Lending a Personal Touch

This tiny credit union in central Vermont has lots of heart

by Julia Lynam

Granite Hills Credit Union If there’s one thing Susan Poczobut knows, it’s her customers. The CEO of Granite Hills Credit Union in Barre was born and raised in the town and has spent her entire work life there.

With so many financial institutions lining our Main Streets, offering similar products and services, it’s hard for any one to stand out. How does a small credit union carve its niche? Susan Poczobut, CEO of Granite Hills Credit Union in Barre, is convinced the personal touch makes the difference.

“Being a small credit union, we’re very community-oriented. With the evolution of the financial services, so large and impersonal, what really attracts people to a small institution such as ours is the fact that we know them personally,” she says. “I was born, raised and worked in Barre my entire life and I know pretty much everybody in town and their entire family tree.”

Granite Hills, with around 3,600 members and assets in excess of $27 million, is the 11th-largest credit union in the state. That ranking has fluctuated over the years as the credit union picture in Vermont has changed with closures and mergers.

“When I joined the industry 10 years ago,” Poczobut explains, “There were close to 50 credit unions in Vermont; now there are only 30. We’ve been in the top 10 for asset size for years, but we just dropped to 11 because two smaller ones merged.”

Granite Hills Credit Union is in its 56th year, tracing its origin to 1952, when National Life Insurance Co. in Montpelier set up the National Life Employees Credit Union to serve its employees. Poczobut joined in 1996 as manager and was soon named CEO.

Wanda Baril, executive assistant to the Green Mountain United Way in Berlin, was a member of the search committee that recruited Poczobut for National Life. “We’d asked each candidate to develop a plan for the future of the credit union,” Baril recalls, “and hers was very impressive.”

Once appointed to the position, Poczobut proceeded to implement that plan, says Baril, to great effect. “She had a lot of energy and seemed very anxious to bring her talents to the credit union. Her strength has always been in placing the community and the members of the credit union first, at a time when it’s not been easy for financial institutions.”

When Poczobut joined the credit union, National Life had recently downsized, and she was concerned about the reduction in the number of employees on the Montpelier campus, which meant fewer people for the credit union to serve.

Granite Hills Credit Union After moving to Barre and changing its name, Granite Hills grew by 36 percent in the first year. Kelly Knapp (left); Sandra Poczobut, Susan’s daughter-in-law; Blythe Giroux; and Amanda Mears are member service representatives.

After another downsizing in 1997, she convinced the board of directors that the credit union needed to expand its charter to be able to serve the community of Washington County. In December 1999, the Vermont Department of Banking granted that authority.

“Unfortunately,” continues Poczobut, “sitting up on the hill at National Life isn’t particularly convenient, so we weren’t seeing a lot of growth in the area of the community — we were sort of on an island up there.” In August 2001, the main office was moved to its current location on Barre’s North Main Street, leaving a small branch on campus at National Life.

The name change to Granite Hills took place in 2002. As well as celebrating Barre’s major product, the name harked back to an earlier chapter of Susan Poczobut’ s life.

“I’ve been in the banking industry for 34 years,” she explains, “and I didn’t find it, it found me. I was 17 years old, a senior, and I’d been recruited to work in the high school office. One day I was told that a representative of the Granite Bank was coming in and wanted to interview me for a position at the bank.”

She spent the next 24 years with the Granite Savings Bank & Trust Co., a family-owned business that has since become part of TD Banknorth. “I credit George Milne and other members of his family at the Granite Bank with allowing me the opportunities to learn this business as well as I did, and to prepare me for what was to come, which was this position,” she says.

“We generally went to the high school and asked for bright students,” says Milne, the former president of Granite Savings Bank. “At that time tellers did everything: open accounts, take loan applications, do the interest posting — almost everybody in the bank could do everything, and that was probably the basis for a good education. Susan was always very smart and focused; she followed through on things and had strong opinions.”

Working her way through the various departments, Poczobut soon found that lending was something she particularly enjoyed. “What I’ve found most satisfying in my career, even to this day,” she says, “is working with customers who were looking to purchase their first home. In the ’70s and ’80s, there was no such thing as a mortgage broker. Everybody came to a bank to buy their homes. Because the bank was small, it was an independent bank. We did everything there — take the application, process, underwrite and close the loan.

“I can’t think of anything more satisfying than being able to hand the keys of a new home to a young couple who had worked so hard to acquire what was going to be the biggest asset of their lives.”

The 2001 move to Barre and the subsequent name change proved fruitful. The newly named Granite Hills Credit Union grew by 36 percent within the first year and has grown by 45 percent since the move. A second charter extension in August 2002 contributed to that growth by allowing Granite Hills to extend its services to the population of Orange County.

Poczobut lives in Barre with her banker husband, Skip, less than a mile “as the crow flies” from where she grew up. They have two adult sons, one working in banking, and one as a Web designer. The Poczobuts have been married nearly 30 years, having met in 1976 at a banking class both of them had attended reluctantly.

Granite Hills Credit Union Granite Hills has around 3,600 members and assets in excess of $27 million, making it the 11thlargest credit union in the state. Being small means being flexible. Amy Brown (seated) is operations officer, and Robin Bergeron is an electronic services specialist.

Nowadays they attend many events together and separately: “Many of our activities are work-related,” she says. “It’s important, because doing what I do we need to be recognized. People are comfortable with that.”

Local newspaper and radio advertising also play large roles in Granite Hills’ community presence: “I actually record the ads,” says Poczobut. “It’s great fun — I’m on the air every morning and I get comments all the time.”

Poczobut meets and works with her credit union members in other areas of the community as well, through her membership of the Barre Rotary Club and her involvement with St. Monica Catholic Church, where she serves on the parish council and the finance committee.

Her devotion to her community doesn’t prevent her taking a wider view, and earlier this year she traveled to Peru with several other members of the Vermont Association of Credit Unions as part of a partnership designed to strengthen credit unions in both areas.

“It was an eye-opening trip,” says Poczobut, “We tried to identify why they weren’t seeing more growth and what they could do to better serve their members. One of the things we recognized was that in Peru the banks have deposit insurance but the credit unions do not. We identified a need to help them get that insurance so that they could be competitive with the banks.”

The competitive edge is something that Poczobut, too, is constantly pursuing: “Obviously we have something that the competitor doesn’t have. We have the same commodity as everyone else, but we’re able lend a little creativity.

“I’ve had folks who wanted to build a new home and couldn’t get construction financing come to us, and I’ve been able to be creative and actually gone out and done home inspections — climbed ladders, checked everything as it’s been going along — and been able to give them an affordable way to build a new home.

“We’re very accessible. People sometimes have a tough time understanding that things have changed a lot, so I always tell them, ‘At least you’ve got the ability to get to the top with us — try that with one of the larger banks in town, you’re probably not going to get to talk to the top person.”

Having a good track record is only part of the equation, says Poczobut. “You’re never finished. It’s an ever-changing industry,” she declares. “And yes, there are plans for growth, to insure that we will still be around 55 years from now.” •