In 2008, Arleas Upton Kea realized she needed to move fast if the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation had any hope of adequately responding to the unfolding financial crisis.
As director of the administration division at the independent federal agency, Kea led an aggressive hiring campaign, expanding the staff by 4,000 in just less than two years. She recruited retirees, hired term employees and coordinated large job fairs across the country.
She also led an effort to improve morale by changing the internal culture through better communication about the agency’s critical role in the crisis.
Kea instilled a “can-do spirit” in the people around her and, as a result, “the whole agency really rallied around the need to be innovative and to look at different ways of doing its job and different ways of providing resources,” said Glen Bjorklund, her former deputy, who retired this year.
The improvement was dramatic. The FDIC ranked first in 2011 in the Partnership for Public Service’s Best Places to Work in the Federal Government, up from 21st in 2007.
For her role in doubling the agency’s staff and improving its work environment, Kea has been nominated for a 2012 Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medal. The Partnership for Public Service, which administers the awards, will announce winners in nine categories next month.
A native of Schulenburg, Tex., a small city known for its German culture, Kea, 55, has spent most of her professional career at the FDIC, which was created by Congress to maintain stability and public confidence in the nation’s financial system.
She joined the FDIC as a member of the legal staff in 1985 and spent a few years chasing bankers who cheated their institutions. She then became the agency’s second ombudsman, serving as a liaison to banks and an intermediary for the agency’s employees.
In her current role, which she has held for more than a decade, she is responsible for the FDIC’s recruitment, training facilities and workplace safety, among other duties.
Over the years, she has advocated for streamlining the hiring process, an automated hiring process and incorporating teleworking options in the agency.
Kea, who declined to be interviewed, described a telecommuting program at the FDIC as “an extraordinary benefit” and said in an interview with Employee Benefit News that it had improved productivity and led to savings in office leasing.
In recent years, her success expanding the workforce has been attributed by co-workers in part to lessons learned from past expansions and contractions. During the banking crises of the 1980s and early 1990s, the FDIC’s staff grew from about 4,000 to a peak of more than 23,000 in the early 1990s.
After the crisis, the agency was left with too many employees and implemented a lengthy and painful downsizing, which included buyouts and office closings, and reduced the workforce to less than 5,000 by the mid-2000s.
That downsizing led to internal tensions and Kea’s belief that a culture change initiative was in order.
When the subprime mortage crisis erupted and the latest recession began, Kea looked back at the previous crisis and made it her strategy not to expand the agency’s permanent workforce too much. Instead, she turned to contractors and term employees. Those temporary workers would help carry out the agency’s efforts to strengthen bank supervision and stabilize the liquidity of the industry through temporary support programs.
“I really could not have gotten through the banking crisis without the help and support of Arleas,” said Sandra Thompson, director of the Risk Management Supervision division, whose team examines 4,400 community banks across the country. “Our staffing levels were not really adequate to handle the crisis that was upon us. And we had to put in place some hiring flexibilities to bring on experience people quickly.”
People who know Kea say she believes so strongly in the mission and work of the agency, and its relevance during moments of economic crisis, that she made a conscious decision to remain there for the bulk of her career.
Kea, who lives in Silver Spring, has also mantained an active role in the local community. Since 2006, she has served on the Montgomery County Board of Education’s ethics panel, helping review financial disclosure forms and complaints. She has been a member of the Montgomery County chapter of the African American group Jack and Jill of America, through which she has engaged in community service programs, including food and clothing drives.
Kea remains connected to her alma mater, the University of Texas at Austin, where she received a bachelor’s degree and a law degree in 1982. She visits at recruiting events every year, university officials said.
“She has been a tremendous mentor and advocate for women,” said Linda Bray Chanow, director of the University of Texas Law School’s Center for Women in Law.
“The first day I met her, it was at my first alumni event in Washington. The first thing she said was, ‘What can I do to help?’ ” Chanow said. “I think that sets the tone of who she is. . . . I would imagine that is why she has been so successful.”