Under the leadership of Kim Sponem, Summit Credit Union has increased its assets 17-fold, from $200 million to $3.5 billion, and expanded from four branches to 39.
Now the state’s second-largest credit union with 191,000 members and 635 employees, Summit recently completed a $50 million headquarters in Cottage Grove that houses about 250 employees — with room for another 150 — as well as amenities like a cafeteria, meditation room, gym and volleyball court, as well as a full-service “Inspiration Branch” — with walk-through scenes like a cabin, RV and home construction site designed to inspire members to set financial goals.
Sponem, 52, grew up in Madison and graduated from La Follette High School, UW-Madison and Edgewood College, where she earned a master’s in business administration. Her first job out of college was with the Credit Union Executives Society.
Sponem joined Summit in 1995 after several years with State Capitol Employees Credit Union and was promoted to CEO in 2002.
What’s the idea behind the ‘Inspiration Branch’?
I was trying to figure out a way to ... inspire people in a visual way to think about their goals and dreams and aspirations. When we’re kids … we think about our future and what we want — what we want to be when we grow up, what our house might look like.
When we’re adults, we get kind of caught up in everyday life. And many of us don’t pause to think about, “oh yeah, I always wanted to take a trip to Europe” or “I always wanted that.”
It’s in the back of their mind somewhere, but they’re not doing anything to make that happen.
So what were your goals and dreams?
In seventh or eighth grade, somewhere in there. I wrote out a (list). There were 21 goals on the list. One of them was that I wanted to run a company. I actually thought I’d start my own company versus run a financial institution.
I remember telling my dad that I was going to have this house in the country, with horses in the pasture, and a swimming pool that I could go from the inside to the outside and back and forth. I remember him kind of shaking his head. “Oh, that’s interesting.” I have none of that.
So you had dreams of starting your own business, but you’ve spent your career in credit unions. What drew you to this industry?
What drew me initially was that there was a job open in marketing. So it wasn’t overly thought out from that perspective.
But what kept me in the business is our ability to help people in a real way. Being an organization with a cooperative structure, we can do things for people that for-profit entities might not do. I feel like we make a real difference in people’s lives. We’ve chosen to do that through connecting people with what they want out of life, and also combining that with financial education and wellness, and really looking at people from … a holistic perspective.
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How do you combine financial goals with overall well being?
There’s countless stories about this. But one of my favorite stories is this woman (in one of Summit’s financial education programs).
She had two full-time jobs to make ends meet, and her son was in middle school ... and he played a lot of football. And she wasn’t able to make very many of his games, because she works full time. So they started working with the Project Money coach, and through that process she was able to find enough savings in her spending, and also gain enough confidence to determine which job is really your career, where do you want to put your efforts and gain enough confidence to ask for a raise. She was able to quit her second full-time job, which was a complete game-changer for her and her son. It really impacted both of their lives and a very significant way.
Summit’s business model focuses on women. Why is that?
We found that women were often ignored in the financial services world. Women tend to have higher expenses … they tend to be primary caregivers … they tend to make less, as we know. They live longer. They’re more likely to end up in poverty and older age. So women need to be really good stewards of money.
Because they are member-owned, credit unions don’t pay income taxes. How do you respond to criticism that this gives them an unfair advantage over traditional banks?
I would put our financial wellness programs up against any other financial institution in our markets. We are the leader of financial education, we have three high school branches, soon to have a fourth. And we’re keeping prices down. We charge less fees. Last year we gave back $2.8 million. In a bank that would go to their stockholders, right? In a credit union, it goes to the members.
How do you approach personal growth after nearly two decades in the same job?
Since I’m not an entrepreneur, I try to challenge myself in different ways. You know, taking myself out of my comfort zone.
I tried a fiction writing class once. And that was interesting because I had never written anything fiction before. And I thought, oh, I’ll try that. It was an evening type of class, and we wrote a story and we’d have to read different sections of it out loud to the class, and then class members ... would give you feedback on your story.
This class was uncomfortable for me the entire time. This was just such a blow to the ego. I’ve been a CEO for 17 years. And so when you’re in a career that long, you’re pretty good at it. You’re not used to people telling you you’re not good at it.
It was a good reminder to be mindful of how you give feedback. Also, be mindful that when people in your organization are trying something new and different that you need to think about that in a different way. And, and just be mindful that it’s uncomfortable for them. And it’s not easy.
What advice would you give a young professional who aspires to a leadership position like yours?
Connect with people. Develop relationships, and take on things without being asked. A lot of times, people think, ‘I can’t just go over there and do that,’ even though I might see that it needs fixing. You’ve just got to do it. And you don’t need to ask for permission on everything.