Ascend Federal Credit Union, the largest credit union in Middle Tennessee, announced that Ascend President and CEO Caren Gabriel plans to retire on April 7 and Executive Vice President Matt Jernigan will assume CEO duties the next day. Working to find the best person for the position, Gabriel and the Ascend Board of Directors conducted a rigorous selection process to determine that Jernigan was the right fit for the position. Gabriel and Jernigan will be working closely together in the intervening months to ensure a smooth and seamless transition.
Gabriel joined Ascend as staff attorney in 1985 and later transitioned to the role of general counsel and executive vice president. She became president and CEO of Ascend in January 2004 and since has helped to grow the Middle Tennessee organization from $960.3 million in assets, 12 branches and 117,000 members nearly 20 years ago to over $3.8 billion in assets, 27 branches and more than 255,000 members today.
“It has been a great honor to serve this credit union, its members and employees,” said Gabriel. “I’m supremely confident the organization will continue to grow and thrive under Matt’s leadership. He was one of my first hires after being named CEO and we have worked closely together for some time. He is well-prepared to lead Ascend into the promising future that lies ahead.”
Jernigan has been a key part of the Ascend executive leadership team since he was hired by Gabriel in 2005 as an internal auditor and became vice president of operations in 2009. He advanced to chief operations officer in 2014 and to executive vice president in 2017. In his role as executive vice president, he has demonstrated outstanding leadership by overseeing many core functions of the credit union, including internal audit, operations, lending, deposits, payments and information technology.
“I would like to thank Caren for her direction in guiding this credit union to its current heights and being a career-long mentor for me,” said Jernigan. “Ascend has risen to become one of Tennessee’s top-performing credit unions under her guidance. Our members and employees are grateful for her leadership, which has produced tremendous growth while never veering from our member focus. The entire Ascend organization looks forward to building on her many achievements.”
During his time at Ascend, Jernigan has also overseen many successful credit union-wide projects, including the build-out of Ascend’s network of more than 55,000 ATMs and 100 interactive teller machines, the opening of the teller center, and the implementation in 2022 of the credit union’s new digital banking platform.
“We will truly miss Caren and owe her much gratitude for her years of service to Ascend,” said Chairman of the Ascend Board of Directors Pat Eagan. “We are excited to have Matt take the helm April 8. His 17 years working alongside Caren and his performance as a credit union leader gives us great confidence that he is extremely qualified and ready to assume the position as Ascend’s new president and CEO.”
Gabriel has also been instrumental in driving Ascend’s member return program, which shares with members the fruits of the credit union’s financial success in the form of bonus dividend payments, loan interest refunds and reward payments for loyal debit card use. Members have received a total of more than $104 million since Gabriel began the program 17 years ago. According to the Credit Union National Association (CUNA), Ascend is among only 1% of American credit unions – 51 out of nearly 5,000 institutions – that have a member return program.
In addition to the credit union’s enormous growth during her tenure, Gabriel also oversaw the organization’s name change from AEDC Federal Credit Union in 2006, the construction of a new Tullahoma corporate headquarters office building in 2010 and an additional Murfreesboro corporate office in 2021, and securing name sponsor rights of Nashville’s 6,800 capacity downtown outdoor concert venue, Ascend Amphitheater, in 2015.
Jernigan was born and raised in Coffee County and holds an accounting degree from Middle Tennessee State University. He is a licensed Certified Public Accountant and completed the CEO Connect Executive Learning program at Lipscomb University as part of the inaugural class in 2018.