70 years, GCU serves 60,000, keeps growing

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Emo Gordon has been a member for 65 of the 70 years there’s been a Greenwood Credit Union. He and his wife June were part of a group that gathered in the institution Thursday morning to commemorate GCU’s 70th anniversary.

He was also among those who spoke up when GCU President Frederick Reinhardt invited people to share their stories. Gordon was brief, but he added humor to the event and the more reflective and historical perspectives offered by past GCU President Gerald Pellegrino and current board President Tom Ahearn.

“I put in $50,” Gordon said of his account, “and then I got married and I’ve been broke ever since.” June laughed and so did everyone else.

Many remembered the early days of the institution when Vin Deardon, who was manager, was one of two running the place. Pellegrino called those times as the “cigar box days” because they didn’t have a cash drawer.

Cathy Blinkhorn, who started working at Greenwood at 18 and left when she was 53, has a trove of credit union stories. She credits Leo Devalt with starting the institution.

“He got his friends together and they put in $2,000 each,” she said of Devalt, who ran the insurance company on the corner where Greenwood has always been.

Blinkhorn did just about everything at the credit union from receptionist and secretary to teller and managing the payroll accounts for 22 companies. She handled credit union accounts for 1,000 Leviton employees.

Things didn’t always run as planned, such as the time Blinkhorn found herself locked in the vault when the key broke in the lock. The door was still open but the bars were closed and customers poked fun at Blinkhorn as the monkey in the cage. She hammed it up and everyone had a laugh until a locksmith freed her a couple of hours later.

Blinkhorn also made weekly trips to Brown and Sharpe to pick up $150,000 in deposits for Greenwood that was tossed in her car trunk for the trip to Warwick. With the prodding of her husband, Bud, Cathy insisted on making a change. But then, Bud and Cathy changed things, too. The Brown and Sharpe office was painted a horrible orange. On a weekend they got out the brushes and painted it beige.

Then there was the woman who came with a brick of five-dollar bills. It was thousands of dollars, but it was the odor that was overpowering.

Blinkhorn questioned where the money had been.

“She said it came out of her mattress, and lordy did it smell.”

As it is today with Greenwood employees knowing the first names of members, Blinkhorn recalls a Malleable Iron Works employee who like clockwork borrowed a dollar on Thursday so he could get a soda at the Edward’s Drug store soda foundation next door and then pay it back the following Monday.

That one-to-one relationship is a Greenwood trademark. Edward’s Drug was one of three properties that were acquired by Greenwood to create what it is today.

A lot has changed since then, and even bigger changes are coming as the credit union moves ahead with the construction of a 20,000-square-foot, two-story operations center diagonally across from its Post Road office.

Ahearn said the credit union hopes to have the shell of the building up by late fall so that interior work can carry on through the winter and the project would be completed by the end of next year. He said bids are being reviewed by the board and that the site, formerly a car dealership, has been cleared.

“We’re now bursting at the seams,” Pellegrino says of the current office.

“We have no place to put them,” he said of the need to add employees to meet the growing business. The credit union now has a staff of 62. A significant portion of the GCU business is “indirect auto loans” that are originated by more than 250 car dealerships as far west as Wisconsin. In such instances the borrowers may never visit the Greenwood office or be aware of the variety of services they provide. But the volume of accounts is growing and with that comes the need for more operational support.

Today, the credit union has 60,000 members and assets of more than half a billion dollars.

The new building will house corporate offices, IT and computer operations and free up parking at the existing corner office that will remain the hub of retail business.

Reinhardt believes Greenwood employees are as important to the business as customers.

“Our employees make all the difference in the world,” he said. The operations center will include a cafeteria as well as a fitness center.

Pellegrino, who served on the board for 12 years, recalled that unlike many other Rhode Island credit unions in the early ’90s, GCU was not a member of the Rhode Island Share and Deposit Indemnity (RISDIC), so when former Governor Bruce Sundlun closed RISDIC insured banks and credit unions, GCU was not one of them.

Nonetheless, he said in brief remarks, there were days when, because of bad loans, GCU was in trouble. He said the institution worked through a plan with the Department of Business Regulations and over a 10-year period the credit union built up $10 million in equity and regained its footing, putting it on the path of where it has almost $50 million in equity.

“It’s a place I love,” he said.

Mayor Joseph Solomon presented Reinhardt and Ahearn a citation in recognition of the anniversary and spoke of how the credit union plays an important part of the community and has touched so many people.

That community connection was likewise recognized by Reinhardt, who noted that GCU is a strong advocate of community initiatives not simply from the perspective of helping people and new businesses, but also as in giving back to community groups and organizations.

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