Olan Jones: Born, Educated and Locally Grounded

Each year end brings the retirement of credit union leaders who have served a generation or more expanding the cooperative legacy. One such exit at Eastman Credit Union in Kingsport, TN is especially noteworthy.

Olan Jones is leaving an institution he guided for over 20 years. Today it is $5 billion in assets versus $600 million when he arrived. Its 820 employees serve 230,000 members at 30 employer and branch locations throughout the country.

 A Person of Purpose

The first two decades of Olan’s professional career were with Eastman Kodak and Eastman Chemical in corporate finance and human relations. Then came the switch to cooperatives.

While it would be important to single out the over 20 years of Eastman Credit Union’s sustained financial performance as CEO, what makes Olan’s contribution so special is his leadership qualities.

Even with 20 years in the corporate for-profit world, Olan believed in the unique contribution of the cooperative model. In our conversations he was curious about all things credit union. His final question in a call to me would be, who else might he ask about a topic such as “Are any credit unions actually utilizing big data analytics to improve their core understanding of their firm and make better decisions”?

“To Thine Own Self Be True”

In all my interactions, Olan’s “southern gentleman’s” personality was prominent. He was always courteous, calm and thoughtful. He welcomed all comers and made people feel at ease. No air of authority, but rather someone you want to have lunch with.

Olan calls it a “Southern Appalachian” manner. Born in Kingsport, TN, he is a life-long, all-in participant in numerous community educational institutions, economic development efforts, theatrical groups, and church and professional organizations in the east Tennessee and southwest Virginia regions of his FOM.

He always saw his responsibilities as much more encompassing than leading the credit union. One initiative he undertook was to deploy a community WiFi network in downtown Kingsport in the early era of the Internet revolution. Ultimately this community effort was ended when WiFi became ubiquitous.

He was active in many Tri-Cities community leadership roles and in financing public development projects. In the credit unions system, he served in volunteer roles with Filene, CUNA, NASCUS and the Tennessee League, to name a few. He also served on the Thrift Institution Advisory Council of the Federal Reserve Board.

A Manager’s Manager: A Service Culture

His combination of human resource and financial background propelled a multifaceted approach to organizational change that resulted in an 800% asset growth during his two-decade tenure.

He was an advocate for quality improvement processes (Deming) and project management. He sought 5-10% annual growth in the field of membership (FOM) as the area’s population was declining at 0.5% per year and the economy growing at only 1%. The company sponsor since 1936, was downsizing employment. By adding groups and counties to its field and becoming a one-stop shop, the credit union enjoyed strong annual earnings with double digit balance sheet growth during his stewardship.

He believed that empathy was key to effective customer service, not just great products. Creating a service culture, he realized, takes time and continual measurement. Once implemented, the credit union has achieved a net promoter score of 81-87% for over ten years. Better service creates better financial results was his operating logic.

He believed so strongly that lending was the critical credit union role that he once appeared at a staff meeting in a “Hair on Fire” wig to stress this urgency. Since the 1990s, the credit union was a pioneer in a non-government guaranteed, private student loans. He refocused lending on middle-class blue-collar members, not just higher paid senior executives. He introduced business lending and financing municipal development projects resulting in a $350 million portfolio.

The credit union shared its success with its member-borrowers by paying out $130M rebates over a 20-year period. Some business clients were so surprised with annual interest checks in the tens of thousands of dollars that they sent them back thinking there had been an error.

His Credit Union Spirit

Having lived in the corporate world of quarterly earnings-per-share expectations, Olan believes that serving members, not maximizing profits, is what undergirds credit union success. ECU found that the higher the annual member service rating, the stronger the financial performance. To everyone’s surprise, almost everything else that matters to financial performance got better as well.

He preached that ECU’s strategy of “maximizing service to members” both differentiates and gives the credit union a huge competitive advantage.

The smartest investment he made was in the credit union’s hiring and training program to maximize this service quality focus. He wanted to keep goals clear, simple and understandable. An employee bonus program of up to 20% of salary, is based 50% on loan performance and 50% annual member satisfaction rating.

Service quality excellence was recognized in the staff bonus combined to create the organization’s decades-long superior outcomes.

The yearly bonus dividend paid out more to members than the credit union would have paid should it have been subject to federal and state taxes. Instead these funds were reinvested immediately to enhance member’s lives and their communities.

Not Changing of the Guard, but Drawing from a Pipeline

Credit unions are unique in their ability to capitalize on local relationships. Olan’s leadership accomplishments stem from his deep, caring loyalty for his people, his community and his region.

His successor, Kelly Price, is from the credit union’s executive ranks. Just as Olan himself sprang from the local environment.

On October 14, 2019, Olan’s singular contributions to east Tennessee were recognized by the Speaker of the Tennessee House of Representatives in a formal proclamation reciting his lifetime of service to his home region.

For those who have not had the experience of meeting Olan, this video for his work with Junior Achievement will give you a first-hand picture of his personality.