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Greater Kinston Credit Union Working To Keep Legacy Strong

Charles Sanders and Shawn Wilson
Leoneda Inge

There is a credit union in eastern North Carolina that has worked hard to help people who have historically been left out of traditional banking circles.

But during the economic downturn, the Greater Kinston Credit Union suffered just like many of its members.  Major loans weren’t re-paid and the state placed it under conservatorship.  Today, Greater Kinston has a new manager, is open for business and is making money again.

Shawn Wilson is a tall man, 6’6, with a tall order to fill.  As of August 1, 2013, he became the new manager and CEO of Greater Kinston Credit Union. 

"For me to be, not only a manager but a CEO of an actual institution myself is beyond my wildest dreams," said Wilson.

It's not hard. If you love serving people, it's not hard, if you are a people's person and you want people to better their social and economic life. -- Shawn Wilson

  Wilson says he was raised to do this type of work.

"It’s not hard.  If you love serving people, it’s not hard, if you are a people’s person and you want people to better their social and economic life. If you are passionate about it, if it’s a vocation for you, it’s not hard at all.  If it’s a job, it would be hard," said Wilson.

A doorbell rings every time someone enters Greater Kinston Credit Union on North Queen Street in Kinston.  Longtime members like Sharon Whitfield say they feel like they’re at home.

“They treat you just like they treat family.  When I came in here with someone else and I saw how friendly they were.  And their interest rates are real good," said Whitfield.

Part of turning this institution around is financial education.  Kinston is made up of a large African American population, many of whom are low-income.  Greater Kinston Credit Union says about half of the city’s black population are members, and there are about 5,700 total members.  

Wilson says part of his job is to change the credit union from just a depository of funds to a major lending institution – despite all the competition in his backyard.

“We’re located in the heart of town but right here on the next block is the business district which lasts about two to three miles.  And in that two to three mile stretch is seven consumer finance companies," said Wilson.

Offering the same thing he’s offering, but at much higher, sometimes predatory interest rates.  Wilson was a former financial services officer at State Employees’ Credit Union and was advised to bring his members back into the fold. 

“Basically, I called each member that had a loan with Greater Kinston at the time.  It was 517 members, I called each one of them myself," Wilson said, with a smile.

He offered a free financial analysis to save them some money and he offered to re-finance their consumer finance loans.

It worked.  Greater Kinston has increased its loan originations by 400 percent, a long way from balance sheets of a year ago.  In February 2012, the former Greater Kinston manager and CEO was removed and so was the board.  An investigation showed outstanding loans with a potential loss of $1.3 million.

Greater Kinston Credit Union sign on North Queen St. in the hear of Kinston.
Credit Leoneda Inge
Greater Kinston Credit Union sign on North Queen St. in the hear of Kinston.

Napoleon Wallace is an executive staff member at Self Help based in Durham.  He was sent to Greater Kinston as an interim manager shortly after it went into conservatorship.  He’s glad to see the progress.  

“And I think they are heading in that direction now, they have a great recapture program they’re implementing now, which is capturing back some of those loans that have been lost some of those years," said Wallace.  "And also, a recapture program for depositors, so going out to folks and saying, we have great interest rates on our CDs and stuff and we want you to come back in and support this institution and implicitly support the community as well."

The new manager, new CEO Shawn Wilson took me on a short drive through town.   Oh, and didn’t I mention? He is only 26.  Wilson was born and raised in Kinston.  His grandmother helped him open his Greater Kinston Credit Union account when he was eight. 

During our drive, we stopped by the home of Charles Sanders, who lives in a part of Kinston called Lincoln City.  He was sitting on the porch.  Sanders is an important mentor for Wilson.  The 95-year-old Sanders co-founded the Greater Kinston Credit Union in 1952 and ran it out of his living room for three years. I asked him, "Why do you think it has lasted for so long?

"I think it’s just because it had trust, trust in the people." said Sanders.

And with trust and hard work, the Greater Kinston community will have its credit union for generations to come.

Leoneda Inge is WUNC’s race and southern culture reporter, the first public radio journalist in the South to hold such a position. She also is co-host of the podcast Tested and host of the special podcast series, PAULI. Leoneda is the recipient of numerous awards from AP, RTDNA and NABJ. She’s been a reporting fellow in Berlin and Tokyo. You can follow her on Twitter @LeonedaInge.
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