More than 30 years ago, when credit unions were a dramatically different industry, Michael Poulos was working as an account supervisor at a post office in Syracuse, NY. One day, his boss asked him to manage their credit union.
“I said, ‘What’s a credit union? What do I have to do?” Poulos recalls. “It was six doors down the hall, but I’d never been in there.”
At the time, Poulos was told his role would consist mainly of signing checks and going to the quarterly dinner. Eighteen months into the role, Poulos says he realized running a credit union gave him the opportunity to improve people’s lives.
So, he moved on to take the CEO job at what was then Utica Teachers Credit Union — now First Source FCU ($853.2M, New Hartford, NY). After eight years it was off to Michigan First Credit Union ($1.5B, Lathrup Village, MI) where Poulos has just retired after 22 years at the helm of the suburban Detroit cooperative.
Poulos took time during his last day on the job — Oct. 14, 2022 — to reflect on his career and offer insights for the latest installment of the Exit Interview series on CreditUnions.com.
Describe your career path to CEO. How do you feel today?
Michael Poulos: Well, that’s all I’ve been since I’ve been in the credit union business. Especially at smaller credit unions, you have to know how to do everything, so I learned a lot along the way. It’s a bittersweet day for me, but, honestly, it’s been a delightful journey.
What are some of your proudest accomplishments?
MP: First, the culture we built here. There was a time when our member service culture wasn’t that strong, but we rebuilt everything. Our highest value at Michigan First is that we’re human beings serving fellow human beings. We have an organization that has been transformed to believe that and practice that, and that’s what I’m most proud of here.
What one thing did you do most right during your CEO tenure?
MP: Hiring the right people. If I could package how to do that into a neat and easy formula, I’d be on to something. I can tell you it begins with being clear about your values and finding people who align with those values. It’s much like the guy who wrote “Good to Great” explains: You find the people with the right values and the right skill sets, and you don’t have to do a lot of training.
“We built something that makes a difference in people’s lives, that has an impact, and we have a team that has the desire to carry that on. It doesn’t get better than that.”
What one thing might you have done wrong? What did you learn from it?
MP: I’d say those moments in time when I was less patient than I should have been while we were going through transformational change. When you believe something, when you know it so well in your own mind, it’s easy to expect others will embrace it immediately, too. There were some frustrating moments where things didn’t move as fast as I would have liked.
How has the industry changed during your tenure? How has your credit union responded?
MP: There were about 24,000 credit unions in America when I started. Now there’s, what, about 5,000? There’s long been a divide between those who are willing to compete, innovate, and expand and those who aren’t, and it just keeps getting wider as our numbers become fewer.
At Michigan First, we’ve been on the right side of the divide for a long time, doing things that other credit unions weren’t doing then and a lot of things that most still aren’t doing now. For example, our ATMs have accepted cash and checks directly, without deposit envelopes, since 2004. And all our ATMs are stocked with $1, $5, $20, and $50 bills.
CU QUICK FACTS
Michigan First Credit Union
DATA AS OF 06.30.22
HQ: Lathrup Village, MI
ROA 1.1 %
NET WORTH 0.1 %
There’s more that sets us apart. We have a 24-hour call center at our main building. We never close. You can get a check notarized or a new debit card there anytime. There are eight ATMs and two coin machines there. The coin machines have always allowed you to deposit the cash directly into your account, without messing with a paper receipt. Those are just a few things that help create an impactful member experience.
What is the biggest lesson you would like to share with other credit union executives who find themselves moving into the CEO role?
MP: Your relationship with your board members is probably the most important relationship of all. They have to be aligned with your vision, and it’s really important they support you. I’ve been blessed and fortunate to have board members that have done that for my entire 22 years here.
What are your plans now?
MP: My wife and I are moving to Lynchburg, VA. That’s where she grew up, and she still has a lot of family there. We have three grown children — in California, Pennsylvania, and Michigan — and my wife has three grown children in Virginia. Between us, we have seven grandchildren. Being a credit union CEO means you’re never off the job. Now I’m looking forward to a little peace and quiet, at least for a while.
For what would you like to be remembered?
MP: We’ve built an extraordinarily talented and committed leadership team that is both broad and deep. Our new CEO is Jennifer Borowy, whom we brought up from Ohio about four years ago. She was our chief member experience officer and then our COO and I know she’s going to be outstanding in her new role.
We’ve built a culture that’s focused on member service. We built something that makes a difference in people’s lives, that has an impact, and we have a team that has the desire to carry that on. It doesn’t get better than that.
This interview has been edited and condensed.