Gulf Winds News
In 1954, a week after his high school graduation in his hometown of Dunbar, West Virginia, Jim Lee climbed in his 1946 Ford Coupe and headed to Pensacola, Florida to work at the Chemstrand Plant. An uncle who worked there told him the jobs were good, and the wages were fair. That was enough to bring the 18-year old to the Gulf Coast, where he would launch a career lasting 38 years at the plant and 50 years as a part of the Credit Union board.
Lee said the move to Pensacola took a lot of courage. He moved in with his uncle and started at the plant, working as a mechanic. Lee went from mechanic to lead mechanic and eventually became an engineering technician. In 1966, he was invited to run for the board of the Plant Credit Union. He ran, and was elected. "I had to get out and work for it," he said. "People wouldn't vote for you unless you asked them."
"I remember back when I got on the board in 1966 the Credit Union assets were right at $5 million and we had $250,000 out to make loans," he said. "There were about 7,400 people out there and $5 million, so people didn't have a lot of money."
The Credit Union started with signature loans, small loans that members could simply sign for that would help with small purchases or emergencies between paychecks. Eventually, they offered larger loans for appliances and cars and then began offering mortgages.
The Credit Union played a significant role in the lives of the workers at the plant, he said. "There were not any of us that didn't have a loan there," Lee said. "None of us had anything to start. The Credit Union put a lot of people into financial stability who were just out looking for a job."
When the credit union began, Lee said, no one could have imagined the changes the future held, such as the internet and mobile banking.
"We never dreamed it. But I remember when we didn't have TV, so that's a long way back," he laughed. "There's no telling where it's going in another 50 years. We won't believe what will happen."
While Lee knows that the internet and mobile banking have become the norm, he also said that having a solid team behind the scenes the key to success.
"The biggest thing in recent years has been hiring Rutledge as CEO (in 2002)," Lee said. "He made the credit union grow. He's a smart man with a good staff and they are making sound decisions."
Lee envisions Gulf Winds continuing to grow as it has over the last decade, spreading to more states and across the southeast. "We've had good opportunities with our mergers, and Chris continues to look for those opportunities. I think we'll grow to have well over a billion dollars in assets."
But the greatest opportunity for Lee has been the chance to spend so many decades working with people he admires and trusts to help build his community.
"I know I have enjoyed my 50 years," Lee said. "I've made good friends, we are like brothers and sisters on the board, working together.
"It's rewarding to have good friends like that," he said. "It's kind of like a family."