Retiring Verity Credit Union CEO, John Zmolek, Reflects on his Credit Union Career

After more than three decades dedicated to the Credit Union Movement, Verity Credit Union President and CEO, John Zmolek, will retire next Wednesday, April 14.

Throughout his career, Zmolek was a passionate advocate for credit unions and staunch believer in the power they have to build up and support America’s communities. In March, NWCUA President and CEO, Troy Stang, and Kent Oram, President and CEO of Idaho Central Credit Union and NWCUA Board Chair, recognized Zmolek’s many contributions to the Credit Union Movement. Watch the special moment online.

Anthem recently caught up with Zmolek to reflect on his long career and find out what’s next for him and his family.

Anthem: Throughout your seven years as Verity’s CEO, what accomplishment are you most proud of?

Zmolek: Well, as CEO, I really wanted to do three things. One was to grow the credit union — Verity had been growing in assets but not in membership in over 20 years.

Second, I wanted Verity to be a more significant player in the community space. One thing we talked about early on, seven years ago, was that we wanted to be a credit union that neighborhoods come to knock on our door and say, “Would you build a branch in our neighborhood?” And that actually did happen! We had a community in the South Seattle area email us and say, “Our neighborhood wants a credit union. We only have banks here. Would you consider opening a branch here?”

I also wanted to create a more precise vision of who Verity is. We’re obviously a credit union, but why should consumers pick Verity over other financial institutions? We wanted to develop what we’ve started to call “socially responsible banking.” And, you know, defining what it means to be a socially responsible financial institution or credit union.

So, we were really focused on those three goals. And now, we’ve grown almost 10,000 members — we went from 27,000 to 37,000 — we’re better known for how we show up as a socially responsible credit union, and we’re definitely more well-known and active in the community.

Anthem: You’ve been in the credit union industry for a long time. What has inspired you most about the Movement?

Zmolek: One of the things that always inspired me is how credit unions are so willing to come together. Even though we may be competing with each other, I have rarely had a favor turned down. I think the Association has played a big part in bringing us together, but one of our secret powers is that we’re willing to show up, help one another, and make the Credit Union Movement stronger.

Another thing I take great pleasure in is seeing credit unions come up with more and more creative ideas on how to help our communities and our members. Over the last few years, they’ve really been stepping up. It’s not just building a Habitat for Humanity house, fundraising for a local organization, or donating to charity — we’re harnessing our strengths as financial institutions to find real solutions for community issues, such as affordable housing, and really driving change.

Anthem: You’ve mentioned before that you didn’t initially intend to spend your career with Verity. What made you stay for more than three decades?

Zmolek: I think for everyone who stays in a job for a long time, one of the answers has to be “having a good boss.” My predecessor, Bill Hayes, was a good boss, so that definitely played a role. Part of it was that he provided me with a lot of challenges. When I first joined the credit union, we were small enough that I had the opportunity to wear many hats. I started as Chief Financial Officer, then I worked in IT, at one point I became the Chief Lending Officer, and I was even in HR. Having all these opportunities and challenges was good for me.

Another important thing was the supportive atmosphere. I work with good people — it really feels like a family.

Anthem: You’re passionate about building up communities. What causes or organizations are nearest and dearest to your heart?

Zmolek: Several credit unions, led by Phil Jones at Harborstone Credit Union, came together to help a small non-depository CDFI called Business Impact Northwest. It does amazing work helping entrepreneurs and young businesses get the training they need, as well as the money they need, to fulfill their dreams and build their businesses. There’s a special emphasis on minorities, women, veterans, etc. I’ve just been so inspired by this. I’ve been on their Board and will continue serving on their Board after retirement because I think one of the crucial issues of the day is the wealth gap that we have here. Unless we get capital and give training to those who haven’t had access to it, the gap is just going to keep getting wider. I strongly believe in the work Business Impact Northwest is doing.

I also just joined the Board of an organization called Youth Care, whose target audience is homeless youth. Part of my passion for that comes from being a gay man — a high percentage of homeless youth are LGBTQSIA+ — and part of it comes from personal experience with homeless youth. It’s just hard to move forward when you don’t have a home. So, my husband and I built a 15-unit studio apartment building for the youth of Youth Care. They’re currently housing 13 young adults who are on the last step of their program before they go on to be independent. I feel really proud of that.

Anthem: Following such a long and successful career, what are you most looking forward to in retirement?

Zmolek: Of course, like most people entering retirement, I definitely want to travel more. But mostly, I’m looking forward to spending more time with family. Our three grandchildren live in Germany, so the traveling and family time are going to go hand in hand. As soon as the pandemic restrictions lift, we will be in Europe two to three months a year.

I’m also really looking forward to cooking more elaborate meals. You know, all those recipes that say, “marinate for 24 hours,” and you think, “No, I’m eating in one hour. I’m never going to make that.” And just having that freedom of, “Oh, what am I going to make today? Let’s try this recipe — oh, it takes two days to put that together? Well, I have the time!” In some ways, cooking is my creative outlet.

Also, no alarm clock — I’m really looking forward to that.

Anthem: Tell us about your famous paella dinners that get big bids at the Credit Unions for Kids Auction at MAXX every year. Why paella? What ignited your passion for cooking?

Zmolek: So there’s two stories here. When I was 21, I hiked the Appalachian trail. So it was five months of camping, and freeze-dried food wasn’t that good back in 1976 — it’s definitely evolved since then. So after five months, I went back home and said to my mom, “You got to teach me how to cook and bake.” So, that’s what started me off — bad food. Fast forward five or six years, my husband and I quit our jobs and went to Madrid for six months. We had a very memorable evening that ended with paella on the Mediterranean. When we were leaving Spain, I decided my souvenir would be learning to make paella. So I bought a paella pan from Spain, brought it home, and that sort of started my journey.

I love the creativity of cooking, but equally as important is how food has the power to bring people together. It really helps build that sense of community. I’ve lost count of how many paella dinners I’ve offered at auctions over the years.

Read more about Zmolek’s many accomplishments and service to the credit union industry here.

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Posted in Leadership.