Helen Estes

A Beloved Rule Bender Named ‘Rokmom’

‘Rocker at heart’ meets with almost all loan candidates face-to-face.

October 2, 2013

If you know only two things about Helen Estes, they’ll tell you a lot.

When we asked if she has any favorite rock stars, Estes, who will retire next year, immediately replied, “I’m a rocker at heart. My 36-year-old son was in a KISS tribute band and has played since he was 15. I’ve been a band mom since then, and knew all of the local groups. In fact, my email address is ‘rokmom.’ ”

Her daughter also looks up to her mother, finding inspiration and guidance in her own credit union career.

Another thing about Estes, loan officer at Old Dominion University Credit Union in Norfolk, Va., is that she detests credit scores. “I don’t believe in them. They don’t tell the story you need to hear. If you’re going to lend money to somebody questionable, why charge an outrageous rate just to foreclose on them a year earlier?”

Her lending decisions run the gamut, from $100 consumer loans to $1 million mortgages. She recently helped an overseas professor who had a $450,000 down payment on a $1 million mortgage but couldn’t get a secondary market-approved loan because he didn’t have a credit score.

“I gave him the loan,” she says, adding that everyone involved agreed the member was a good credit risk.

As a one-woman loan department, Helen is in a unique position to bend the rules to everybody’s benefit. “Old Dominion accepts that I’ve occasionally made a wrong call, but they support my approach.”

Her openness to borrowers’ stories doesn’t mean she never says no. “The first time I had to say no I was scared. It was difficult. I had to explain our policy and why this loan wouldn’t work. Many times when I say no it’s from a gut feeling.”

She can be strict. “Sometimes I’ll spend hours with a member, methodically contacting and paying off creditors. When we’re finished, I say, ‘This is the only time I’ll do this for you. If you go back to these lenders again, where will you get the money to pay them off?’ ”

Helen meets with almost all applicants face to face. “They have to sit down and talk to me. I know the people I lend to and I know their stories.”

If her answer is “no,” she’ll work with the member and explain the steps needed to make improvements before the credit union can offer services. “Sometimes they cry, and sometimes I cry right with them.”