Tongass Federal Credit Union President/CEO Helen Mickel

Q&A with Helen Mickel

Tongass Federal Credit Union, Ketchikan, Alaska.

May 27, 2022

There are no roads connecting the small towns and villages of Southeast Alaska. Tongass Federal Credit Union in Ketchikan, Alaska, tackled this challenge by expanding into several remote communities with five branches, four community microsites, and 19 ATMs. Helen Mickel, president/CEO at the $133 million asset credit union, explains Tongass Federal’s unique circumstances and how it serves members in traditional banking deserts.

Credit Union Magazine: Tell us about your role at Tongass Federal.

Helen Mickel: I’ve been at the credit union for almost 19 years, and I’ve been the CEO since 2015. I started in commercial banking and a job came open at just the right time to be the loan manager. I love caring about our communities in meaningful ways.

Ketchikan is located on an island with 14,000 people and seven financial institutions. When I came to work at the credit union, that’s the only place we were located. 

Q: How did you expand?

A: When Wells Fargo left Metlakatla, the Native leaders asked us to open a branch. We went there periodically over the summer, opened accounts, and realized it would work. We ran out of the Wells Fargo building for a few years and then built a branch. 

A year later, Thorne Bay, a logging town with about 500 people, wanted a branch. One of the business owners said, “I have a sporting goods store in the basement of my house. You could open there.” So, we opened in the sporting goods store. We kept our cash in the gun safe and started doing transactions for a community that never had financial services before. We’ve since moved out of the sporting goods store and share an office in the city building.  

Q: When did you start looking for more sites? 

A: I thought, just because people haven’t asked doesn’t mean they don’t need a branch. We only look at locations where there are no credit union services.

I started thinking about these tiny communities where accessing financial services requires a round-trip seaplane. So we looked into community microsites. 

I went to each community and said, “We want to serve your community, but we need free space to offer services.” I was overwhelmed by the support, primarily from local Native organizations. 

In September 2019, we opened in an office at the school in Hydaburg with an ATM and one employee. In December 2019, the Kake Tribal Corporation provided an office, so now we have a microsite on Kupreanof Island.

The executive director of the Hoonah Indian Association showed me their canoe shed and asked, “Do you want to move in here?” They did all the remodeling, and in June 2020 we began offering services out of the canoe shed.

We serve coastal and Indigenous communities that don’t have financial services. It’s been a great ride.

Q: How do you attract and retain staff for your smaller sites?

A: I don’t have any magic sauce for that. We’ve been fortunate to find people. If I could figure out how to make them full-time, it would be even better.

I would like to operate as Contract Postal Units in these communities. We’d provide credit union services that lift people up, while also providing postal services.

Q: What unique loans do you offer?

A: Because Metlakatla is a Native Indian reserve, people are not required to file taxes on their fishing income. So, we will accept fish tickets as proof of income to qualify members for loans on commercial fishing vessels.

Every credit union should have a credit-builder loan. We lend members $500 and put it in a savings account as collateral. Members make payments for six months and build up their credit score. We release the $500 after the loan is paid.

We’re doing well by doing good. We’ve changed peoples’ lives.

This article appeared in the Summer 2022 issue of Credit Union Magazine. Subscribe here.