First Woman & Minority At Regulator's Office Retires

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In 1977, Delores Bledsoe became the first woman and the first minority hired by the Lansing, Mich. Office of Financial Services.

Today, she says, more than 50% of the examiners in her division that oversees credit unions in metropolitan Detroit are female and more than 19% are minorities.

"When I started, there were not that many female examiners in the nation," she said. "I guess they found out how well women worked and can't get enough of them."

Equal opportunities for women and minorities is one of the many changes Bledsoe has observed during her 40-year career in the credit union community, the last 25 as an OFIS credit union examiner.

A few weeks after retiring, Bledsoe shared some of those observations with The Credit Union Journal. As the first women in the field, she said she was a "little nervous" in the beginning, but never had any problems with fellow employees or credit union staff.

"There were a few little jokes now and then, but I was treated good."

Not The Secretary

Bledsoe did recall once being mistaken for a secretary to her male counterpart by one CU manager. And, at times, she did feel that she had to prove herself worthy of the job.

"I did have to work harder, but I did it for me more so than anyone else," she said. "I felt like I was a pioneer, therefore I wanted to be the best I could be."

Never mind that she was a woman, the job responsibilities alone could be overwhelming for anyone, she said.

"In the beginning, it's rough. There's so much to learn," she said. "You go to Lansing where they literally fill the trunk of your car with manuals."

Her advice to others who follow her path: "It's going to be OK. No one is expecting you to know all this over night. Just next week," she joked, before adding, "Give it time. You'll get there."

Bledsoe said she has always appreciated her job with OFIS. Admittedly, as an African American during a decade when minorities were still struggling to gain acceptance in political, economic, educational, social and cultural arenas, Bledsoe said there were occasions when she felt apprehensive, scared even.

"When I traveled to some of the one-traffic-light towns that had no minorities, I was a little afraid," she said. "But I never had anyone treat me unfairly, which I am very happy to say."

Truth is, the credit union industry is wonderful, Bledsoe said. "My heart is with credit unions," she said. "It's like a love of mine."

When Bledsoe first started her career with OFIS, she recalled Michigan had 700 state-chartered credit unions, all pretty much plain vanilla and offering only share accounts and loans.

While the number of CUs has shrunk-there are about 300 state-chartered CUs in Michigan-the services they offer have expanded greatly. "Now, they've evolved and are into a little bit of everything," she said.

For the most part, she noted, the hand posting of her early career has been replaced with computer-generated documents. "When I started, examiners carried a 10-key adding machine and a typewriter," she said.

While the changes in technology have helped the CU industry compete with banks and other financial institutions, it could affect how they are perceived.

"Credit unions as a whole are getting larger," Bledsoe observed. "For the most part, if it wasn't for the sign on the outside of the building, it would be very difficult to tell what type of financial institution they are."

Moreover, Bledsoe believes loss of the credit union tax exemption is not far off, because fields of membership have expanded.

"They want to be bigger and better and want to service larger areas," she said. "The distinction between the two is getting harder and harder. I think they may be giving more ammunition to the bankers."

While small credit unions are still the majority of institutions (but not assets), Bledsoe said she thinks many will not survive much longer.

"The people that started the credit unions were loyal to them," she said. "As they grow older, retire and die, credit unions no longer have that support."

The competition may be too great, she believes, forcing many to merge. "I remember one time when my credit union went through a period when they couldn't pay members a dividend," she said. "I didn't run."

Changing Reasons For Mergers

That loyalty is not there anymore, she said. People don't hesitate to jump ship for a better offer elsewhere. And, with the competition so fierce, she expects to see the number of credit unions slide even further.

"In the past, mergers took place because one was a problem institution," Bledsoe said. "Now, it's not uncommon to have healthy institutions merge."

Since her retirement a month earlier and the exit of her first post-retirement house guests, Bledsoe was still reeling with the notion that she didn't have to go to work anymore.

"This is wonderful," she said of retirement. "Right now, I feel like I'm on vacation."

But, admittedly, it won't be long before all that relaxing, vacationing and spending quality time with family and friends drives her back to the industry. "In six months to a year, I'll get involved maybe in a management capacity or serving on a board," she said.

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