For New Verity CEO John Zmolek, the Future is about ‘Enhancing Members’ Lives’

John Zmolek will always remember the day in 1989 when he returned from lunch to learn that his job at the Federal Home Loan Bank (FHLB) in Seattle was gone.

Zmolek, who had joined the bank six years earlier as an economist, had moved to a team called Mergers and Acquisitions when the savings-and-loan crisis began to heat up; there, he helped to manage troubled institutions and implement innovative solutions in order to reduce risks to the Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corporation (FSLIC), which was administered by the FHLB.

But on that day in 1989, he returned from lunch and listened to the radio as President Bush abolished the FSLIC and transferred the responsibility for savings-and-loan deposit insurance to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation.

“I quickly realized that the President had taken away my job,” Zmolek says, “although the FHLB kept me on as an interest-rate risk consultant to their member institutions. A year later, I began with NW Federal Credit Union (now Verity).”

And the rest, as they say, is history.

On Jan. 1, Zmolek will become president and CEO of Verity Credit Union in Seattle after being unanimously selected by Verity’s board of directors. He replaces William Hayes, who is retiring after 34 years with the credit union.

When he was named president and CEO, Zmolek talked about continuing “Verity’s mission of enhancing members’ lives.” Anthem asked him to expand on that idea, to reflect for a moment on his tenure, and to tell us what he sees in the credit union’s future.

“One of Verity’s core values is that ‘our success flows from our focus on our members.’ It does not say ‘we focus on the bottom line.’”John Zmolek, who becomes president and CEO of Verity Credit Union on Jan. 1.

Q: Your first job was with Pacific Gas & Electric in San Francisco, where you provided evidence to support various rate proposals submitted to the Public Utilities Commission. Then it was on to the FHLB, until that fateful day in 1989. What happened next?

A: I was hired on in 1990 at NWFCU (Verity) as the CFO. I also had executive responsibility for IT. I have led two core conversions during my time at Verity. During my tenure here (Zmolek currently is Verity’s executive vice president), I have led human resources, internal auditing, investment services and strategic planning.

About four years ago, I transitioned to the chief lending officer role. Since I began as CLO, our mortgage CUSO, CU Home Mortgage Solutions, has grown from three partners — including Verity — to 14 partner credit unions.

Q: What are your passions outside the office?

A: I love to cook, especially for friends and guests. My specialty is paella. I can’t seem to resist non-profit board work. At any one time, I’m on one or more boards. Currently, I am a trustee for the Bright Water Waldorf School in Seattle. And I like anything that gets me outside — hiking, biking, kayaking.

I wish I was fluent in Spanish and piano. Though I am not, I continue to keep at it.

Q: What first attracted you to credit unions, and what is it about the movement that most inspires you?

A: While at the FHLB, I worked with John Taylor, an economist at the Department of Housing and Urban Development. One day, he called me up and said, “I am the chair of NW Federal Credit Union. I want an economist on our Finance Committee. Would you be interested in being on the board?” I said sure, hung up the phone and walked down to the Federal Building to join. I didn’t realize it then, but it proved to be one of the most important calls I have received in my life.

There are two major things that inspire me. First, one of Verity’s core values is that “our success flows from our focus on our members.” It does not say “we focus on the bottom line.” This focus on how to improve our members’ lives through financial services is very rewarding. And second, the way the industry works together to achieve our common goals is very satisfying. 

Q: When you were named CEO, you talked about Verity’s mission to “enhance members’ lives.” What kinds of things can a financial institution do to achieve that goal?

A: First and foremost, we acknowledge and respect our members. Treat them as the owners that they are. Second, we listen to them so that we are providing them solutions, not selling them products. Finally, we need to spill out of our branch doors. Verity Credit Union has a lot to offer the communities where we do business. If we build stronger communities, it will enhance our members’ lives.

Q: What are your priorities as CEO? What do you tackle first in 2014?

A: Through the recession, we focused a lot on preserving our financial strength. Now, we can focus on growing. In 2014, that means growing membership and loans. We have had a lot of success growing our loan portfolio in the second half of 2013, so we plan on continuing with that. Verity’s membership growth has been stagnant for many years (though we did see some growth in 2013). Making sure that we begin growing in members will be of utmost importance in 2014 and beyond. We believe building a true sales culture will help us in that quest.

Q: Describe the Verity of the future — where do you hope to take the credit union? What roadblocks stand in the way?

A: I am fortunate to be inheriting a strong and vibrant credit union. We have a strong and dedicated staff, and our finances are solid. We have embarked on a journey to develop a sales culture. As members’ habits change — as they do more and more of their financial transactions remotely — we have to make sure each encounter matters. Providing great service is the starting place, but engaging our members so that we can provide them with solutions is where we want to go.

Verity will also be more of an integral part of the communities we serve. The business community and the nonprofits will look to Verity for leadership and support in building a stronger community.

Both of these goals are a cultural shift for Verity. It will require the willingness to try new things, learn how they work or don’t work, and try again.

Q: Let’s go years into the future and look back on your tenure as CEO. What do you want your legacy to be?

A: I want Verity to have grown members by at least 5 percent each and every year. That would be a sign that Verity did a good job of focusing on the members.

Verity has been on “Best Places to Work” lists for several years. I want that to continue. If the employees think Verity is a great place to work, then we are most of the way to convincing potential members that Verity is a great place to belong.

And finally, I hope communities will have invited Verity to open up in their area because we are fantastic neighbors.

 

Questions? Contact Gary Stein: 503.350.2216, gstein@nwcua.org.

Posted in Federal.