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FT. WALTON BEACH, Fla. – Right from the start, Jim Appleton warned that his quiet, reserved manner made him a little uneasy about tooting his own horn. The 61-year old president/CEO of $930 million Eglin Federal Credit Union has much to revere. After nearly 26 years at the helm, Appleton retired on Jan. 14. He has been in the movement for almost four decades after landing his first credit union job as a field representative for the Alabama Credit Union League. “I’ve been fortunate, to say the least,” Appleton said. “We had few of the things we take for granted today. The credit union movement has made massive strides over the last few years, no thanks to most of the bankers in the country.” During his tenure, Eglin has grown from 35,000 members and $130 million in 1979, when Appleton first became general manager, to more than 105,000 members and $930 million in assets. It is the largest financial institution in Okaloosa County here having 23% of all deposits and serving more than 60% of residents, the majority of them having ties to the Eglin Air Force Base, Appleton said. Even though the credit union was originally chartered in 1954 to serve employees of the base, it added select employee groups early on and that tradition continued when Eglin came aboard. Today, it serves more than 150 SEGs, has six branches, (three, more scheduled to open over the next two years) and 36 automated teller machines. In October 2004, the credit union celebrated its 50th anniversary. Appleton’s career path, like many credit union veterans, started out on the outside of the financial services spectrum. The Moulton/Decatur, Alabama native graduated from the University of North Alabama in 1966 and immediately took a job as a high school teacher in the areas of government, economics and American history. When his Marguerite, also a teacher, became pregnant, school policy prevented her from working after her first trimester. Appleton said it was a financial struggle getting by on one salary so when he saw an ad in the local newspaper from the Alabama Credit Union League, he called for an interview. He met League President Gary Wolter for the first time in 1969, who hired him as a field representative. “Had it not been for (Wolter) I have no idea where my career path would have led me,” Appleton said. For the next two years, Appleton crisscrossed North Alabama visiting 150 credit unions to help with operational problems. He recalls the small credit unions – 10,000 members or less – that were operating without the modern-day conveniences that are around today. He can still visualize the blue Remington adding machine most reps used back then. “No credit union computers, no checking accounts, no debit cards, no money market accounts, no credit cards, no ATMs,” he said. “I remember going to very small credit unions at the end of each year to help hand calculate annual dividends.” Appleton was promoted in 1973 to director of education at the league and then took a job as a manager at Wolverine Employees Credit Union in Decatur. After six months there, Appleton moved on to Pen Air Federal Credit Union in Pensacola, Fla. as the deputy general manager. He was promoted to general manager and remained at that post from 1974 to 1979. That same year, Appleton was recruited to help Eglin FCU, which at the time, was “having some investment problems.” He came on as general manager and had been at the helm until retiring last week. “Eglin was a leader in the industry with it being the originator of the permanent loan agreement,” Appleton said. “We had a few hundred checking accounts then. We were really stepping out in 1978 and 1979 with these.” The credit union was also among the first in the industry to have an open-ended lending program and prepapproved credit loans. By far, the biggest change at Eglin over the years has been the service delivery systems, Appleton said, adding the old systems were not that well-developed. Needless to say, better technology allowed the credit union to do more things quicker. Beyond the technological improvements, Appleton said hiring good people and then “stepping aside” has contributed to Eglin being one of the largest and most successful credit unions in Florida. “Throughout my entire career, I’ve had a hands-off management philosophy. I’m not the smartest guy in the world and I can admit that. I hire good people and try not to be a micromanager.” There were 130 employees at Eglin FCU when Appleton came on board. Today, there are 300 staffers and a handful have been there for as long as he has. The credit union hosted a retirement breakfast for Appleton on Jan. 14. “Any success that I have had has been because of the staff,” he said. Appleton’s decision to retire was mostly driven by health concerns. Over the last 10 years, he’s had three heart attacks and a triple bypass. He says his health is “pretty good” right now and he wants to keep it that way. The father of two sons and with two grandchildren, he said he and his wife of 42 years are ready for the next phase of their lives. “I’ll be 62 next month,” he said. “I want to be able to play golf, travel and bounce my grandchildren on my knee. I’ve seen too many of my friends who retire and then die (shortly) after that.” As for the future of the movement, Appleton said the tenet is simple: put the members first. “Our number one concern has always been the members,” he said. “Especially during these times when many of (Eglin’s) members are deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan and the Middle East. The members are what really matters.” [email protected]

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