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typeballs1I loved being a teller. Not only interacting with the members but that wonderful sense of completion you have at the end of the day – balancing. Validation of your greatness. Locking your cash drawer, placing it in the vault, and whoosh. You take nothing home but the memories. BUT, as a teller, I wasn’t even ON the organizational chart. And I had goals.

Word on the row (teller row, which is suspiciously close to death row) was you HAD to become a loan officer if you ever wanted to a) make decent money and b) become a manager. This is what prompted me to leave my first credit union. You see, there were only three loan officer positions and I could tell these ladies weren’t going anywhere.

I was taking a night class at Portland Community College and met a gal from a tiny grocery store co-op credit union that said they were hiring. Not ONLY was I going to be a loan officer, I would still have a teller drawer, open new accounts AND do collections! WOW! I WAS the organizational chart!

I interviewed on my lunch hour. The credit union occupied the living, dining room, kitchen and one bathroom of an old house. The sponsor, United Grocers, was right across the street. It was, how should I say “cozy” and so it was important that we all got along. I’ll never forget Lois, the Manager, asking me if I smoked. You see, NO one in this officer smoked and she wasn’t about to hire one now. Yahooooo!!!! I found my new home.

I hate to say this, but learning consumer loans was not that hard. The hardest part was using the Burroughs machine to calculate their payment. Oh, and not making mistakes as you typed up their documents on an IBM selectric typewriter on triplicate carbon paper! Liquid Paper was my best friend. My record – I typed 25 loan docs in one work day! This was before open-ended lending and lines of credit. So we did a lot of $300 one pay loans. BUT, we also would deny members for their “purpose.”

The original charter of a credit union was to make loans for “provident and productive purposes” so if someone came in and asked for a loan to go to Vegas, we would say “No.”

Character, capacity, collateral. It wasn’t unusual for us to call a loan applicant’s supervisor and ask how they were doing at work – what was the likelihood they would be employed for the length of this loan. The greatest collateral we had was their payroll deduction.

To pull a credit bureau on a member involved perfection in typing. You dialed into the bureau using a directional coupler. Oh yes. So if you made a mistake, there was no backspace, no liquid paper, you had to disconnect, redial, wait for the screachy noise and try again. I remember the first time I did it my hands were shaking.

There were no scores back then – you had to learn to read the line items quickly to mentally determine a score. Good, not-so-good, and oops – credit committee.

Credit committee met every Thursday. Back in the day (which according to Dane Cook was a Wednesday) WE didn’t turn down members, their co-workers did. The committee consisted of volunteers who were there to protect the credit union. They really should’ve been called the “character committee” because the decisions were based less on credit worthiness and more about this person’s reputation.

This also created a built in “shame” of non-repayment. Members understood that they were truly borrowing their co-workers money (just in a less awkward way) and not repaying was not cool. We made a practice of parking repo cars in front of the credit union. Everyone knew that “Joe” defaulted.

I’ll never forget the day when I saw my first notice of bankruptcy. WHAT? Some lawyer is telling me that the member I trusted is not going to pay us back. Ever? That’s when I realized it was hard to be a collector AND a loan officer at the same time. For days, all my loans went to credit committee – no one was worthy. I had issues I needed to work through.

I’m amazed today when I see that credit committees are basically gone, members inputing their own data and a big giant computer brain scores and approves the loan. Wow.

After awhile, the loan officer title lost its luster for me. Take application, pull credit, calculate debt ratio, type docs, input data, cut check. Next. I needed a new challenge.

Next up: Compliance? Seriously.

200126682-0012It’s 1981. Ronald Reagan is president. Some say Carter ruined the economy (depends on whether you were a Democrat or Republican). Anyway, interest rates were CRAZY out of control, inflation was rampant, and financial institutions needed cash. John Lennon’s Imagine was on the top of the charts.

I had just been promoted to Member Service Representative, when Tom Sargent handed me a memo from the League. Reagan signs Economic Recovery Act that allows credit unions to issue All Savers Certificates!

Cool!!! I get to be a marketer. You see, in 1981, we didn’t have a marketing department. Very few credit unions did. Our members marketed FOR us. But this program was only going to begin in October so we couldn’t wait for the “word-of-mouth” to do its job.

I was so excited! I like to draw and this was waayyyyy before Photoshop, Illustrator or, well personal computers really. I got some cool paper and colored pens and made my mark. I stuck these posters up in the lunch rooms of every government agency we served. And waited.

October 1st, the doors opened and then it happened. First one, then another, and another, and by the end of the week we had opened 450 new accounts! At one point, we had a “line” to my desk and up until then had no real need for a waiting area so we had to improvise.

At the end of that first week Tom called me into his office. He told me that he was very impressed with the initiative I took and that I was directly responsible for the credit union’s success. He gave me a $200 a month raise. And when you’re making $650.00 a month, that’s like becoming a millionaire, winning the lottery, moving into upper class. Well, anyway it was REAL money. I could start driving my car to work again.

These were exciting times. It taught me two things that I still practice.

One: always plan for overwhelming success.
It always seems funny to me when I see people getting uptight during busy times, say in a restaurant, hotel, etc. I mean, wasn’t that your GOAL to be packed?

Two: rewarded behavior is repeated.
It wasn’t the money as much as it was Tom recognizing my efforts. He will always be my mentor and I owe a lot of my work ethic today to him. Congratulations Tom for winning the Herb Wegner award this year!

Next up: Too good to be promoted.

It’s 1980 and I’m a teller at a credit union in Portland, Oregon. I’m driving a 1973 Volkswagen Super Beetle named Howard. I have to pay for parking. Which makes me rethink driving Howard to work and entices me to take the bus.

Bus pass = $12.00 a month. Parking Howard = $25.00 a month.


I bought a book on How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive because I had to make this car last. You see, to get a new car loan in 1980, the interest rate was around 18%. The prime loan rate hit its peak in July of 1981 at 20.5%. They called this inflation. Not to be confused with recession or depression.

I was making $650.00 a month (before taxes) and paying $175.00 a month in rent. Howard was paid for and the insurance was around $25.00 a month.

Why am I telling you all of this? Because of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Yup, that’s right. Back to school we go.


Our basic needs are physiological. Food and water. Then we move up to our safety needs. Housing. Mobility. (Howard) Insurance. Once those are in tact we can evolve to Social needs – a sense of belonging – love (the water cooler). The next rung up the ladder is what ALL HR research shows us – it’s not PAY that motivates it’s “recognition, status, self-esteem.” And finally, at the very top – we becomes self-motivated – or in my case, self-employed.

I took a night class in college when I was a teller and learned about Maslow. I remember thinking – didn’t anyone at the credit union read this?

If they had, and they believed it, how many things would have to change?

1. Using an employment agency where the applicant pays for a teller job was a bad choice. (physiological needs not met because I had to pay one month’s wage to get the job).
2. Putting a new employee on “probation” for 90 days breeds fear and resentment (no sense of security and no clear direction as to how you PASS probation).All “team” gear was withheld. Business cards, name plate, and a file that said “hired.”
3. My training consisted of me “shadowing” an employee that clearly resented me (sense of belonging? hell no – sense of “getting in the way” big time).
4. Doing surprise “cash counts” on my teller drawer because of my member following was the complete opposite of recognition. It was pure suspicion.

I’m the Norma Rae of tellers. I’m the gal standing in the lunch room with a sign that says “You CAN’T be SERIOUS!”

It’s 2009.

29 years later and nothing much has changed. Not only must they dress appropriately, they need to be personable, detail oriented, accurate, compliant, AND cross-sell our 58 different products and services WHILE standing for 8 hours a day. All for about $10.00 an hour. Wow.

Think about it. Tellers have more control over your credit union’s brand than anyone in management. Think of how many “moments of truth” there are in the business we are in – which is “the errand” business.

That’s all I’m sayin’……..

NEXT UP: Ronald Reagan and the Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981 – aka “Denise Becomes a Marketer!”

I ran across a video today of two of my favorite writers. Tom Peters and Seth Godin. They were asked this question:

What is more important – loyal employees or loyal customers?

Before you take a look at the video – think about it.

Okay – now you can watch it.

Why do we call “shadowing” training? On my second day in the credit union movement, I was allowed to leave the empty desk by the door, come behind teller row and shadow Patty. Which meant, I watched her work all day.
Patty could take in a deposit in her sleep. With cigarette pursed in her lips I watched a flurry of writing, typing, stamping, and then the one thing I already knew how to do – cash handling.

After about an hour of standing there like an idiot, Patty turned around and said “Do you have any questions?” I had plenty. “What fresh hell is this?” was right there on the top of my list. Patty was not a trainer, she was an experienced teller and a prolific smoker. I asked her if she could walk me through a deposit. She couldn’t believe that I hadn’t picked that up in an hour. Her solution was to slow down a tiny bit when the next member came in – NOW did I get it?

I don’t learn by watching, I learn by doing. I also don’t like to be told WHAT to do I like to be told WHY we do things. When someone begins a training instruction with “You have to…” my brain starts frying. WHY do we have to? Needless to say – Patty and I, not a good fit.

At the end of my 90 day probationary period I sat down with Judy the HR lady again and got to sign up for my medical program. I also finally got the “rule” book that included such things as dress code, calling in sick procedures, what to do if it snows, all the really important stuff.

Then she turned to the organizational chart. I wasn’t on it. I know this because I asked. She held up the paper, pointed to the box that Mean Jean occupied and said, “Oh, you’re down here.” as she waved her hand below the page.

I’m a very goal oriented person, so my first GOAL was to get on the bloody org. chart.

So let’s review. I was admonished in my interview for NOT having previous teller experience, but an exception was made because of my almost 4 years of making change at ‘Enry Beazely’s. My first day I spent at an empty desk sorting through signature cards, looking for strays, then on my second day, I endured constant second-hand smoke while I watched Patty work.

So why did I stay? The members. Once I got my own teller window, I got to start building MY brand. I loved the members. I had a following. Members that would wait for me. I saw pictures of their kids, their last vacation, their dogs.

Mean Jean became suspicious.

Why would members wait for ME? She conducted surprise cash counts on my drawer. You see she didn’t value service. To her, being a teller meant taking in money, accurately punching it into the computer, and handing the correct change with the receipt. That’s it. To me it was about building relationships. The only service training we ever got was this statement: “Ladies, when a member comes to your window, you need to put your cigarette DOWN while you help them.” (referring to Patty’s skills of multi-tasking)

Corporations don’t have values, people do. Was I on the wrong bus? Or was Jean? Actually the answer came the day after Halloween. Four months after I started Dick was “let go.” He was the CEO and I never did find out what happened. He was just gone. There were closed door meetings all day and the tellers were left in a pall of cigarette smoke to figure it out and take care of the members.

But a few weeks later we were introduced to Tom Sargent, first time CEO from St. Helens, Oregon. He was young, and fun and decided we were going to take this bus in a new direction. Shortly after he started I was transferred out of teller row (rhymes with death row) to a desk. A newly created position called “Member Service Representative!”

I had a desk with stuff in it, a name plate, business cards and a feeling like I could make a difference. I no longer reported to Mean Jean and I thrived.

SIDEBAR: Mean Jean ended up in accounting – where she also thrived. She was better with ledgers than with humans.

NEXT: The first ripple of the ripple effect……

It was June 16, 1980 when I began my career in financial cooperatives. I had just graduated from St. Mary of the Valley High School, quit my job as a serving wench with ‘Enry Beazely’s Fish n Chips and successfully landed a teller position with Pacific NW Federal Credit Union. I made $650.00 a month, and after a 90 day probation would receive medical benefits. I got the job through an employment agency and their fee was one month’s salary. Oh, AND this was a cut in pay from Beazely’s but heck, I got to wear real clothes.

I started on a Monday. Judy, the HR lady arranged to let me in the building. She took me behind teller-row to meet my new boss. Let’s just call her “Mean Jean.” She had big hair, aqua net hair, caked on blue eye shadow and was hunched over a desk piled high with paper and smoking a Salem menthol cigarette.

Judy introduced me as her new teller, Denise. Jean’s response: “Oh sh*t, I forgot YOU were starting today.” After some words between Judy and Jean it seemed that there was a problem balancing on Friday, someone named Patty had called in sick, and well….Jean had NO time to train me. The solution? Have me sit at the desk in the lobby and she’ll find something for me to do.

Now you have to picture this desk. It’s the putty colored metal with the laminate wood surface and it appeared that they were moving it out of the building when they stopped at the front door. There was NOTHING in it to keep me busy.

It’s 9:00 and the doors open. Members start streaming in. What did I do? I started greeting people. Members were asking me questions – I made things up. One member asked to talk to a loan officer. Across the lobby I had a bird’s eye view of one such person. Let’s call her Mary Kay – Loan Officer (it was on her name plate). I walked the member over, and said “Mary Kay would be happy to help you with a loan.”

Well, apparently that WASN’T the culture at the credit union. There was no “happy” happening on MK’s face. We never really did get along after that.

Finally, Jean comes over with a project to keep me busy. I spent my first day in credit union land making sure that all the signature cards were in alphabetical order. I’m happy to say I found eight of them in the wrong place.

Was I on the wrong bus? Stay tuned…..

I’ve never shared the whole story of how I came to be a credit union evangelist. I know this past year I’ve been pretty outspoken about the movement and some of the struggles with values, purpose and philosophy. So if you don’t mind, I’d like to share a bit about where that comes from.

You see, I was the middle child of five kids in a Catholic family in Northeast Portland in the ‘70s. Yes, the last great recession. My family had some financial struggles and had to pull me out of private school my Freshman year.

I tried public high school for the rest of that year. After seeing a kid get stabbed right in front of me in the lunch room (this was also the period of desegregation) I decided I had to find a way to go back to private school. I needed a job, and fast. A girl in my homeroom heard I was looking, said she was going to give her notice at ‘Enry Beazelys’ Fish-n-Chips that night and she was sure her uniform would fit me.

We went to her locker and she pulled out the most hideous thing I’d ever seen. Burnt orange wench costume complete with ruffled hat. Wow! But it did fit.

I took the dress home, thought about it, and the next day walked into ‘Enry Beazely’s Fish-n-Chips, asked to speak to Mr. Beazely.

Mr. Beazely was a lovely older gentleman, with a firm handshake and a wonderful smile. I said, “Hello, Mr. Beazely, I’m Patty’s replacement.” He chuckled and hired me on the spot.

For the next three and 1/2 years I took a public bus to Beaverton, Oregon to attend St. Mary of the Valley (90 minutes each way). I did my homework on the bus – always. I was working 20 hours a week at ‘Beazely’s to pay my tuition.

On nights I had to work I had just enough time to get home, change from plaid pleated skirt and white blouse to the burnt orange wench costume.

Mr. Beazely taught me about leadership, culture, values and most importantly that if we are serving others, we are doing something that matters. Mr. Beazely also taught me that brand oozed from every pore of the organization. We served ginger beer, malt vinegar, and wrapped our “To Go” orders in newsprint. It was “authentic.” Right down to the serving wenches!

He had these service mantras.

My favorite: “The front counter is like the tide, you never turn your back on it.”

Mr. Beazely would “secret shop” us. Not by sending in a stranger with a script, but rather HE would come usually with his wife and some friends to dine.

If everything was not as it should be, he didn’t write us up, put it in our permanent file, or worse yet, call us out in front of others. Nope, he would simply roll up his sleeves, put on an apron, wash his hands and cook his own meal – elegantly righting the wrongs.

BUT, if everything was as it should be – at the end of the meal he would shake the hand of every employee and thank them for a wonderful dining experience.

On Thanksgiving he invited all of the crew to the restaurant for breakfast that HE would cook. He told us that on that day, he gave thanks for us. Wow.

He made me feel like what I did mattered. And when I gave my notice, I cried. He gave me a big hug and said “I will always have a place at ‘Beazely’s.”

Upon graduation, I decided I could not take the wench-wear anymore. I wanted a “real” job. And so…..I went to an employment agency.

PART TWO: Mean Jean and my first day as a teller.


Punxsutawney Phil not only saw his shadow (which means six more weeks of winter) but he bit the Mayor.

Conclusion: 2009 is going to bite!


“There are many people who think they want to be matadors, only to find themselves in the ring with two thousand pounds of bull bearing down on them, and then discover that what they really wanted was to wear tight pants and hear the crowd roar.”
-Terry Pearce, Leadership Coach

This is how I feel after spending the week with nervous CEOs and Board Chairs at the CUES Symposium.

The bull has entered the ring. Are we going to run? Or are we going to fight – for our principles, our members, our history?

We have two weeks to decide. NAFCU and CUNA….only one of you can be in this ring or it starts to look like a circus.

SIDEBAR: CUES did a phenomenal job of “punting’ throughout the week as NCUA, CUNA and NAFCU battled it out. CUES is truly committed to professional development. Thank you for allowing me to be a part of this historic conference.

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February 2009