Union of New York, with more than 350,000 members and almost $2 billion in assets.
Wong has been a key player in the growth of the historic downtown Manhattan institution’s unprecedented recovery after 9/11, ensuring that the credit union would not only endure, but prosper.
But the 1981 CUNY graduate had struggled during his early years as a student in Hong Kong.
“I did not do too well in high school,” Wong says candidly. “Actually, I kind of failed all subjects except English. I failed math. I failed Chinese. I failed Chinese history … but somehow, because I did pretty well in English, I was able to get a job in an office environment.”
Wong knew he needed more education, and when his grandfather asked him and other family members to emigrate and join him in New York, Wong had his chance. He agreed, but only if he could go to college in the United States.
Ambitious and determined, Wong completed his college education, graduating from Baruch with strong grades, and ascended quickly in the professional world.
He rose from an entry-level job at MCU to supervisor, then to assistant controller, and then chief financial officer. He became president in 2006 and CEO a year later.
While he was an assistant controller at MCU, it took over a credit union in deep trouble — and tied to what was then the Brooklyn Democratic machine. The credit union, Hyfin, for “Help Your Friend in Need,” was using the same collateral over again to lend large amounts of money. It was a storied episode in New York financial circles involving a political leader’s suicide, $2 million in assets — much of what Wong found in Hyfin’s basement — Rolls-Royces and more. Wong was able to return all funds required to the federal government while building up MCU with the takeover.
On Sept. 11, 2001, Wong was chief financial officer of MCU when the first plane hit the Twin Tower about 500 yards away from the credit union’s office at 22 Courtlandt St. He evacuated all the employees, but Wong stayed because he was concerned about the computer system. And then he saw the second plane hit.
“The fireball is just coming at you, and I saw paper melt,” he says. “This is going to be a war zone,” he told himself. He knew there was a lot of cash in the credit union’s vault and its ATMs. “I made a decision and locked down everything. I predicted that it would be a lockdown zone … Unfortunately my guess was right.”
In the end, he decided to buy all new computer equipment and start the operation up from scratch at another site, setting a limit on the amount of money people could withdraw each day during the crisis.
He hadn’t imagined himself in such a decision-making position when he arrived in New York on May 9, 1975. One day later his grandfather found him a job in a restaurant, and in between working hours he found high schools and middle schools for each one of his four younger brothers and one sister.
And then he researched schools for himself — and applied to CUNY. College education was not without its challenges for him, and that’s just one of the reasons the University remains so special for Wong, who is a recipient of the Baruch President’s Medal.
At first he attended Bronx Community College, an hour and a half subway commute from his home in Brooklyn, working hard to master coursework he had little experience with and often had to start from scratch.
“But when I went to Baruch there was some sort of culture shock,” Wong says of the transition to the senior college. On his first accounting test, he got a 30.
“I panicked,” recalls Wong, who also has an MBA in finance from a Long Island college. “But I worked very closely with the professor,” Martin Benis, who died in 2010 at 83 after teaching at Baruch for 30 years.
Six years later, he had a bachelor’s degree from Baruch and the confidence that came with “A” grades in math and accounting. “The message is loud and clear. … We have great faculty members,” Wong says. He adds that group study classes with other Baruch students also helped — as did sharing their “cultural” experiences at the Hop Lee Restaurant in Chinatown and the Blarney Stone bar on 23rd Street.
After he became a CEO, Wong says, “I started to think about where I came from. I came from Baruch College.” In 2009, he asked the college to design a training program for his staff, and in 2011 he returned to Hong Kong with a Baruch administrator to recruit international students and give them scholarships. He is as modest about his donations as he is about his accomplish-ments. They include the $10,000 a year he now gives, saying it is merely a “gesture from my heart .”