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<p>TAMPA, Fla. – It’s hard for Wendell “Bucky” Sebastian to imagine how different his life would have been if he had stayed at the seminary he attended from 1958-1966 and became a priest, as he originally planned. For one thing, Sebastian would never have worked with Ed Callahan at the Illinois Department of Financial Institutions. He also probably wouldn’t have crossed paths with Chip Filson, and together the three wouldn’t have formed Callahan & Associates. And for certain Sebastian wouldn’t have helped navigate GTE FCU into the billion-dollar credit union waters it now plays in. “I feel very blessed,” says Sebastian. But Sebastian didn’t stay at the seminary. “I decided I was not cut out to be a priest,” he said. Instead, he set his sights on becoming a lawyer, attended law school at Loyola University, and worked as a Cook County Public Defender for about a year. From thereon in, the positions and places he worked at over the next several years put Sebastian in the company of people who would not only shape his career, but also help mold his attitude towards credit unions. In the early 1970s, when Mike Howlett was elected secretary of state for Illinois, Sebastian became his executive assistant. Meanwhile, a fellow named Ed Callahan was working as the superintendent of the Rockford Catholic School System and principle of Boylan Central Catholic School. During Howlett’s term in office, he recruited Callahan away from his educational positions “with the Bishop’s blessing,” said Sebastian, and Callahan became Howlett’s deputy secretary of state. That was the start of Sebastian’s friendship with Callahan. A few years later, Jim Thompson beat out Howlett for the governor’s seat, and Callahan was recommended for a cabinet position in the Department of Financial Institutions. Sebastian, meanwhile, became general counsel for the Illinois DFI. “The first thing Ed had to do was appoint a supervisor of credit unions,” said Sebastian. That person turned out to be Chip Filson. It was while Sebastian worked for the Department of Financial Institutions that he met his first credit union person – Gene Artemenko, who at the time was president of United Airlines Employees’ CU and chairman of the advisory board to the Illinois DFI Credit Union Division. It was the start of Sebastian’s love affair with credit unions. The trio – Sebastian, Callahan and Filson – stayed at the DFI through most of 1981 when Callahan was appointed chairman of NCUA. Filson and Sebastian went with him, the former as chief director of the office of examination and insurance; president of the CLF, and president of the NCUSIF. Sebastian was named executive director and general counsel for NCUA. Thinking back on the four years he worked at the agency, Sebastian said he considered himself to be “one of the luckiest people in the world to be working at the NCUA then.” He characterized the 1980s as “an era of financial services deregulation,” and that made NCUA “one of most exciting places to be at the time.” Sebastian and Filson both left NCUA in 1985 and opened the doors to Callahan & Associates that April. Callahan joined them shortly afterwards, and left two years later to become president/CEO of Patelco CU, In 1989, Sebastian left for his first tour of duty as president/CEO of GTE FCU. Seven years later, Callahan & Associates asked him to return to “reinvigorate” the Trust for Credit Unions, the first and largest mutual fund portfolio by and for CUs. By 1998, Sebastian said he had “done what I could do,” and he returned Tampa to re-head up GTE FCU. To say that GTE FCU has come a long way from when Sebastian first took over the helm is an understatement. He recalled that in 1989, the credit union had $160 million in assets, 40,000 members, and its loan-to-share ratio was 50%. It was the 165th largest CU at the time. It needed a shot in the arm. Today, GTE FCU has 131,000 members, and its loan-to-share ratio is almost 90%. Sebastian credits GTE FCU’s aggressive strategy it’s taken in adding select employee groups, branching, deploying innovative technology-it was the first CU in Florida to offer share drafts and Web bill pay-and lending programs for the credit union’s growth to its current $1 billion in assets seat. “We’ll be out there evaluating and being the forerunner for anything in the future that can be beneficial to our members and to the credit union’s growth,” he said. That includes continued branching. The credit union plans to add one more branch in its existing market – it has six already besides its headquarters – and an additional one outside its market – it currently has 16. Sebastian said he doesn’t believe in micromanagement. “My philosophy is you hire very good people and let them do what you hired them for. Don’t look over their shoulder.” With 400 employees working at GTE FCU, it would be difficult to micromanage them even if Sebastian wanted to. It may sound corny, he says, but “Our greatest strength is our people.” For example, he calls the GTE FCU’s Senior Vice President of Operations Suzanne Wilson “a miracle worker.” More than 50% of the staff report to her directly or indirectly, which is no small feat considering the number of branches the credit union has. GTE FCU’s Board feels similarly about micromanagement, says Sebastian. “They give us direction and input, they set policy and consult with the management team, then they let us do our own thing,” he said. Micromanagement – or more accurately, the lack of it – is what distinguishes high performing credit unions from those that aren’t, says Sebastian. That’s not to say Sebastian doesn’t consider it important for him to know what his staff is working on. Every Monday morning, he holds a senior management team meeting to discuss what everyone’s working on, the status of projects, suggestions and any problems facing the CU. “I think of myself as an orchestra leader. We have a fabulous first violinist, horn and string section. My job is to make them all play well together. But I didn’t write the music, and I don’t play an instrument,” said Sebastian. Being the CEO of a $1 billion credit union, Sebastian said he’s heard all the talk and arguments about small credit unions being called the backbone of the credit union movement. “I get my Irish up whenever I hear that,” he says unabashingly. “To put small credit union on pedestals is nonsense.” “The reason why we’re a $1 billion credit union is because we’re giving our members what they want, and we’re doing it well. We do the same thing as small credit unions do, we just do it for more people. We didn’t create our success, our members did.” What about some small credit unions’ argument that they’re small because they choose to remain plain vanilla CUs? Sebastian said, “That’s just a defense. Small credit unions are small because their members aren’t giving them any more business, so they can’t grow.” Sebastian offered that a credit union should at least grow by the cost of its funds. As for some small CUs’ accusation that large CUs resemble banks, Sebastian said, “The only way a credit union can resemble a bank is by changing its core organization. Credit unions are democratically controlled, member owned financials. That’s what differentiates us from banks. We happen to make mortgages and car loans. But it’s not what we do, but what we are, that makes us different than banks.” When Sebastian gives credit to GTE FCU’s employees and its 131,000 members for helping bring the credit union to the $1 billion in asset milestone, he does it in a big way. To celebrate reaching $1 billion in assets, to promote the CU’s position in the financial marketplace, and to thank its members for their support, GTE FCU sent each member a $1 billion scratch-off ticket in their April statement. Prizes included one Grand prize of $6,700 (to represent GTE FCU’s 67-year history); three First prizes of a $670 12- month certificate; five Second Prizes of a $193.50 funded ShareBuilder account (the CU was founded in 1935); 15 Third Prizes of $678 cash; and various other prizes. Each of the CU’s branches also held a party with food and entertainment, and giveaways for branch visitors. In addition, on the day GTE FCU reached the $1 billion mark, gourmet gift baskets were delivered to every board member, branch, and department. Board members and employees also received a “Thanks a Billion” gift bag. GTE FCU also made sure the press was notified of its achievement. Releases were sent to all local media, and a four-page insert about GTE FCU was produced and placed in all major market-area newspapers. “I’m a great believer in the saying, `the proof is in the pudding’. GTE FCU’s $1 billion in asset achievement is proof of everyone’s hard work and our members’ loyalty to the credit union,” says Sebastian. “We all worked very hard to get the credit union to this point,” he says. -</p> <p>[email protected]</p>

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