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Spokane Federal Credit Union CEO Charlotte Nemec has taken an uncommon path to the top

Charlotte Nemec rose up the ranks from human resources specialist to CEO of Spokane Federal Credit Union. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Charlotte Nemec rose up the ranks from human resources specialist to CEO of Spokane Federal Credit Union. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

For Charlotte Nemec, overseeing Spokane Federal Credit Union isn’t just about managing day-to-day operations, it’s about building relationships with people.

“It’s the staff; it’s the members. One of the most fulfilling things is hearing a staff member say I just love working here,” the credit union’s CEO said.

When former Spokane Federal CEO Susan Blain announced her retirement last year, Nemec was selected to fill the role.

Nemec has been at the helm of Spokane Federal since June. She rose up the ranks from human resources specialist to overseeing the credit union, which has more than 47 employees, three branches and $154 million in assets.

Nemec, who calls SFCU “right-sized,” is spearheading the credit union’s expansion to Spokane Valley with a new branch that will open mid-2019 and aims to increase financial knowledge among community members.

Humble upbringing

Nemec grew up on a cattle ranch about 50 miles outside of Havre, Montana, where she learned the value of hard work.

“I don’t know too many 11-year-olds that have no problem waking up at 4 a.m. in the bitter cold, windy weather to go out and feed cows,” she said.

Nemec attended the University of Montana, and when her mother moved to Spokane, she transferred to Eastern Washington University and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in economics with emphasis in labor relations.

“For me, (economics) was like a puzzle, but I also loved people,” she said. “So, it married the people part of my brain with the number part of my brain. But, the people side was always a passion.”

Putting the pieces together

Nemec was able to apply her economics background at Ford Motor Credit Co., where she took a position as an auditor.

“It was a great opportunity for me. I was super-blessed to get that job,” she said. “I traveled all over the Pacific Northwest going to auto dealerships and doing wholesale audits.”

Nemec worked in the collections department at Ford Motor Credit before she was hired for a human resources position at Appleway Automotive Group.

“That was my first break into the HR world, and it was such as great experience. We had 350 employees at the time,” she said. “It was a big job to take on for your first human resources position.”

Nemec went on to work in human resources at the Credit Union Service Organization, where she was introduced to conflict resolution.

“It doesn’t come easy, as conflict is a really hard thing. Most of us try to avoid it, but in the HR world, you can’t avoid it. You have to face it head on and work through that problem,” she said. “It’s a great way to be introduced to supervision and leadership without actually sitting in the chair. You get a test run because you’re basically consulting with the leadership, but you don’t have to make the final choice.”

From HR to CEO

Nemec was hired as a human resources specialist for Spokane Federal in 1995. Although she enjoyed working in the field, she wanted to expand her horizons within the company.

“I knew I wanted to do more. I loved my HR world, but I knew I wanted to contribute and know the big picture of what it entailed to run the credit union,” she said. “I have a general curiosity and I love to learn.”

Nemec led Spokane Federal’s HR team for 10 years before being promoted to vice president of administration in 2004. She attended the Western CUNA Management School in California, a three-year program that teaches financial management skills.

Nemec said Blain is a mentor who provided opportunities to constantly learn about managing the credit union.

“I was constantly asking questions and constantly saying ‘give me more, I want to do more. I want to help you more. Teach me what you are doing,’ ” she said.

Nemec took notice of Blain’s approach to operating the credit union, which involved focusing on the experience of staff and members.

“I felt like if that could be my focus and that was the focus of the CEO job, I could do it well,” she said. “I love people. I love the staff. I love the members. I love thinking about what experience they are going to be walking away from at the end of their day because they are an employee, or their interaction because they are a member.”

Career challenges

There’s a misconception that CEOs don’t come out of human resources, and that has presented somewhat of a challenge, Nemec said.

Nemec recalls early on in her career an auditor with the National Credit Union Association questioned why the credit union would hire someone with a background in HR.

“I thought this is something I am going to continue to be faced with throughout my career … that HR hasn’t traditionally been the role that somebody that sits in the C-suite has played, unless you are the chief human resources officer. It typically doesn’t make the CEO level,” she said.

Another challenge is that while the credit union industry tends to have more women in leadership roles than larger banks, there’s still room for improvement.

“I think we do have to work harder to have a voice at the table,” she said. “Are we there yet? No, I don’t think we are, but I have to say it motivates me to educate myself more to be able to speak the language and know what I’m talking about.

“Because I am a woman, I have to make sure I keep educated, just so that others understand that I am capable. And I myself know that I’m capable. I have to have that self-confidence.”

Ask why

Nemec advises people seeking a leadership position or career in banking to ask themselves why the job appeals to them.

“For me, it’s people,” she said. “I feel good at the end of the day if I know our employees have walked out of here feeling like that was a tough day, but I am ready to go back and do it again because I love my work experience.”

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