LMCU's Jelinski finds CEO shoes fit just fine

December 14, 2010
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Back in 2000, Sandy Jelinski wasn't sure she wanted to be a CEO.

Today, she doesn't want to be anything else.

"It was never my goal, but they put me in as interim, and when I did it, I loved it," said Jelinski, who has logged 30-plus years at the only employer she's ever had.

"I do love it. I like seeing the results. I like helping the community."

Jelinski is president and CEO of Lake Michigan Credit Union, which has been growing despite an economic recession that featured a spanking for the finance industry.

In May, LMCU purchased the struggling Citizens Credit Union in Kalamazoo. It entered the residential mortgage market when others couldn't run away from it fast enough. It has added branches. It launched a checking product that pays an over-market interest rate, attracts customers and saves money.

Employee cars overflow the parking lot at the LMCU headquarters at East Paris Avenue and Lake Drive SE, evidence of a hiring surge.

"I'm going out on a limb, but I would say we're going to continue and probably be double (in five years)," Jelinski said.

"We're doing the right thing. We're helping people. In 2000, when I got this job, we were $400 million. By 2005, we were $1 billion. In 2010, we're $2.2 billion, so we do double or more."

Credit unions were developed in the 19th century in Germany and brought to the U.S. at the turn of the 20th century. Chartered under either federal or state statutes, a credit union is not-for-profit and is owned by its members. Surpluses on the financial statement are used to benefit members through better interest rates and services.

The economy's spasms as it digests the glut of home foreclosures have impacted credit unions, Jelinski said, although Michigan regulations prevented them from investing in those ill-fated mortgage-backed securities.

Lake Michigan Credit Union
Position: President and CEO
Age: Did not disclose
Birthplace: Grand Rapids
Residence: Ada
Family: Husband, Thomas; two adult daughters and one adult stepdaughter.
Community/Business Involvement: Wedgwood Christian Services, board member; PSCU Executive Leadership Committee; Michigan Credit Union League; Grand Rapids Economics Club; American Management Association; Consumer Credit Association; CenCorp (Central Credit Union of Michigan), past board member.
Biggest Career Break: Being named CEO of Lake Michigan Credit Union.

The credit union industry is covered by the National Credit Union Share Insurance Fund, analogous to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. for banks.

Losses on mortgages gone bad and rock-bottom housing values have strained resources, though, and credit unions nationwide are facing larger insurance bills than usual, Jelinski said. The state-chartered LMCU alone faces a $4 million bill "that comes right off the bottom line," she said.

"That's something that we don't like, but it just comes with being a credit union," she said.

"We all are together and we take care of each other in good and bad times, which goes along with the not-for-profit entity. We bear our own issues without government help."

The credit union's not-for-profit, tax-exempt status means it must rely on its own financial performance, not stock sales, to fuel growth.

"We only raise our capital level through our bottom line, which shows you that you have to make money to keep yourself healthy," Jelinski said.

"Now, in our particular world, we're having the best year we've ever had in our 78-year history, and that's right here in Grand Rapids, Michigan — which, boy, we are fortunate.

"You have to support the growth through your earnings. Otherwise, you cannot grow. If you don't take care of the bottom line, you're flat-lined. You have to have enough capital to be a credit union, and if you don't do well, you can't grow, because you can't go out and sell stock."

LMCU was founded in 1933 as the Grand Rapids Teachers Credit Union. In 1971, it expanded membership to health care, particularly hospital workers. In 2002, it was renamed, and in 2008, its charter was expanded to serve people who live, work, worship or attend school in 36 counties in western and central Lower Peninsula.

LMCU has a 25 percent market share in Kent County, its primary market, Jelinski said. It carries 180,000 accounts and — at $2 billion in assets as reported to the Michigan Office of Financial and Insurance Regulation in September — is the second largest credit union in the state.

With the Citizens acquisition in May, LMCU added four branches to the one it already had in the Kalamazoo area, and a sixth is under construction. Branches also are located in Holland, Grand Haven and St. Joseph.

Now with 600 employees, LMCU has hired about 150 people in the past 18 months, Jelinski said. 

"It's amazing," she said. "A lot of it has to do with the mortgage division."

Five years ago, LMCU stepped into the mortgage market. Within a few years, mortgage shops were closing and banks were pulling back. LMCU was there to pick up the pieces.

"In retrospect … we really made a good decision, not even knowing how it was going to play out," Jelinski said. "Now we are No. 1 in our region in our mortgage production. I believe we're No. 7 in the entire state."

LMCU sells most of the mortgages, but it services all the loans it makes.

"To our friends and neighbors, it's invisible, because they make payments to us, we bill them, we take care of their taxes, no matter if we book it or if we sell it," she said. "We, right now, in our servicing book are over $2 billion, in just the ones that we're servicing."

Jelinski also introduced checking accounts that pay 4 percent interest on the first $15,000, as long as the account holder meets certain conditions.

"My CFO thought I was crazy," she laughed. "It's the best thing I ever did."

The product has drawn new members to join and prodded some longtime members to use technology, she said.

The second of five children of Gertie Beukema, a retired Grand Rapids school secretary, and her late husband, Herman, Jelinski grew up in Wyoming. She graduated from Calvin Christian High School where her father was a teacher and longtime athletic director.

For more than 30 years, Lake Michigan Credit Union has been Jelinski's one and only employer.

"Actually, I started here right out of high school — I won't tell you how many years ago. My dad was a teacher at Calvin Christian and he basically got me the job. He knew I would be graduating, and when he went to do a transaction, he said to the people at the credit union, 'You know, I have a daughter that does really good in finance. Do you guys have any openings?' They said, 'Yeah, send her in,' and then that was it. Here I am, for all these years."

With a love for business, finance and the stories that numbers tell, Jelinski has handled just about every job at the credit union, even ones that technology has now eliminated.

"I basically started with the worst possible job here. If you were doing mailings, you had to go to this big ugly typewriter thing and they made metal plates for the address. So you had to type in the name and address, and when they printed the envelopes, they would take these little metal plates and they would slide through this machine.

"They didn't have a computer then; they had ledgers. When you made a deposit, when you did a loan payment, you'd go to the teller window and you'd have to record it on a card. That's how long ago it was."

She spent 12 years as a branch manager and then became vice president of lending.

"I basically did almost every possible job in the credit union, which I think helps me in my leadership," she added. "I understand what they're up against. I understand a lot of what doesn't work.

"And then, when they had the CEO opening in 2000, I put my name in the hat and, thankfully, they chose me."

While she does not hold a college degree, Jelinski has taken advantage of industry courses to bolster her skills and knowledge in finance and credit unions. She married early, and raising three children didn't leave much time for college, she said.

"Money is very exciting. I love numbers, I love how you figure out how it all works and what works," she said.

Now remarried, Jelinski has two grown daughters and an adult stepdaughter. Her 19-year-old son, Ed Burdick, died in a car accident about 15 years ago, a loss exacerbated by the recent deaths of her father and brother. The same philosophy that Jelinski brings to her job has helped her through those difficult experiences.

"I get sick of people with doom and gloom, because what does that accomplish?" she said. "It doesn't accomplish anything. I always think life is what we make of it. If you make it bad, it's going to be bad. If you make it good, it's going to be good."

An avid exerciser who works out every morning, Jelinski and her husband, Thomas, a retired lumber broker, have a home on Spring Lake and enjoy boating together.

"Other than that, I just work a lot, which is all right. I like it," Jelinski said. "I think you're real fortunate if you can find something you love to do every day."

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