Through a high school work-study program, Gail Lewis landed a job reconciling business accounts at a bank. She was just 16.
“I had a great supervisor who set many of the standards I hold today—mostly that a leader’s role is to grow and develop people,” she says. “He pushed you forward even when you didn’t believe in yourself or think you could do something.”
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That philosophy inspires Lewis in her role as director of consumer lending/credit manager at $440 million asset 121 Financial Credit Union in Jacksonville, Fla. She joined the credit union in 1983, first working as a loan officer and then as loan manager.
“The credit union was having a growth spurt at the time and has since doubled,” she says. “We have such a great team, from the CEO on down. It takes all of us to succeed. We have to have that vision and believe in it to make it happen. Anything I’ve achieved is entirely a team effort.”
Lewis’ primary roles are managing consumer and indirect lending (she has a great team of underwriters, she points out), and developing staff. “There’s never a boring moment. There’s always something new and different.”
Lewis challenges people to grow within their positions.
“Many people are satisfied in their positions but they can’t just be content,” she says. “They’re always learning—whether it’s serving new members with different situations, understanding the regulatory environment, or handling changing times or a shifting economy.”
The result is a stronger loan portfolio for the credit union.
Often on her own time, Lewis conducts financial education workshops at churches, schools, and other community venues—working much of the time with young people.
She serves as an adjunct instructor at Florida State College of Jacksonville, teaches financial counseling for the Credit Union Education Program, and participates on the education committee for the Northeast Florida Chapter of Credit Unions.
A local television news program recently recognized her on its “Above, Beyond, Because” segment for her work with youth.
“Credit unions are about the community. We say that and we back it up,” she says. “I love that credit unions stand for helping and caring about people. We help members position themselves financially. I can’t believe I get paid to go out and tell people how to get the best rates, raise their credit scores, and budget better.”
She volunteers at the Job Corps each month and is happy to hold workshops for any group that asks. “It’s awesome to see businesses in this day and time that genuinely care. That makes our credit union a hero.”
Lewis is proud of her relationship with staff and members. “We help people handle their money better, but you can’t do that through workshops alone. Members come into the branches and see other credit union employees afterward. Again, it’s a team effort.”
Members greatly appreciate the assistance. “It’s amazing,” she says. “I run into people and they tell me about their new house, for instance.”
After 32 years, Lewis plans to leave her position at the end of this year—but she won’t stop serving.
“I want to continue providing education and community service with the credit union,” she says. “It’s such a big part of what we do.”