From Behind the Iron Curtain to U.S. Credit Union CEO, Sieminski Fights for American Dream
BROOKLYN, N.Y. - In the months leading up to April 1999 and the 10 months afterwards, Polish & Slavic FCU remained in credit union media headlines after the NCUA Board placed the credit union into conservatorship because of numerous violations of the Bank Secrecy Act and other operational problems. In...
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BROOKLYN, N.Y. – In the months leading up to April 1999 and the 10 months afterwards, Polish & Slavic FCU remained in credit union media headlines after the NCUA Board placed the credit union into conservatorship because of numerous violations of the Bank Secrecy Act and other operational problems. In February 2000, the NCUA Board voted to return control of the credit union to its members after a 10-month conservatorship, and the credit union has spent the two years since then rebuilding its reputation and operations. Last month the $807 million credit union took a big step in getting itself back in shape when its board of directors named Danuta Sieminski to the vacant position of CEO. Previously she had been Polish & Slavic’s senior vice president and Interim CEO, Sieminski’s road to working at Polish & Slavic FCU is an admirable one, though not necessarily an eviable one. It began with a vacation to the United Stated in August 1981when the then Soviet-run country was in the midst of its Solidarity union movement. Her vacation resulted in her leaving her native Poland. Sieminski was visiting her parents and sister who had immigrated to the U.S. in 1973 and 1968, respectively. In the midst of her vacation in the U.S., the political situation in Poland deteriorated and in December, martial law was declared. “I was afraid to go back,” recalled the former elementary school teacher and principal. Her fateful decision to remain in the United States, made some 22 years ago, led Sieminski on a path to become the newly elected chief executive officer of Polish & Slavic Federal Credit Union (P&SFCU). Perhaps the largest ethnic credit union in the world, Sieminski is responsible for managing an institution with 50,000 members, deposits of more than $60 million, $50 million in loans and mortgages, and assets of $870 million, which she predicts will reach $1 billion by early next year. “Sometimes I still think this is all a dream,” said Sieminski of her journey and appointment. Her career in Poland was far removed from her post today. “I loved teaching. I never thought I could do anything else,” said the Silesian University graduate, the academic institution where she earned a masters degree in history. Sieminski spent most of 1982 in Canada, where she met up with her husband who had also immigrated from Poland. She was awaiting her U.S. Green Card which her father who was living in Queens, New York was obtaining. Returning to the U.S. in 1983, she settled to work in the Greenpoint-section of Brooklyn, noted for its large Polish population, not far from her parent’s home. It was as a travel agent at Turysta Travel in Greenpoint where Sieminski began learning about the needs of Polish immigrants living in the area. “These people needed a lot of help with their lives,” she recalled. The opportunity to help came in March of 1985 when Sieminski was hired to work in the new accounts department of P&SFCU. “Now I had the chance to meet many different kinds of Polish immigrants who were opening an American bank account for the first time in their lives,” she said. Recalling Poland, she said the country, at the time, did not have a well-developed banking system and that people did not have much money to save. “There were no loan products. People just lived from paycheck to paycheck,” she said. Two years later, Sieminski was promoted to assistant manager of the credit union’s Union, New Jersey branch, its third branch to open. In five years, she was promoted to branch manager. By 1995, Sieminski was named operations manager for the entire credit union. She credits her intrinsic skills as a teacher for the success she has had at PS&FCU. “When you work with adults, especially in a management position, you need to be a teacher. I knew the techniques and psychology of teaching and that has helped me with my employees here,” she said. Siemenski’s academic education, however, did not end in Poland. She is also a graduate of the Banking Institute of New York and obtained an MBA from Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey. “When attending the Banking Institute, I would pass on whatever I learned to my staff through various sessions and meetings. I was transferring this knowledge and information,” she said. Many goals are on Sieminski’s table for P&SFCU. Among them are the continued expansion of the credit union’s branches. Currently, there are eight P&SFCU branches. The most recent opening occurred this past February 15 in Linden, N.J. An estimated 60% of the city’s total population of 70,000 is of Polish heritage. Expected to open by the end of October is a facility in Copiague, Long Island, N.Y. Already, the credit union has $7 million in mortgage loans in this area that has a concentration of second- and third-generation Polish Americans. Gaining Polish American members, rather than just Polish immigrants, is a new undertaking for the credit union. NCUA recently approved P&SFCU’s request to change its field of membership to add this new population. The change is key to P&SFCU’s continued success since the wave of Polish immigration has slowed down since the end of the Cold War and the birth of the European Union. Sieminski estimates the total Polish population in New York and New Jersey to be 900,000 and 500,000, respectively. “So, we now have a big potential to grow,” she said. “I want to expand the credit union nationally,” she explained. “We can do it because of the change in field of membership. I want to get closer to our members and open branches conveniently located to their residences,” she said. After the New York and New Jersey area, Sieminski sees Pennsylvania and Connecticut as areas in which to expand. By the end of this year, the credit union is also expected to introduce Internet banking. “This will help attract people who are not able to come to us and the younger generation of Polish Americans,” said Sieminski. Commenting on P&SFCU’s being held in conservatorship by NCUA from April of 1999 until February 2000, Sieminski said it was a “tough time, but I stayed the course and learned a lot.” NCUA charged that the credit union violated the Bank Secrecy Act, had inadequate internal audit procedures, interfered with NCSA’s hand-picked P&SFCU president, and had a breach of fiduciary responsibility. Six of nine board members of the credit union were removed and NCUA appointed its own board of directors after conservatorship ended. P&SFCU argued that NCUA had no right to take over the credit union because it had a net worth ratio of 13%. The credit union eventually paid $185,000 in civil money penalties – less than the $1 million liability for violations of the Bank Secrecy Act. Sieminski was not directly involved in this issue, but said, looking forward, “I always want the credit union to be in compliance. We need to follow regulations and always have proper policies and procedures and proper justification for anything we are going to introduce or implement,” she said. “It was a tough time, but at this moment, we are one of the top 100 credit unions in the U.S. and the largest ethnic credit union in the U.S. and, possibly, the world. I want this credit union to be a model credit union in the U.S.,” she said. Commenting on life in the U.S. and comparing it to her former life in Poland, Sieminski said, “What I like about this country are the many challenges and opportunities. You can only depend on yourself if you want to take advantage of that . . . you need to be strong. You need to go through many ups and downs and build your self-esteem. You need to believe in yourself. There are barriers, but if you work hard, follow rules and regulations . . . you can achieve your dreams.” -
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