“He gave me a chance.”
It’s what Nick Kessenich hopes members will say when asked about the impact he had on their financial lives.
It’s also what $28 million asset Members First Credit Union in Madison, Wis., would say if credit unions could talk.
For nearly 40 years, Kessenich led the credit union as it grew from an organization run out of a basement and a briefcase into a community-based credit union that serves more than 3,000 members.
“The credit union was my life. What I’m proud of the most is when somebody thanks me because no one else would give them a chance,” Kessenich says. “I gave them a chance, they took it, and they succeeded.”
A factory worker at Sub-Zero, Kessenich joined Sub-Zero Credit Union—which served members of the high-end appliance manufacturer—in November 1977 when he needed a $500 loan. Kessenich got the loan and in March 1981 became a board member.
When Dick Hurd, the credit union’s first president, passed away suddenly in December 1981, the board asked Kessenich to take over as president and run the credit union. He was soon running the credit union—which had 300 members and $180,000 in assets—in addition to his full-time factory job.
While some believed the credit union should merge, Kessenich decided to give it a try. He collaborated with local credit unions to address Sub-Zero’s needs, including working with another credit union’s computer system to replace the system of ledger cards and hand posting transactions and introducing share drafts and debit cards.
Kessenich also worked tirelessly to serve—and recruit—members, going in before his shift and staying past his shift to meet with members, write checks, and make loans. When he was offered a management position in 1987 that would have taken him off the factory floor, he declined.
“If I went off the floor away from the credit union members, I would not have access to these people in the way I wanted and needed to,” says Kessenich, who quit his job at Sub Zero in 1990 to run the credit union full-time.
Access also included serving members from his home at all hours of the day or going to their homes to conduct transactions.
His dedication paid off, and the credit union continued to grow through member recruitment efforts and a series of mergers. The credit union changed its name to Members First Credit Union in 1990 and eventually obtained a community charter to serve a larger membership base.
Kessenich retired in November 2020, but still volunteers at the credit union by making collections calls.
“Writing that resignation letter was the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” Kessenich says. “It took me a long time and there were a lot of tears, but it had to be done.”