Exit Interview is a new series from CreditUnions.com that shares the insight and experience of credit union executives who are retiring after many years of service to the movement.
Karen Church is a career lifer at ELGA Credit Union ($1.2B, Burton, MI), going from high school student intern to CEO in a tenure that includes the past 29 years as CEO of the Flint cooperative when she retires in a few months.
Here’s her story.
The Back Story
Karen Church, CEO, ELGA Credit Union
When did you join the credit union movement?
Karen Church: I started working as a co-op student in 1973-74. When the school year was up, my position ended. I returned to the credit union full-time in 1978 after returning from my honeymoon.
What was your career path to CEO at ELGA?
KC: Our cooperative was quite small in 1978. With only five employees, I was able to learn every aspect of the business. You might be a teller, write a loan, pay some invoices, make a few collection calls, and stuff envelopes — all in one day. As the credit union grew, I became the accounting manager, assistant manager, and then CEO in 1993.
When is your retirement effective? Who is succeeding you?
KC: I will be retiring on Feb. 25, 2022, with nearly 45 years of service. Terry Katzur, our executive vice president, will be my successor. He started much like I did at the age of 16 as a co-op student.
How big was your credit union when you assumed the post? How big is it now?
KC: When I started full-time employment in 1978, we had one branch, $3 million in assets, and 2,500 members. Today, we have 14 branches, 240 associates, and 81,000 members, with assets of nearly $1.2 billion.
It’s all a matter of timing as ELGA joins in on the revitalization of a once-moribund main street in one of America’s iconic industrial cities. Learn more in “How ELGA Went All In On Downtown Flint.”
Learnings And Legacy
How has the credit union industry changed during your career? How has the CEO role changed?
KC: Credit unions have evolved over the years to become full financial service institutions. The complexity of our business has also grown. Regulation and compliance take much more time and resources. Technology has brought the expectation that you are available 24/7/365. The CEO’s role has changed from hands-on daily operations to a leadership role guiding, coaching, and directing others. Strategic thinking is important to ensure continued growth and success.
What advice do you have for someone assuming the CEO role at a credit union today?
KC: Communicate continually to all levels of your team as well as all stakeholders. Don’t be afraid to reach out to your peers, consultants, and associates for help.
Be a continuous learner and realize you have to take risks if you want to grow. Never look at something not panning out as a failure, look at it as a learning experience and take note of what you’ll do differently the next time.
Read More Exit Interviews
Always remember you’re in your role to remove obstacles for your associates to become the best version of themselves. Look through the members’ lenses to make sure your decisions are best for them. Treat everyone with respect and dignity.
What would you most like to be remembered for as CEO at ELGA?
KC: Being a faith-filled leader. Not being afraid to communicate my sincere love and appreciation for people. Providing all associates the opportunity to learn and grow into the positions they desire.
The way we learned, together, how to listen to our members’ stories to determine if we could take a risk on the loans requested.
Being passionate about helping our community and making ELGA Credit Union the greatest place to work, bank, borrow, and invest.
“Always remember you’re in your role to remove obstacles for your associates to become the best version of themselves.”
What are your plans now? How will you start your retirement?
KC: My husband, Duane, and I love to travel. We plan to take a trip every month with family and friends. We also have six awesome grandchildren we want to spend more time with.
I serve on the Catholic Charities Board, and we have a couple of big projects kicking off with which I will be busy. One project is a tiny-home village for homeless veterans containing 24 homes. The other is a renovation of a beautiful church into a conference center. This is along with an annual Ginormous Tent Sale, help in the soup kitchen, and a number of monthly meetings.
Oh, I can’t forget that my son and daughter-in-law are purchasing a Christmas tree farm to keep us busy in case we get bored.
CU QUICK FACTS
ELGA Credit Union
HQ: Burton, MI
Data as of 09.30.21
12-MO SHARE GROWTH: 20.9%
12-MO LOAN GROWTH: 11.3%
What’s left on your bucket list?
KC: Learn to play the piano and guitar. Travel around the world — Japan, India, and Africa are a few places we would like to see. Help my relatives in Croatia harvest their grapes. Clear my house of all unnecessary stuff. See the success of our newly formed ELGA Credit Union Foundation for Impact.
Do you have any final words for the credit union industry?
KC: There is no better industry to be a part of. We have the ability to help people achieve financial wellness, which leads to a healthy country. Stay united no matter how big our credit unions grow; we can accomplish so much more together.
This interview has been edited and condensed.