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What it Means To Be a Remarkable Credit Union

Steve Bugg, CEO of Great Lakes Credit Union, joins The Remarkable Credit Union podcast

Our podcast is called The Remarkable Credit Union, but what does that mean, exactly? What distinguishes a good credit union from a remarkable one?

Steve Bugg, President and CEO of the award-winning Great Lakes Credit Union (GLCU), joins us to talk about GLCU’s own journey from good to remarkable, including how their “standards of greatness” enabled and inspired them to successfully launch numerous innovative impact initiatives. He also addresses this month’s BIG question:

How does a credit union develop a strategic vision and corresponding value system that meaningfully guide its day-to-day operations at all levels and across all teams?


Key takeaways

    1. GLCU builds core values, which they call “Standards of Greatness,” that guide everything they do. The strategies may change, but not the core values. They keep them “alive” through:
      • Regular ongoing communication
      • New hire orientation and onboarding
      • Stories of people living the values, which are shared at every board meeting
      • Swag, awards and recognition
    2. When GLCU discovered during a merger that 51% of their members were low income, they focused on how to scale their services for these members and embarked on a journey to become a low income designated credit union
    3. GLCU uses its diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts to bring many programs together. Such efforts include:
      • A DEI committee, statement, training, and development plans
      • Intentionally diverse talent acquisition
      • Financial wellness to support current employees
      • Improved personas to accurately reflect their membership and communities. This led to adding ITIN lending, payday lending alternative, and mortgage support programs.


Read the full transcript:

Hello and welcome to another episode of the Remarkable Credit Union Podcast. We created our podcast to help credit union leaders think outside of the box about marketing, technology, and community impact. Each episode we bring on expert guests from inside and outside of the industry for conversations about innovation. Our goal is to challenge your preconceptions about business as usual, and provide you with actionable takeaways that you can use to grow your membership, improve the financial health of your cooperative, and magnify the positive impact in your community.

Today’s big question; How does a credit union develop a strategic vision and corresponding value system that meaningfully guide its day-to-day operations at all levels and across all teams?

Today I’m very excited to welcome Steve Bugg. Steve is currently the President and CEO of the Northern Illinois based Great Lakes Credit Union, and Steve has a fascinating background. Over three decades of experience in financial services and in the telecommunications industries.

During his time as CEO at Great Lakes Credit Union, they’ve crossed the threshold of $1 billion in assets and also become a low income designated credit union. Steve is also a founding director of the Credit Union Relief Fund for Ukraine and is a board member of Great Lakes Credit Union’s Foundation.

On a personal note, he and his wife are now empty-nesters. They have a four year-old grandson, but maybe even more consequentially, they have a crazy puppy they got during Covid, which is still crazy. So living with that decision, but apparently his wife is happy and Steve just really loves giving back to the community through and through, it’s not just a part of his professional life. Last year he was appointed to the library trustee board by his local mayor. He’s the current board chair of the Lake County Community Foundation, focused on give back and partnering well with local nonprofit partners. Steve, thank you for joining us today.

Thanks for having me. Appreciate it.

Yeah, well, talking about values in business is one of my absolute favorite topics, so I’m really looking forward to learning more about what you all have done. It sounds like quite a change you guys have made over the last several years at Great Lakes Credit Union. So I’d love to just jump right in talking about vision and values. I know for me, it was a bit of an epiphany when I started really realizing how core values can be interwoven through everything we do in business.

We have six core values here at PixelSpoke, and we always talk to folks that this sort of guides how we hire, how we fire, we’ll take a big financial hit over these. Basically, if all else went to pot, let’s say something like Covid, these are the things that will always be true. I think that’s especially intriguing about what you all have done is that most every credit union I know has a formal strategy and many or most of them have some kind of guiding vision or core values, if you dig.

But my experience is when I quiz most credit union employees, they sort of stumble after they name one or two of the core values. And so I think that just takes a lot of intentionality. So I’d love to hear about your core values and vision. What strategies do you have in place to make sure that they’re really being realized and brought to life at all levels of your credit union?

Yeah, great question. So it’s important to understand that Great Lakes Credit Union has really served a diverse demographic for our 84 years of history. So when we looked at updating our core values about four years ago, it was really important that we weaved in that diversity because we serve a lot of diverse communities and we really wanted to look at, as we built out these strategic pillars, what sets GLCU apart from other competitors, whether it’s banks, other credit unions, and Fintechs. So, we really worked diligently and got feedback from our board of directors and our staff, and we also reached out to our membership and did a membership survey, we did an employee survey, and then we used that information to really build our core value, which we call Standards of Greatness at Great Lakes Credit Union. And so we really focus, with our employee base, on letting them know that for the Standards of Greatness, they really need to understand those and how they impact those each and every day.

Because if they don’t, as you alluded to, they just sit out there and they’re not tied into that day-to-day activity. So we tell all of our employees at the credit union that it’s because of them and serving our members and communities, because they’re the committed person, right, and a dedicated employee that’s going to make that difference. But they have to believe in the core value and relate to that as well and hold themselves to a higher standard, but also hold their coworkers to a higher standard as well. So our first pillar, we call Cultural Transformation. And so with each pillar, we have a couple bullets that define it and then some examples that we share with staff. So they always keep that out in front of them. So for example, Culture Transformation is include and collaborate, be dedicated to excellence, teach and mentor others.

So examples that we like to share with our staff is, share all of your great credit union knowledge with others and don’t hoard that information. Be open, be willing to share information and connect with people outside of your team, branch, or your department. The second pillar is our Exceptional Member Experience pillar, and that’s where we gathered feedback from our membership and it’s understanding the member needs, finding solutions, and build loyalty. So some key things that we keep talking to our staff about is, ask the members what they’re trying to achieve in their life and really find out what’s important to them and what’s going to make the difference. And then certainly respond to requests from your fellow coworkers in a timely fashion, especially when working to resolve a member’s problem or challenge. And then one of my favorites is the Financial Empowerment pillar, and that’s really being devoted to financial wellbeing, volunteering and advocating in the community, but always act as a GLCU ambassador.

And the key there is it doesn’t matter if you’re in our call center or retail, we all represent Great Lakes out in the community each and every day. So everybody can certainly be an ambassador for our organization as well. I know one of the other questions we’ll talk about is our volunteering through Great Wave, but that fits into that empowerment pillar and in certainly recommending the products and services that can help all of our members better their financial picture and then telling their own personal sphere of influence all about the great products and services that Great Lakes offers. Smart Growth is another pillar, and that’s really connecting with members to deepen relationships, making data driven decisions, innovate and compete for growth. And so that goes back to strengthening the ties in the community where you work, live and play, and then certainly reviewing available account information or enterprise reporting to help you make better informed decisions and then ask for help from others to understand the data if you have questions about that.

The final pillar is our Efficiency and Sustainability pillar, and that’s our smart resource allocation, balance out risk and value, and then knowing that we’ll have financial success through accountability. So making sure all employees use their time wisely and they’re very considerate of others’ time and then prioritizing their own tasks and alignment with their department’s goals and objectives. So we try to reiterate how each employee can live up to the Standards of Greatness, and we keep that front and center in our employee meetings.

We have a monthly town hall meeting, so we always weave in examples that our staff is providing to us under multiple pillars, and they share that information and then that resonates with other folks to say, “Well, here’s something that I was thinking about doing,” or “Hey, I saw my coworker do this and I want to share that.” So it’s being very intentional on our strategic growth initiatives and they are all tied together, so all of our strategies are going to fall under these core values. So everything we focus on with our board of directors will directly tie into one of the core values, and they really have become our strategic pillars at Great Lakes Credit Union.

Great. Well, Steve, one of the things you mentioned was that you’ve been at Great Lakes for about four and a half years, and one of the things they were most interested in was your technology background. So I love that I’m talking to someone with deep technology expertise and we’re here talking about core values. I think that speaks a lot to your leadership style. What do you think the magic is to going beyond just having, as you said, something that’s under a report or a digital document, but where the core values or the Standards of Greatness become alive in the organization? I always think core values, at their best, become decision making filters so that the boss or bosses don’t need to come in and anyone in the organization can say, “Okay, look at these core values. If I’m in alignment with them, I can move forward.”

Or I think another big success factor is when I just hear them alive, I hear people using the exact words saying, “Oh, I’m stuck.”3 And then they, I’m going back to yours here, and someone says, “Well, if one of our Standards of Greatness is exceptional member experience, then we should do this.” And conversely, there’s these organizations, like I said, where you can quiz most employees and they can only name one or two or zero of the core values and they’re not really changing behavior. So I’m just curious if there’s any other thoughts you have about how you can go about making how you guys in particular, because you’ve been so successful at it, making those Standards of Greatness alive versus just as you said something in a report.

Yeah, I think again, it’s being very intentional and it’s the ongoing communication. So we’ve had new employees join us, we have legacy employees, and you can’t think that you’re just going to communicate it once and everybody’s going to get it or you communicate it once and then you’re going to forget about all those new employees as well. So in our new hire orientation, our onboarding, we bring it up and then ongoing throughout the year in town hall meetings, in our all-employee meetings. But for us, since our strategies tie into these categories on the strategic plan that we share with every employee, they’ll see these core values and then they see cascaded under that key strategies and then they know how they’re impacting those strategies because that next level below is really the tasks that they’re performing under those strategies so they can articulate what they’re doing in their role to impact that strategy that rolls back to that core value.

But it’s also simple things like putting on our screen saver, the Standards of Greatness and refreshing them throughout the year. It’s also about giving them trinkets that have the core values on it that sits on their desk. So we always want to be very intentional in making sure that we’re communicating and sharing. And our employees know that at every board meeting we share with our board examples of the Standards of Greatness so they know how to submit their success stories through our MX department, our member experience department, that then get shared with our board of directors.
And they take great pride in knowing that if they submit a success under one of the Standards of Greatness, that potentially it’ll be shared with the board. We also have some award and recognition programs that tie around our Standards of Greatness as well. So when we do our annual sales trip, one of those awards is based on employees showing how they lived those core values. And so again, it’s weaving in your communication and being very intentional and just don’t put it on the shelf. You got to live it each and every day and you’ve got to talk through it.

Awesome. Thank you Steve. I appreciate all the sort of the specifics because I’m also sort of aficionado strategic planning. I used to do a lot of that on the side and it’s so hard to come up with core values or a strategy. And I think often leadership teams just think, “Okay, we did it. We climbed Everest.” And it’s like, you did the great work, but if you don’t put all these systems in place, it’s ultimately just going to become something that people don’t use or remember.

And I think your point is a great point that you made earlier. So our core values don’t change. But the strategies and actions under them will evolve over time as we evolve and as we upgrade our strategic plan or add new initiatives in. It’s just not something that we want to put a poster on the wall about. We want to live it, and then we want to show our employees how important it is that what they do is impacting the credit union and the community. And that tie-in goes back to those Standards of Greatness.

Wonderful, Thank you. All right. So I’d love to then move from, that was sort of a perfect segue to the core values don’t change, but the strategies under them do change, naturally. And so some of the ways that you guys go about living these Standards of Greatness, the first one I’d love to just talk about is your low income designation and just what motivated you to seek that out and how does that help you to realize your Standards of Greatness and associated strategies?

So we had in 2020 merged a small credit union into GLCU from uptown Chicago. And that small credit union, although they were very small, had a housing counseling program, a foundation, they were low income designated. And so when we looked at the opportunity, although it was small, we knew that there were some uniquenesses that we could take that to scale. So when we merged that credit union in, we started doing a better job of using our own data to say, “Well, shouldn’t we be looking at how many of our members really are low income?” And we found out that over 51% of our members are low income and it shouldn’t surprise us from where we sit, however, we then started looking at, could we not develop strategies around those low income and mod income members, and so sought to get designated as a low income designated credit union, and we’re also a community development credit union.

So, in order to do our programming that will serve low to mod income, there has to be income to be able to fund that. One thing that really appealed to us on low income designation was the ability to take in non-member deposits to remove our member business lending cap and to be able to put in a request for secondary capital at the time, which is now subordinated debt. So the uniqueness of that low income designation really put more intentional focus on serving those members for us. And so we then stood up initiatives and efforts to support them, but then also knew that we needed funding and income to be able to do that.

So strategies like being the first state chartered credit union that get a bank on national certified checking account that was fee free fit into that product suite. We also have a payday lending alternative program. So we knew that maybe unintentionally we had some of these products and services, but they really weren’t weaved into what I would say was a strategy for serving that demographic of our member. So that focus on low income really opened our eyes to who we needed to serve and why, it gave us some benefits of earning that designation from a financial perspective.

Great. Thanks for sharing that. It’s powerful and I’ve heard from many of just either my connections or our clients, how many credit unions actually qualify for low income designation, but just don’t actually know. And it seems like it opens up a number of really important pathways. You mentioned that the credit union that you merged in, I don’t know if this is connected or not, but I was impressed to see that you’re one of the few credit unions in the United States that offers HUD approved housing and financial counseling services. And I’d love to hear a little more about what that means in any success stories you can share because it’s so uncommon in the credit union space.

And so this does go back to merging in Northside Credit Union in the uptown neighborhood. So they were very small, they had two HUD approved counselors on site. But the vision we had was, if we could get that program approved for GLCU, could we not take that throughout our field of membership and put counselors in other counties outside of downtown Chicago? So strategically, we build up a strategy of expanding the program. Our senior manager, Jeanette, we inherited through the merger, she leads that program and does a fabulous job of finding counselors. They do have to be HUD certified. We are one of six credit unions nationally that has this program. It’s all grant funded. And the unique thing is although they do have to get their HUD certification, the majority of our income comes from the state of Illinois and the City of Chicago.

HUD is a very small portion of the grant money, but they do have to be HUD certified. So we have a five set program that will provide certification for our retail employees and some of our collectors to get certified, right in working on budgeting and working with members. But this is overlaid and the program that we have through HUD, we will serve non-members as well as members in the community. Just a couple of great examples, during Covid, although Covid was very bad, in some ways, there was a silver lining in Covid for us because there was such a great need for the services. So the State of Illinois reached out to us through the Illinois Department of Housing Authority on helping with mortgage and rental assistance to anybody in the state. So we were a partner that was selected by the state. We drove 44,000 households to our public website to find out how they could apply for mortgage assistance and rental assistance.

And it also aided landlords during Covid. I think we’re like on the fourth iteration of that program with the State of Illinois, but the impactfulness of that program to people in our community, the success stories that we heard from our staff that were shared with us from the clients they served were just amazing. So over the last couple years, our housing department really worked with 900 local families in our communities to be able to take hold of understanding what is a workable budget so they could stay into their home. Our team in 2022 served 518 households, 345 households received information on fair housing, fair lending, and accessibility rights. We worked with 340 households to develop a sustainable budget and then nearly 150 improved their financial capacity or they gained access to resources to help them improve their housing situation. So that could be down payment assistance, rental assistance, utility assistance as well.

One thing that I will mention, the City of Chicago selected us to go to Cook County Courthouse to work on mediation for mortgage forbearance. So if somebody’s in the court, they’re there with their lender, they think they’re going to get closed upon. If their lender and them agree to sit with a third party, we’re one of the partners that will sit with them. So we rotate in with some other community organizations to provide budgeting assistance. And so if that household goes through that budgeting program, their lender agrees to work with them to keep them in their home. And we’re really, really proud and pleased that we’re able to offer that service in Cook County and then our counselors that work out in our other communities network and work with those non-profit organizations and also with those government agencies in those communities to also offer those type of programs.

That’s a really wonderful program, and it’s bringing up for me a book that I’m guessing you’ve read, Evicted by a Harvard professor, not all that far from you. It was based in Milwaukee and it was stories of people kind of living right on the margins and how to maintain and deal with their housing struggles. And so I would recommend that to anyone listening if they want to sort really make it up close and personal as to how serious and how disruptive and damaging it is to anyone’s wellbeing to be in a place of housing insecurity. I’d love to transition from that to another thing I was impressed to learn about you all, Steve, which was that you won the first ever CUES diversity, equity, and inclusion Catalyst for Change award in 2021. And I’d love to hear a little bit about, since it’s a new award, what does this mean and what are some of the initiatives you put in place when it comes to DEI that led to being honored?

Yeah, so we were really proud to receive that recognition from CUES and really appreciate them awarding us with that first ever award. And as I tell the team, we don’t do programs to win awards, but it is nice when your efforts are recognized by peers and or others. So, because we’ve always served a diverse community, a lot of DEI initiatives and efforts we already had, but they weren’t centralized, they were out in the business units, products, services, financial literacy, also who we hire because of where we sit. So we made the strategic decision to bring them under one umbrella so that it had a greater focus throughout the organization. So the first thing we really wanted to do was have an internal census and ask our employees what did DE&I mean to them, this is a census that we conduct every other year to get the feedback from our staff and to find out what’s important to them.

And then out of that came an internal involvement strategy. So we formed a DEI committee, they worked for our Chief Administrative Officer, he is the executive sponsor, but that committee really owns the initiatives for staff. And so part of that is sharing differences in backgrounds. Recently we had a potluck where everybody could bring in a food item from their heritage. We did that in our branches, we did that at our corporate office and our operations center staff really like that. So that committee really works on more of the awareness internally. And then we also wanted to really focus on talent acquisition as part of DE&I. So a lot of our members are African American and Hispanic, and so making sure that we’re bringing in individuals that can communicate with them, look like them, and even live in those same neighborhoods where we have a branch presence.

So again, it’s being more intentional as well. And so we’re able to reach out to more multiple diverse groups through that initiative, through talent acquisition. And then also what we found was a lot of our employees said, We provide great financial literacy to the communities and members, but what about us as employees? So out of that came a strategy to enhance financial literacy to our own staff. And I can look back and say in my career when I first started out, if my employer would’ve offered that, I probably would’ve been much better off than even where I am today. And so I really applaud our employees for raising their hand to say we need some financial literacy for ourselves. And then certainly our DE&I training and development programs. And that was intentionally coming up with a DE&I statement with our board of directors, making sure that marking efforts, to the best of our ability, tie in, and then working on some DEI blogs as well.

So that kind of is all internal. Then we focused on our external goals as well for DE&I. And it’s developing personas of who our members look like, how do we talk to them, how do we engage with them, how do we position our products and services? And so things out of that came the need to do ITIN lending, down payment assistance on mortgages, payday lending alternatives, and then a focus externally to develop our charitable giving strategy that really focused on the diverse communities that are typically lower income and that skew more un-banked or under-banked. So for us, it’s a journey, it’s not just one program that we complete and move forward with and it evolves and changes all the time, but it has the buy-in from the staff because of that committee, those members are reaching out to their peers throughout the organization to get ideas and suggestions from them. And then we work those into those strategies.

That’s great. Thanks for sharing that. It’s funny, right as you were concluding your answer, that was the phrase in my mind was that it’s a journey not a destination. And anytime I hear from someone who sort has a desire to sort of put DEI into place or do a DEI initiative, I think it’s a lack of understanding that ultimately it’s building into a core organizational competency, which means it’s something that we will always be working on versus a box that can be checked or a consultant that can be hired.

And it again, fits under our Standards of Greatness. So all these things tie in nicely to everything we’re all about. Employees understand that, they hear it, they see it. This committee does a great job on communicating out through email, posting things in the break rooms, they just do a really, really nice job.

It’s great to hear. Well, one of the things you mentioned early on was the importance or the opportunity of secondary capital. I saw that you secured a $10 million secondary capital investment through your partnership with Green Capital. Is there a new word for secondary capital? Did I get…

Subordinated debt. Subordinated debt is the new word.

All right. Got to get the terms right. So subordinated debt, what’s that enabled you to do and how does it tie to your strategic vision?

So when we looked at getting secondary capital and presenting that opportunity to our board of directors, and it was brand new for us and we were the first credit union state chartered in Illinois to ask for secondary capital at the time. So we strategically wanted to work with state regulators and the NCUA on putting together the best plan. Part of that was really taking a strategic look and saying, if we were able to secure $10 million in capital, how would we be able to utilize that to put that back in to the community to help the community out? So it helped us mitigate risk in programs like ITIN lending, also our National Bank on Certified Checking Account, our payday lending alternative. But more importantly, it gave us an opportunity to seek partners that are focused on empowering the communities they’re part of. And so recently, we were able to make an announcement with the Leaders Network in the southwest side of Chicago, in the Austin neighborhood to bring financial products and services to this under-banked community.

Part of that funding will be used to offset the cost of a branch in that neighborhood. Knowing that it’s a financial desert, and again, it’s a journey, there’s not a lot of retail going on in that community today, but the hope is we can be part of that evolution and work with the leaders network who is a coalition of faith-based leaders and community activists that are really trying to economically reinvent Chicago Avenue in Austin. And so we’re going to be part of that project and that initiative, but without that secondary capital, we would struggle to be able to support those initiatives because there’s only so much capital and funding to go around. If we were to get that approval, which we did, we would be able to utilize that to help support these initiatives and causes that will help the greater good in the communities we’re part of. But then over time, we’ll also help GLCU prosper and grow.

One thing we’re really interested in, Steve, here at PixelSpoke, this was a great article someone on our team wrote years ago is programs that go beyond the proverbial big check, although we all love the big check and it makes a great photo opportunity and it just seems like you guys have a really neat take on that. So I’d love to hear a little bit about your Great Wave Volunteer Program.

Yeah, great point. So for us and where we sit, we can’t compete with the national powerhouses here and write huge checks, just not possible. And so when we look at partnering with local non-profits and the communities we serve, funding is very, very important. And I am really happy that there’s institutions that can write checks. The other side of that is, a lot of the nonprofits that we deal with are local nonprofits and they need volunteer support. They need hands. So our program is exactly that. I’m not saying we don’t support things financially, we do, but our focus really is by providing our employees and our board members and family and friends that opportunity to participate in our local community under our Great Wave Volunteer Program. So that’s going out and doing outreach in the community. Just on Columbus Day, we all got together at locations and put together hygiene kits for some shelters in some of our communities.

And so most of our Great Wave Volunteering, is coming from our employees after hours. So it’s in the evenings, it’s on the weekends, and then we’ll do things also, allow them that opportunity to bring their significant other or their children even on Columbus Day when we were doing the hygiene kits, one of my executive leaders, she brought her son to show him the value of volunteering and giving back. And to me that’s really exciting because it’s showing that we’re building that into their DNA for the future. And so we’ll do programs like that. And then also our Great Wave Program is part of our outreach on financial literacy, some reality fairs that we do with junior high students, high school students, and some college students. So we’ll use the Great Wave Volunteer Program for that and then also weaved into that as a board charity give back program.

So our branches and board work on organizations that yes, will make a donation, but in addition to that, we volunteer or provide programming. So with one of those organizations, for several years, we’ve supported their scholarship program, also financial videos so that they can use in their program with clients they serve. So I think it’s really important to understand who you are and then knowing working with the right partners that really do value that volunteer. And that’s what we hear from the partners we select. They like the money, but they would not be able to do what they do without people volunteering and really helping through that give back program.

Well, what a great program that you all have built. It seems like a really great way of creating a culture of service or in the broadest sense, I love that you’re bringing in family members as well. My last big question for you is I’d love to hear your take on the role of credit unions in community banking and especially within historically disinvested and under-banked communities. I have to go look the URL up, but you probably think there’s this alternative financial services map that was built that puts credit union branches, bank branches, and then alternative providers like check cashers and payday lenders. And it very graphically and painfully shows what you already referred to Steve, the sort of the depth and prevalence of banking deserts in so much of America. And so I’d love to hear kind of your take on, do you think credit unions could be doing more in this realm and what specifically?

Yeah, great question. And I’ll say that I think credit unions do a good job. There’s always the opportunity to improve. But what I think is, a lot of credit unions don’t realize the impact and they already have programming, but they’re just not building strategies around that programming. And so I think if you’re intentional and you call those items out, you’ll be able to build a strategy that helps support that. So it may not be, like for us going into Chicago Avenue in Austin, putting a branch, may not work for everyone, but a lot of times what you find is that these under-banked communities, they’ll also do things digitally. So if you have that mobile app online banking, right, could you use that device or your digital strategy to reach out to those disinvested communities? So I think it’s really having that strategy and what’s your niche?

I think there’s an opportunity for credit unions to do more in that area, but it’s, “What’s your story? What do you want to be known for?” I think everybody can always do better. We certainly can do better in that area as well, but we have that as an intentional strategy and that’s a focus for us at Great Lakes Credit Union. We look at that even in the opportunity for M and A, or partnerships, or CUSO investments, how can all these things strategically work together so that we can provide those products and services across those that we support? So I think even looking at the technology side, we with our mobile provider just launched EasyVest and it’s a robo-advisor product, and it’s really meant for those that are 18 to 44, low amount of income, it skews primarily mail for as low as $200 you can invest.

So our regular traditional investment services would never be able to offer programming to those individuals. Now if they build wealth over time, we can transfer them over, but what a great product to be able to say, here’s something that we can offer you that you can set up and manage and invest in. So it’s taking a look at how you can make those products and services and those strategies all align to serve these financial deserts or the un-banked and under-banked community as well. I do really think it does take the board of directors to the senior leadership team, that strategic decision that that’s important for you and your organization. We really feel as a community chartered credit union, that is paramount to our mission and our work and our board supports that. I understand other institutions may have different strategies, but we really feel like we can make a difference in the communities that we serve and really help focus on those that are under-banked, un-banked, and that low income to mod income member.

And Steve, you said something really interesting to me in the… It’s been a bit of a transformation over your four and a half years at Great Lakes Credit Union. And then a piece of that was that historically you were very kind of lean, you were very efficiently run, you didn’t have very high income and back… I was on the board of a credit union over a decade ago. That was actually my first introduction to Credit Union land. And I think there was a bit of a sense of like, well, if we’re pretty lean right now, how can we possibly prioritize more programs for low income members and community members?

We knew this is where we wanted to go, and so we had to figure out ways to create the income to support those, which is everything from, I’m going to get the term wrong, not secondary capital, but subordinated debt. There it is. So everything from subordinated debt to some of these designations to some of these other partnerships, it seems to me that that was one of the key pieces, like you said, in addition to board and leadership buy-in to being able to really make this a strategic decision. Is that accurate? Is there anything you would add or…

I mean that’s accurate, right? We’re fortunate because the other half of our membership is mid-market and upscale just because of where we sit, right? In the Chicago suburbs. So we maybe have that opportunity and that beauty where others don’t, but I would make the argument that even if you’re in a mid-market or a rural market, you can make the same community impact because there are a lot of rural markets that are under-banked and un-banked and financial deserts and the same thing in some mid-markets. So it’s just making sure that your organization is focused on that niche and that that’s going to be an opportunity for you to explore. And interestingly, we have members that tell us, “Hey, I don’t need those services, I don’t need those products, but you know what, I darn well want to bank with an organization that is giving back to their community and making a difference. And because of that, I’m going to recommend you to others I know.”

And so that’s very gratifying for us to know that that work we’re doing is being seen in the community. And although it may be more recent for us, that’ll continue to grow over time. And that’s really the legacy in the future that we want to leave in our communities is to be able to support those under-banked or un-banked communities with the support of our upper scale members. And it goes back to that point of you have to be able to have the income streams and the strategies to be able to do that because if all you’re going to do is serve the underserved, you’re probably not going to be around financially for a long period of time. If you really look at it from the perspective of, yes, we have housing constantly and that’s grant based.

If you take that out of it and then you say, “Well, I’m only going to focus on that market,” I don’t know how you’re going to get the income to support that. And so if I go back and look at Northside that we merged in, that was their challenge. They did a great job, but as that neighborhood went through gentrification, they didn’t have those products and services to support those new folks that were coming in that community, although, they were really built around that low income model. So there has to be that balance and you have to be able to sustain that programming over time.

Great. Yeah, like that famous adage from REI cooperative of no margin, no mission. All right, let’s do some rapid fire questions. What is your life slogan?

I think it goes back to treating others the way that I want to be treated, and that stands on the personal side and also the professional side for me.

I love it, the golden rule. If you could have dinner with one historical person, who would it be?

I would like to, let’s see. Good question. Abraham Lincoln.

Very appropriate for Illinois as well. What’s your favorite meal?

I love all kinds of food. My wife’s Italian, I’m not a big Italian person though, so I’m more of a Midwestern, great big steak, potatoes, green beans, a loaf of bread, and some great pie.

Man, that sound like some hard conversations with your wife though.

Exactly right? Like, I don’t really like Italian, but…

Oh man. Well, it sounds like you’ve made it work and a lot of great things.

34 years later we’re still making it work, so…

Yeah, I was about to say, so that’s success in my book. If you had to wear a t-shirt for the next year with one word printed on it, what would that word be?


I love it. Of course, that’s on brand, right? Last question. What’s that song you’re just really embarrassed to admit that you love?

Oh my gosh. So, Lean on Me. Quick comment there. We celebrated our milestone of reaching over a billion in assets, had to kind of ride that out through Covid, but this spring we celebrated with staff, and so the Lean on Me was kind of that theme. That’s one of my favorite songs. We had a church choir singing at our billion dollar celebration. That was one of the songs that we had them sing for us. But I really like the words and if really just to even think about Lean on Me because we lean on each other each and every day in what we do. We lean on our community partners, we lean on our family members. So, that’s one of those songs that always sticks with me.

Beautiful song. All right. Well Steve, it’s been a real pleasure having you. Is there, let’s do a final take. Is there anything we didn’t get to that you want to share with our audience or anything you’d like to reiterate from today before we sign off?

I just think credit unions need to be intentional and they need to understand what that niche is, right? And I think a lot of credit unions are struggling in developing what their story is, and it has to evolve more so than just products and services and great member service. So I would challenge everybody to look and say, “What is your niche in the market? How are you living that each and every day? And how are you making a difference in those that you serve, whether it be members or in the community?”

All right. Thank you, Steve. It’s been a real pleasure having you on.

Thanks. Appreciate it.

All right folks, thanks for joining us for another really great episode. I really enjoyed chatting with Steve and hearing about everything from his many experiences. I’d like to go through my key takeaways. My first key takeaway was how do we build core values that guide everything that we do? Our strategies will change over time, but never the core values. And I love that they framed them as Standards of Greatness at GLCU. I think that really makes it stand out from maybe something that might sound generic or business jargony. The next thing was this whole focus on how do we really make these core values alive rather than something that just sits on a piece of paper or on someone’s bookshelf. Steve mentioned that they really focus on regular ongoing communication, new hire orientation and onboarding, that every board meeting is going to include stories of people, employees of Great Lakes Credit Union, and how they’re living the values.

Swag, always popular. We do that at PixelSpoke as well, and having awards and recognition. The next thing I found really interesting was their journey towards becoming a low income designated credit union. It was a story I’ve heard elsewhere that they actually didn’t even realize until they dug in through this merger they did that 51% of their current members were in the low income category. And so they used that as kind of an epiphany to really focus on how to scale their services to their members. And that led to a lot of different programs, including the HUD counseling. I mean, I particularly like the stories where they really became known and differentiated for their expertise. And the State of Illinois reached out to them and asked for them for help with all the different support efforts to renters and homeowners and landlords throughout the pandemic.

Steve had a really great story. I thought of how they look at DEI and thinking of it as a way to bring many different programs together under a unified umbrella to amplify their effectiveness. I thought this kind of roadmap was an interesting way of thinking about it, of first having this twice biannual survey every couple years to your employees to just learn what does it mean to them because the world changes rapidly. Creating a DEI committee and empowering them with an executive sponsor. And then I’ve heard some other companies do this, and I love this idea of making sure that people understand it’s about celebrating differences, not creating divisions. And this idea of a potluck where basically people bring a dish and talk about what it means to them and where they’re from. Then the focus on talent acquisition and making sure that the employee base is representative of the communities and the membership base that they serve.

Adding something that I think gets skipped a lot and is incredibly important of having really top notch financial wellness training to support current employees because obviously their ability to do so for your members is going to be contingent upon their own financial wellness and savvy. And then having a DEI training and development plan, a DEI statement, which they tied to marketing objectives and efforts. And then I think this was kind of maybe another one of the key steps that I don’t hear perhaps enough of, which is really improving their personas so they accurately reflect their membership and communities and how that led them to make specific decisions around adding ITIT lending, payday lending alternative product, and mortgage support programs among others. Lastly, just that idea that diversity, equity and inclusion is always going to be a journey, not a destination.

It’s a core competency of the organization, not an initiative that’s done once.
And then Steve called out, as I mentioned even before the podcast, how prior to him arriving, they were really a very kind of lean, conservatively run credit union. And as they got more clear on their mission and the communities they wanted to serve, they needed to bring in additional sources of income to deliver the best programs they could to their members. In particular using subordinated debt and using it as a way to magnify impact, the bank on checking product, ITIT lending, payday lending alternatives. And I thought particularly that whole opportunity that they’re moving on of putting branches in places where it’s currently a branch desert. So being an investment in the future of a community versus just waiting until the opportunity is there today. I think this is a message that it’s always just a wonderful message for all of us in life of, Steve was talking about community banking and its notion that credit unions do all sorts of great things already.

They have lots of programs they’re already doing, but the big opportunity is to turn it into a specific strategy and a niche that really differentiates a credit union from the other financial institutions in the area. And you summed all that up with that wonderful question, one I think about a lot, and I think we all can and should, which is what do you want to be known for? Thank you so much for joining us today for another great episode. Until the next time, I wish you the best of luck in making your credit union remarkable.

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