Cheryl DeBoer has learned a lot during her 40-year career in the credit union industry. From serving as the first ever lobby hostess for a Family Service Center in Livonia, MI, to serving as CEO of Advia Credit Union ($2.7B, Kalamazoo, MI), her ;learn and do all you can mantra has helped her embrace change and push others to serve the industry.
Here, she shares some of her proudest moments and advice for others ahead of her planned retirement in early 2023.
When, and why, did you join the credit union movement?
Cheryl DeBoer: I was a senior in high school, and I needed a job. I met a young lady through my internship program who told me Family Service Centers in Livonia was hiring. I wasn’t old enough to be a teller, but they told me about a new position they were creating. Two weeks later, they called me back to be their first lobby hostess. I helped people with their paperwork and checked their IDs to make the line go faster. That was in 1979. Prior to that, I didn’t know what a credit union was. After I learned, I moved my account from the local bank to Dearborn FCU (DFCU).
What was your career path to CEO?
CD: In high school, I thought I wanted to become a police officer and ultimately a lawyer. But I really liked helping people at Family Service Centers. I became a teller before moving to the accounting department. Every company needs accounting people, so I moved down that path.
It took me eight years to earn my bachelor’s degree because I was a single parent. I kept moving up and served as manager of the ATM department for 10 years. I met a lot of credit union people during that time as I helped sign up and support new credit unions.
Unisys Credit Union offered me my next opportunity overseeing branch operations. I also pursued my master’s in business administration while I was there. It was then that I decided I wanted to be a CEO. I wanted to be the decision-maker and make a difference. I became the CEO at a very small credit union to get my feet wet and build the experience I needed working with the board. I also decided to pursue my law degree ‘ it was a busy time.
During my first 10 years as a CEO, I got my law degree, my daughter graduated from high school, and both my parents took turns getting sick, so I relocated for my current job at Advia Credit Union. It’s been fantastic. I’ve spent 18 years here, my longest tenure at any job.
What are some of your proudest accomplishments? For what would you like to be remembered?
CD: When I started here, Advia needed an operational leader. We needed to firm up the foundation for us to have a strong strategy moving forward. We fixed the structure, and I mentored some great people ‘ existing team members and new hires. Continuous education and growth is our philosophy at Advia, and we’ve learned together.
One gentleman I mentored became a CEO in Wisconsin and another is now an executive at a credit union in Illinois. I’m proud of developing people who have gone on to do great things in the industry.
Of course, I’m also very proud of what we do for our members. My first consolidation loan came from a credit union, and the representative told me, ;You better pay this back. She went out on a limb for me when I got divorced very young, and I coach members like that today to make sure they know we’re stepping out on a limb to help them. It’s a two-way street.
It’s been a great career. We’ve moved the credit union forward by embracing technology, branching out into new states, and serving new communities. And I’ve supported the credit union industry by hiking the hill, participating with the league and corporates, and fighting for positive credit union legislation.
How has the industry changed during your tenure? Where do you see it going?
CD: I’ve seen the industry move forward in the areas of automation and technology, but there is more work to be done. When I became CEO of Advia 18 years ago, there was no internet access at work. We’re getting better at embracing technology, but we’re only as good as the partners we have. As an industry, we need to keep pushing forward to reach out to younger generations in new ways.
Passion for our cooperative principles also has changed over the years. There are still some passionate leaders, but motivations for some are different today. It’s important for boards to choose not only qualified candidates but also leaders who believe in collaboration across the industry as well as within their organization.
Part of me is sad to leave as I know the industry’s challenges have increased, but I know there are passionate, collaborative leaders out there who are continuing to learn and move cooperatives forward.
What lessons would you share with other executives at various stages of their careers?
CD: Whenever I coach and mentor people, I tell them ;Learn everything you can, do everything you can.
I was never fixed in one area or another. If my manager asked if I could write procedures, I’d say yes and learn how to do it. I managed a potential merger partner for a year, and I was willing to do whatever they asked me to do because I knew I would learn from it.
The Exit Interview series features parting thoughts and wisdom from influential leaders in the credit union movement upon their retirement. Read the whole series on CreditUnions.com.
I also continued pursuing my external education. Sometimes people finish a degree and think their education is finished, but the longer you get away from that degree, the less relevant it becomes. For example, I took a computer class years ago and we used punch cards. As a leader, it’s critical to nurture a continuous learning environment and keep pace with changes in the industry and in the world. One of the first things we did at Advia was add tuition reimbursement to encourage continuous learning. Personally, I always wanted a challenge. I went to law school on weekends for three-and-a-half years of my life and worked during the week to pay for it.
What are your plans now? How will you start your retirement? What’s left on your bucket list?
CD: Travel! Working like I have, I’ve never had enough time for myself. I’m relatively newly married to a Canadian. My daughter lives in Iowa and his are in Canada, so we love to travel. We also bought a home in Florida and plan to enjoy some nice weather and spend time with our beloved dogs. Most of all, I’m looking forward to having time to myself to do all the things I never gave myself time to do while working ‘ while I’m in good health and can enjoy them.
What final advice or words of wisdom do you have for the industry?
CD: We must keep challenging the status quo. There’s so much that’s still outdated that needs to evolve. It’s a different competitive environment today, and you must know so much more as a leader. Part of me is sad to leave as I know the industry’s challenges have increased, but I know there are passionate, collaborative leaders out there who are continuing to learn and move cooperatives forward. That, along with how larger credit unions are embracing new technology, gives me hope for the industry’s future.
This interview has been edited and condensed.