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Inside Track: Van Dyke answers the call for nonprofit leadership
Thirty years in banking gives new Heart of West Michigan United Way president an edge.
Ever since she was a little girl, Michelle Van Dyke wanted to own a bank.
Van Dyke made her childhood dream of a career in banking a reality and spent 30 years at what is now Fifth Third Bank, eventually becoming the president of Fifth Third Mortgage Co. before leaving Jan. 1 of this year to become the president and CEO of Heart of West Michigan United Way.
At the height of her banking career, Van Dyke was managing about $13 billion between the six banks she oversaw.
“From the time I was about 7 years old, I wanted to be a banker. I loved going to the bank. It sounds nuts, but … I loved being in there. I don’t know what it was about it. I would come home and say to my parents — and they still laugh about it — I’d say, ‘I’m going to own a bank when I grow up.’ So I got pretty close,” she said.
“The fact that I could give (the bank) money and then get more in return, I thought to myself, ‘Well, this is a good deal.’ I liked that.”
Van Dyke was born in Washington, D.C. Her family moved to Atlanta, then Boston, and finally settled in Cleveland, where she spent most of her early years.
She came to Grand Rapids to attend Calvin College, where her parents and older sister had attended, and because “I’m Dutch and Christian Reformed,” she laughed.
Van Dyke graduated from Calvin in 1985 with a bachelor’s degree in business economics, and almost instantly secured a position at Old Kent Bank, which became Fifth Third Bank in 2001.
The experience that opened the door to a long and rich career in banking came from one of her first performance reviews early on. Her regional manager told her he thought she’d make a fine trust officer. But Van Dyke had other plans.
MICHELLE VAN DYKE
“Well, that’s really not what I want to do,” she told him.
“Well, what do you want to do?” he asked.
“I’d really like your job,” she answered.
“He took that to heart. Not many people would do that but, within months, I was one of the first participants in their Accelerated Career Track program,” she said.
“That really gave me a great opportunity to network within the bank and also find really good, influential mentors who are even to this day still helping me in my career.”
The accelerator program was a rotation in which Van Dyke worked in mortgage, corporate accounting, marketing and credit. It not only offered her exposure ranging from community service to the executive team, but it also gave her a chance to shine.
Everyone who has ever had a debit card from Fifth Third Bank has Van Dyke’s rotation in the marketing aspect of the program to thank for it.
“When I was in marketing for my six-month rotation, I developed the debit card for Old Kent. It was a new concept in the industry, but many banks didn’t have the actual card yet,” she said.
“I developed it from taking a plastic card to working it through and getting it in everybody’s wallet. (It was) a fascinating process.”
She said there were various focus groups — one of them just to find out what the card should be called. “One guy said, “Call it ‘Joe’” she laughed.
A lot has changed in banking since Van Dyke started 30 years ago, but the thing she said she’s seen change the most is banking technology.
“We used to have the passbook … hand stamped, and it’s just so different today. You can just deposit a check by laying it on your counter and taking a picture of it (on your cell phone). That was a foreign concept when I started,” she said.
“I don’t think it’s any less safe. It’s much better because it’s far more convenient to bank today than it used to be.”
After serving as a local branch manager, Van Dyke moved to Chicago from 1993-1997 to work with Old Kent’s mortgage company. She came back to West Michigan, but then returned to Chicago in 2000, until Fifth Third bought Old Kent and she returned to West Michigan again to become a retail executive for the Western Michigan affiliate.
In 2003, Van Dyke became an affiliate president of Fifth Third Bank. In 2009, she became regional president, and finally in 2014, she became president of Fifth Third Mortgage Co.
The most trying time of her career came during the banking crisis and the subsequent Great Recession. Although she felt Fifth Third Bank came through it “as well as any bank could have,” it was still a very difficult period.
Former Fifth Third CEO Kevin Kabat led them through it, she said. “He used to say to us, ‘Keep your head down and focus on what you can control.’ That was the best advice we could have gotten at the time.”
She made it a point to note that local bankers weren’t the reason for the crisis.
“What you saw from Wall Street bankers during the crisis is not how local bankers acted. And I think we all get lumped in together. Your mainstream banker — people who sit at Fifth Third — are not the ones who caused those things to happen,” she said.
“We are pretty plain vanilla bankers and just working very hard every day to protect our shareholders and our customers. … The biggest thing — the stigma about banks not lending money — wasn’t true of Fifth Third.”
When Van Dyke hit her 30-year mark in banking, she began thinking about what else she still wanted to accomplish with her life. She was 52 years old and felt she only had one career left in her, so it was now or never. Leaving Fifth Third Bank, a company she loved, filled with co-workers she adored, was a painful decision, she said, but her life-long passion for nonprofits was a call she couldn’t resist.
“I’ve always had a passion for nonprofits. I’ve served on many nonprofit boards over the course of my career — as many as 12 at one time,” she said. “So, I was thinking about it and I got a call from the board chair of United Way, and they asked would I consider running the board of United Way, and I said I would.”
Van Dyke knew she had made the right decision after a friend reminded her of a conversation that had taken place several years earlier.
Van Dyke and several other female executives from the bank took “a girls weekend in Florida just to have fun.” One night they were sitting around a fire pit and this question came up: “If you could do anything, and money was not an object, what would it be?”
Van Dyke’s friend recalled their answers this way: “One woman wanted to travel. One wanted to buy homes. One wanted to buy an NBA team. Do you remember what you said?” she asked Van Dyke. “You said you would run a nonprofit.”
“I did? Well, then I’m doing the right thing,” Van Dyke responded.
“So far, so good.”