Steve Dahlstrom, president and CEO of Spokane Teachers Credit Union, oversees a banking institution with 14 branches in Eastern Washington and North Idaho, 85,000 members and nearly 400 employees.
He knows his employees by name and often personally calls members to help them with banking problems.
In recent years, Dahlstrom’s soft-spoken leadership has garnered him best-boss honors, as well as best-place-to-work recognition for STCU, an institution that continues quiet but steady growth in the worst economy since the Great Depression.
Here’s an excerpt from a recent Wise Words interview with Dahlstrom, 57.
•I grew up in Missoula. My family was hard-working, blue-collar folks. My dad was a body and fender man. My mom was a stay-at-home mom who sewed draperies on the side. We always valued every dime we had, because we just didn’t have that much.
•The other thing that was a big part of childhood was that I got into Scouts. My mother was the den mother. Dad became the scoutmaster. I got my Eagle Scout. We were just 24 hours a day scouting, from the time I was a Cub Scout until I was 19 years old.
What do I still use from scouting? Do my 10 best? Do my duty? You just get ingrained with that.
•I graduated from high school in 1971. My draft number was 36. So I decided to go into the Navy.
I spent a couple of years in the Navy and that couple of years paid for three years of college. My parents couldn’t have paid. So I thank the Navy and the G.I. bill for paying for me.
•My main message to people trying to finance education? Don’t go into debt. You mortgage your future. I see so many kids graduate from college with $100,000 in debt. That’s a house.
I’m a big fan of working while you’re in school, getting scholarships and doing everything you can to pay for college.
•Members will ask me all the time: “How come the credit union didn’t get in trouble?” My answer is “Well, we made loans to people like you.”
And generally, 99.9 percent of people are good, honest, hard-working people, and they’re going to pay their loans.
•I had a member just the other day call and complain about losing her membership in the credit union, because she defaulted on a loan. We have a rule: Default on a loan and cause us a loss and you’re not a member anymore.
She wanted back in. She missed us. We said, “You realize you cost us some money.” She said, “You just wrote that off anyway.” We said, “Well, we don’t write things off. The money we lent you was your neighbor’s money.”
And that was like a big shock to her that, gosh, it was really someone’s money that she didn’t pay off.
•We have the most enormous thank-you culture in our credit union. We have all kinds of recognition programs.
Maybe 10 years ago, we adopted the fish philosophy. It’s based on Pike Place Market and what they do over there. The basic philosophy is you shouldn’t come to work unless you are going to have fun.
You need to choose your attitude when you come through the door. You need to make the day of the person you are helping
•On the way here, I was talking to a member on my cell phone. He wrote a letter, because we had a little disagreement about the loan. He got the loan, but he didn’t get it quite the way he wanted.
So I called him out of the blue. We’re talking and he says, “You know, I’ve been a member for 20 years, and I finally called Darla.” Well, that’s a person in our credit union. She’s our branch manager.
He didn’t care about the credit union. He cares about his relationship with Darla.
•We have many members in the credit union who are very comfortable in their retirement. I ask them, “How did you get comfortable in your retirement?”
Almost all of them say, “You know when I first started teaching they told me to put a little out of each paycheck away. It worked.” You don’t have to save a lot, but you have to save a long time.
•We used to joke a few years ago that a savings account was having money left on your credit card balance. That was your emergency fund. I think people are realizing it’s not such a good plan.
•What’s going to happen to our economy? It will get better than it is today. Spokane’s economy is somewhat related to the weather. Loans pick up in the spring. House-buying picks up in the spring. People buy new cars.
I don’t expect much to happen through January and February and maybe even March, and then we’ll see things start to get better.
•Five years from now, what financial wisdom do I think people will still be practicing? The price of your house and the price of stocks don’t always go up.
•We baby boomers are moving from “I need to accumulate everything” to “I need to save for retirement.” The bulk of us are reaching those years where are trying to pare things down, pay things off.
One of our newer products is a 10-year mortgage. People are saying, “I want to get this thing paid off before I retire.” That would have not been something we offered 10 years ago.
•I have a garage full of stuff I’d like to get rid of. I don’t need any more stuff. I told my daughter, “Look at all this stuff you’re going to get someday.” She said, “I really don’t want it all, Dad.”
•I serve on several nonprofit boards and right now, man, it is really tough for nonprofits. Now is the time when nonprofits serve a lot of needs in the community.
Our company tries to set an example by investing back in the community. I would encourage everybody during the holidays to find a way to support a nonprofit.
•People are experiencing financial problems who have never had a problem before, and they don’t know who to call or how to deal with it. They are embarrassed by it.
A little compassion helps us all get through this situation. I see lots of opportunity for people who are doing well.
•When we have our youth savings class, we go into a classroom and say, “We’d like to start a penny drive,” and kids find pennies. We give them a little savings jar and the savings jar has three slots on it. One is for spending, one is for saving and one is for giving.
We try to teach people that if you have a little bit to put it away, a little bit of that could go to someone else. That’s the way we ought to treat people in our economy right now.