Making Lives Better: Summit Award Winners Share A Deep Commitment to the Members They Serve

You can talk about how much they love their work. Or how proud they are of what they‘ve accomplished. You can even talk about innovation and their visions for the future. But spend five minutes with Rick Brandsma, Rick Hein, or Jill Nowacki and see if the conversation doesn’t somehow come back around to three simple words: making lives better.

Because for this year’s winners of the Northwest Credit Union Association’s Summit Awards, “People Helping People” is more than just a philosophy. It’s a way of life.

“I truly believe that credit unions are an important tool for eradicating poverty and helping individuals become financially empowered,” says Nowacki, the NWCUA’s Young Credit Union Professional of the Year. “I feel fortunate to work in an industry with so many opportunities to be of service.”

Making the most of those opportunities is what the Summit Awards are all about, honoring individuals who personify the credit union philosophy, who create innovative concepts and who have a lasting and significant impact on the credit union movement.

This year’s awards were presented at the NWCUA’s annual Amplify Convention in Portland, where Nowacki told conference-goers that the secret to achieving so much before the age of 35 was “just showing up.” But that’s not really what she meant.

“When I say ‘show up,’ this is what I mean: when you are at work, or volunteering, or parenting, be fully present in that moment,” she says. “Over my career, I’ve been warned about burnout and cautioned not to spread myself too thin. But it hasn’t been a problem for me, and I think that has to do with being fully present in the commitments I make.”

Those commitments include her work as vice president of development for Maps Credit Union, where she plays a role in marketing, strategic communications, human resources, community outreach and more. She’s also on the board of the Northwest Credit Union Foundation, and is what NWCUA President and CEO Troy Stang calls “an advocate to the core.” On Nowacki’s watch, Stang says, CULAC fundraising increased by more than 150 percent.

Still, Nowacki insists that she’s not unique. “Our industry is deep with young talent,” she says, “filled with professionals who want the chance to build careers that make a difference.” And credit unions would be wise to take advantage of that.

“Take the risk of promoting someone young. Make an appointment to your board of an enthusiastic up-and-comer. Consider sending tellers and other young employees to conferences or networking opportunities,” she says. “And then really listen to their ideas.”

Rick Hein, winner of the Summit Innovation and Impact Award, would certainly agree.

“Our future leaders are young people,” Hein says, “and we need to do everything possible to create opportunities for them to learn and grow.”

Hein has lived that philosophy both inside and outside of OSU Federal Credit Union, where he is president and CEO. He was honored at Amplify for his leadership on a variety of advocacy campaigns; his role on local, regional, and federal boards and committees; his involvement in his church and community; and for his commitment to innovative financial-literacy programs, including a mentoring program for 140 young adults.

But it’s the nature of those programs that really sets Hein apart, because it’s not only about financial literacy for him. Sometimes, he says, young people just need to be able to talk to someone.

“In today’s environment, there are a lot of distractions that try to take young people in the wrong direction,” Hein says. “Having a mentor, confidante, or friend to turn to for perspective or direction is so important at this critical time in their lives.”

Hein says the credit union movement is uniquely able to play the role of mentor because of its deeply rooted commitment to the values of integrity, passion, education, cooperative spirit and social responsibility.

“There are a multitude of pressures inviting us to take significant risks and stray from our values,” he says. “But I am very proud that OSU Federal has stayed relevant to our members and to our community.”

And he will continue to fight, he says, to make sure that doesn’t change.

Hein is a big supporter of CULAC and its role in making sure that lawmakers understand the structure, value and impact of credit unions. To encourage individual contributions to that cause, he created an innovative program that matches his team’s individual donations to CULAC with a company contribution to Credit Unions for Kids. It’s a win-win, he says, fulfilling both his passion to help children and his vow to protect the movement he loves.

“We were created by public policy, and we can be eliminated by public policy,” Hein says. “(Former Congressman) Dan Mica said, ‘If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.’ We need to be vigilant about telling our story to everyone, because if we don’t tell it, someone else will determine our future.”

Sound Credit Union’s future certainly looked bleak when Lifetime Achievement Award winner Rick Brandsma took the helm. The single-branch operation had fewer than 30 employees and its field of membership was shrinking fast as technological changes remade the telephone industry.

“So we started getting aggressive,” says Brandsma, Sound’s president and CEO. “We started pursuing mergers. We converted from a federal charter to a state charter. And we fought to grow our business.”

Today, Sound boasts 21 branches across the Puget Sound area, provides jobs for 233 employees and protects more than $1 billion in member assets. The credit union is so popular that its shared branching network now processes 63,000-75,000 transactions a month for members of other credit unions.

“It’s difficult at times to provide the best service you can and stay financially strong,” Brandsma says. “But we have walked that line successfully. Through 14 mergers and consistent growth, we have always provided good, high-quality service to our members. And while providing that service, Sound got real healthy.”

Brandsma also got real involved in the community. He chairs a local business-development council and the advisory board for the University of Washington Tacoma’s Milgard School of Business. He led the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber of Commerce, and was a director for the Tacoma City Ballet.

Now retirement looms. There’s a succession plan in place, Brandsma says, and he’ll “ride off on my horse” in March 2016. But he isn’t done yet.

Within the last three months, Sound purchased land for a new branch in Bothell and bought an existing building in Tumwater. A study presented to Sound’s board just this week suggested 15 possible new locations, and Brandsma says he will feel “real successful” if the credit union can open two new branches a year, starting in 2014.

Ask him what those branches will look like and he sounds almost giddy. Traditional branches will never completely go away, Brandsma says, but he’s excited about surrounding them with smaller, “touchy-feely” branches filled with the latest technology.

It’s an excitement about the future—and about credit unions—that all of this year’s Summit Award winners share.

“Putting my energy into what I am passionate about—and I am passionate about credit unions—is motivating,” Nowacki says. “I feel fortunate to be surrounded by people who give me the support it takes to grab opportunities, to try new things and, hopefully, to make an impact.”


Questions? Contact Gary Stein: 503.350.2216,

Posted in Awards.