For Polish-born Oskar Mielczarek, the new CEO of the 72,000 member, $1.4 billion Polish & Slavic Federal Credit Union, taking the helm at the CU means helping Polish & Slavic balance its traditional leadership and service role in the Polish-American community with the need to evolve into a 21st century financial institution.
It s a role for which he is uniquely suited, having been born in Warsaw but growing up in other European countries and receiving his education at leading European and North American universities. This, combined with experience at some of the largest banks both in the U.S. and overseas, meant that he comes to the institution both aware of its role in the Polish community and with a set of skills he believes the credit union can use.
“I have known the organization for a long time,” Mielczarek said in a phone interview, “but I hadn't been following it that closely and was amazed to see how greatly it had grown, $1.4 billion in assets, 72,000 members, a footprint in three states. In fact, I circumstantially came across the position through an ad in The New York Times.”
Mielczarek explained that PSFCU had a lot to attract him, including a platform built up serving Polish and Slavic-speaking people for years combined with a steady record of growth despite some of the leadership controversies that have marred the credit union in the past.
He also noted that his dual background as both a Pole and an immigrant gave him an affinity with the people the credit union had been founded in 1976 to serve, but he acknowledged that so much time spent outside Poland had left his Polish a little bit rusty even as he picked up English, Spanish and French.
“Polish was always spoken at home in the various countries my family lived. My mother taught me the language, although I never attended a Polish school. Unfortunately, although I'm an avid reader, I haven't read enough in Polish,” he explained. “It’s a very complicated language, and I sometimes make grammatical mistakes,” he added. But at that point PSFCU's spokesman, Marian Ponata, broke in to gently object: “His Polish is fine,” Ponata said. “He speaks Polish very well.”
Mielczarek credits the staff of the credit union for helping him get used to working at a not-for-profit financial institution as opposed to larger, for-profit banks.
“Our employees have a tremendous loyalty,” he said, “Just tremendous. Many of them treat the credit union almost like a second home. Some of them have worked at the credit union their entire time in America. You just don't see this type of dedication at other financial institutions.”
Mielczarek observed that loyalty played both directly and indirectly into what he called the CU's social mission, a term that he used to describe both the credit union's mission to help members meet their financial goals as well, as an institution, to have been philanthropic and economic leader in the Polish community.
In addition to helping members meet their financial goals, Mielczarek pointed out the credit union has led the way with a program of scholarships for students from Polish schools, health fairs where elderly and lower income people from the community can be vaccinated and screened for illnesses, as well as making donations and serving as a resource on a wide variety of community issues.
But as strong as this link to the Polish community has been and continues to be, he noted that it also presents challenges, primarily of geography and demography.
The geographic challenge has been to expand past the CU's original locations in New York and New Jersey and into other parts of the country that also have large Polish populations.
The CU made the first move in this direction by opening branches in Chicago, the home of the largest Polish-speaking population outside of Poland, a move Mielczarek described as “very successful” but which still leaves Polish communities in other parts of the country, particularly in Florida and Massachusetts, without a financial institution that understands their unique history and needs.
“Remember why this credit union was founded,” he remarked. “It was founded because the first members needed an institution that could let them borrow money to start businesses and buy homes in America. Many individuals with no credit history, no one willing to help them,” he said. “And they couldn't find it elsewhere, other than at Polish & Slavic. We were the only ones that gave them a break.”
The second challenge is demographic. Like many other credit unions, PSFCU has found it has an overall aging field of membership, but Mielczarek reported that the credit union faces the challenge of identifying with younger generations, second or third generations, who might still have pride in their Polish identity but not speak Polish as readily or feel as identified with the Polish community and the credit union.
Mielczarek reported that currently roughly 13,000 of the credit union's 72,000 members are under age 25, a number which he would like to see grow with the addition of new technologies.
“I don't think new technologies like new media or a applications for mobile phones would be nice for us to have,” Mielczarek said. “I think they are a must if we are going to keep on growing and serving new generations of members in the way they want to be served,” he added emphatically. But he is cautious too about making additions to the credit union too quickly.
“I am not in favor of change just for the sake of change,” he said. “Any change we make needs to be part of our strategic vision and plan for where we want the CU to go. We want to be innovative without forgetting the conservative evolution that has allowed us to succeed for the last 35 years,” he added.