SACRAMENTO, Calif.-On the outskirts of Sacramento, in a small business district, Debra Greenlee has watched the financial industry grow and change over the last 13 years she's run the Madison office of Schools Financial CU.

That tenure, part of more than 30 years in the financial services industry, has exposed Greenlee to a lot-how computers and technology have changed the face of institutions, the growth in CU products and services, and the painful times members face when the economy collapses.

Like many other credit union branch managers, Greenlee acknowledges the Great Recession has been members' toughest test, as well as the staff's.

"We have seen so many members lose their homes and jobs, it's been difficult and still is. Sacramento's unemployment rate is 12.9% and 10.7% in California overall," said Greenlee. "Our region has been hit hard. You have members you talk to weekly for so many years, things are going great, and then the next day they tell you they don't have work."

Greenlee said in the last four years it's become much more important for the branch team to be member focused and anticipate members' needs to help people stay out of trouble, and to treat members with respect no matter how hard times get for them.

"You see some very tough cases and your heart goes out to them when you tell some that there's nothing you can do for them. We try our hardest, but sometimes there are no options left."

Running the branch during the economic downturn delivered rewards as well as difficulties. Greenlee cited two experiences that show the emotional rollercoaster the economy has had her team riding. "For example, I recall one couple we worked with to try to save their home. We found a way to make things work, gave them an out, but they did not take it. It was hard for us to see them turn over the keys when they had options. They just walked away."


Heartbreak, But Also Heartening

But the wins let staff know the good work they are doing being part of a credit union, said Greenlee. She shared a story about a couple that had a medical emergency that started piling up bills.

"They were spending too much, not just on some medical things that were not necessary, but also general spending. I sat down with them and told them that if they did not alter their spending they were going to face serious financial problems," said Greenlee. "They were older too, which made things harder. I worked with them on a budget and they came back a few months later and thanked me. They said they had reduced their spending, were meeting their obligations, and had learned how to manage cash flow."

Being in the banking business for a long time, managing a bank office before coming to the $1.2-billion SFCU in 1999, Greenlee said communication with staff is most critical to running the office well. "You want to make sure the team, full and part-time, sees the vision of the credit union and your own personal vision for the office."

What Greenlee has liked the most over the course of the years is promoting people-and she has done a good job of that at Schools Financial. About one-third of the CU's current management team have come through her location. "At one time they worked in my office. I like to think I gave them some of the leadership skills they needed, and I am proud of that."

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