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The ‘queen’ of credit unions marks 50 years with GeoVista
Elaine Tuten in her office at GeoVista Credit Union.
Elaine Tuten in her office at GeoVista Credit Union. Photo provided by Pat Donahue.

Pat Donahue, Coastal Courier.

You can forget about Elaine Tuten slowing down.

For 50 years, she has done the same job and with the same company – though the job and the company are different now than when she began.

But the GeoVista Credit Union will celebrate Tuten’s 50 years with the business this Saturday with a gala, and celebrate 50 years of her leadership.

“She’s a pioneer in this industry,” said Trish Payne, GeoVista’s chief people officer. “She’s an absolutely a pioneer.”

From a small office on Fort Stewart – back then, it was known as the Fort Stewart Georgia Federal Credit Union, and shared a building with the then Hinesville Bank – the credit union has expanded. In addition to the name change, the credit union has grown its footprint across southeast Georgia. There are branches in Statesboro, Rincon, Pooler and Richmond Hill for a total of seven GeoVista locations.

Tuten’s business acumen and achievements have been recognized by her peers and her fellow Liberty County residents. She was named the Liberty County Chamber of Commerce business leader of the year for 2017. The Lake George resident was grand marshal of the 2018 Christmas Parade and she’s an INSPIRE Award winner.

Tuten’s credit union career started in Savannah at Candler Hospital. Then she started working for the Sea Island Employees Federal Credit Union.

“I fell in love with credit unions at that time,” she said of role with the Sea Island credit union.

Some of the members couldn’t write their names and they would call Tuten and ask for help with buying a car or with insurance.

“I adopted them, and they adopted me,” she said. “I just fell in love with the work of helping people, which is what credit unions do.”

Tuten was working at the Georgia Ports Authority Credit Union when she applied at Fort Stewart. The Fort Stewart Georgia Federal Credit Union had been in existence for 10 years – and GeoVista will celebrate its 60th anniversary shortly, too – and they called Tuten.

Six months into her tenure, she was asked to take over.

“So from that I was manager, then president and now CEO. As long as they called me to come work, I didn’t care what they called me,” she said.

Over that time, Tuten has seen the credit union grow exponentially, both in assets and services, and seen the lows, thanks to total deployments of troops and a pandemic.

There have been other tales throughout the 50 years Tuten has been with the credit union, from robberies to even an encounter with voodoo.

Since Tuten started at GeoVista, and its forerunner, there have been 10 presidents of the United States. With each new administration comes a new set of rules governing credit unions, too. When Tuten began on Fort Stewart, the credit union was in one of the old World War II-era buildings on Fort Stewart and had $2.5 million in assets. Now, with seven branches, it has $216 million in assets.

“And I grew with it,” she said. “I learned a lot.”

Landmark changes

Tuten had been with the credit union on post for a short time when some very drastic changes began taking place. Their old data processing system, based in Jacksonville, was giving them information that was a week old. They were the last credit union on it. And they got asked to find another vendor.

On top of that, the credit union was dealing with a lot more customers – in the thousands. The 24th Infantry Division had come to Fort Stewart.

“It was an interesting year,” Tuten said. “We built a building and changed our data system. “The Army came to me and said we’re going to need this building, because everything was expanding out there. They said we’re going to give you a piece of land and you build a building. We had $3 million in assets – you just don’t build a building. But we did.”

Tuten still has the annual report to the members she wrote for that year, the first annual report she oversaw. In it, she wrote, “‘We experience rapid growth and constant changes in operations and procedures due largely to the expansion of Fort Stewart. We had already outgrown our location but due to lack of space on Fort Stewart, no other space could be allocated to us.’” On top of that, the credit union also reopened its Hunter Army Airfield branch and with a heavy loan demand, found itself borrowing. There weren’t loan officers – there was a credit committee meeting once a week to approve loans. Those meetings were moved to twice a week and loan officers were added.

“‘As you can see, we have experienced one major change after another,’” Tuten wrote. “’We have almost doubled in membership and our assets have increased by a million and a half. We have done this without increasing our office space and only four additional employees for both offices.’” The credit union’s growth and expansion came from members’ expectations of services.

“A lot of members would come from other credit unions. They would ask, ‘why don’t you have this?’ and we’d ask ourselves, ‘we don’t have that?’ Our members kind of dictated that growth,” Tuten said. “And technology took off.”

Back then, credit unions could not offer checking accounts, but those rules were changed.

Meanwhile, Tuten honed her skills and expertise, and she became the first person in Georgia, and one of the first 100 across the nation, to be a Certified Credit Union Executive. She also graduated from the University of Georgia Southeast Regional Credit Union School, which, Tuten noted with a smile, is called Circus (SRCUS). It’s a three-year program, and Tuten tackled that and her CCUE designation at the same time. As part of SRCUS, class attendees had to work on projects that involved the history of their respective credit unions and 10-year projections. So Tuten and her classmates listened to 20 to 30 different presentations on credit unions and their projections.

“It was kind of rough,” she said, “but I did it.” While a credit union offers a similar line of services to a bank – checking accounts, savings accounts, loans, for example – it differs in management. A credit union’s members own the credit union.

“At one time, there were known as the people’s banks,” Tuten said.

People skills

Tuten, by her own admission, doesn’t wield a big stick around the office.

“I’ll give you a job to do,” she said, “and if you don’t hear from me, you’re doing fine.”

That’s not to say she doesn’t care about her employees. In fact, some of her employees’ kids have taken to calling her the nickname her own grandchildren use for her – Gummy.

“We’re family. We take care of each other,” she said. “We watch each other’s backs. We’re happy, happy, to help them.”

Many of those working under her have been in credit unions, and with Tuten, for decades.

“She builds a culture of trust,” Payne said. “She leads by example.” “And she’s passed that on to us,” CFO Vanessa McGarry added. There are times of caring – as in letting an employee keep her ailing baby by her side at work, and other employees taking turns at the bassinet until the child got better.

“This is my second family,” Tuten said, “and I feel that way about them all.” There is some fun mixed in, too, such as dressing up for Halloween. One of the departments all dressed up as witches one year, and the collections department came as the rock band KISS. Tuten even dressed up as a hippie one year.

And then there was one year when she came to work on Halloween just a little late and walked into her office to see … herself. One of her crew – McGarry, in fact - had gotten her husband to allow entrance into her closet and into her clothes, and had Tuten’s trademark pen and legal pad in hand. She followed the boss around all day as her doppelganger.

“You’ve got to have fun,” Tuten, now 84, said. When her staff needs to call upon her expertise, Tuten is quick to respond. She also wants to see them progress and advance in their careers.

“She teaches us why,” McGarry said. “She’s a mentor. She has a very open door policy. (She teaches as she goes. Even with new board members, she explains the financials and why we do what we do.”

Tuten is quick to praise those around her, and recites her accomplishments nonchalantly. It’s that attitude that has engendered loyalty from her staff.

“She was already blazing trails when I got into the industry,” Payne said. “About six years ago I was lucky enough to come work with her. I’m amazed every day. She’s an example of the kind of leader you want to be. She always credits the team. She never takes credit herself.

“Her passion for this industry, her passion for her members, it’s not that something you can find. If you have a problem, you can come to her. As long as you get the job done, she’s not a micro manager.”

Tuten’s even had employees hug her and thank her when she’s had to let them go.

“If your employees don’t buy into their job, they’re not going to do us any good,” she said. “But if they buy into their job, they are going to grow with the credit union. As the credit union grows, they will grow. If you don’t treat your employees right, you are not going to be successful.

“There are times when you have stress and you have pressure. But when you see the results, it’s worth it. Credit unions belong to the people and their mission is to take care of the members.”

50 years of stories

Her staff has begged her to write a book about her experiences – and there have been plenty. The credit union has been the target of robbers, and Tuten recalled one such would-be holdup man found hiding in a culvert next to a mammoth frog.

There was an instance of a pregnant soldier fainting while standing in line, and the young woman cut her head as she fell. Her husband was in the field, so Tuten volunteered to accompany the woman to the emergency room.

Later, the soldier asked for Tuten to come into the examining room and said she was in line to withdraw $200. Tuten got her account information, called back to the office and had someone take out the money and deliver it to the hospital.

“I counted out 200 dollars on the emergency room table and she said, ‘thank you,” Tuten said.

Once, during a robbery, when the offices were in mobile units, McGarry called Tuten to tell her not to leave her building. She looks up and sees Tuten going across the lot to the building where the robbery was occurring.

“I had to see about my people,” she said.

Voodoo money

Of the many stories Tuten can dispense, perhaps no single tale stands out like her encounter with voodoo.

Back in the late 1980s, Tuten noticed discrepancies in loans approved by the Hunter branch manager. The branch manager had moved to Texas, but Tuten noticed the address and names on the loans. The address was the same and the names were similar.

So, thanks to her love for genealogy, she put together a family tree of the loan recipients.

“I said, ‘this is bad. This is really bad. There’s some fraud here,’” Tuten said. And she called her former branch manager to ask about the loans. She convinced the former branch manager to fly back to Georgia and Tuten met with her.

Tuten told her there was a problem – there were some loan documents missing and there was high delinquency in those loans and she had approved those loans.

“She told me that if anything is wrong, it’s voodoo that caused it,” Tuten said. “I said, ‘you’re telling me voodoo caused all this?’

“I thought Don Winkles was going to fall off the couch,” Tuten added. As the story unfolded, there was someone at the Hunter Officers Club called the Voodoo Princess, who told the branch manager that if she didn’t approve these loans, she’d be in trouble. Her flight back to Texas was leaving soon, but Tuten asked if the FBI could talk to her. She didn’t want the agents coming to her house, so she agreed to meet them in Savannah.

There, an interrogation room right out of central casting, she confessed to the scheme. The calls came to the branch manager’s house late at night and she would be told someone is coming to see her tomorrow and she knows what to do.

“She’d not only open an account but take out a loan for them,” Tuten said. The Voodoo Princess picked up the loan documents later and burned them. But Tuten had check copies, and those copies, plus the family tree she built, convinced the insurance company to pay the claim covering the bad loans.

One big party

GeoVista is celebrating Tuten’s 50 years this weekend with a party in Savannah.

“It’s not like we could surprise her with a party,” McGarry said. “And I had help – it’s been a team effort.”

Perched on top of cabinet above her desk are items of military memorabilia, a reminder of the credit union’s customers.

“I don’t want to ever forget our roots and the ones who put their lives on the line for us every day, because that’s who we serve,” Tuten said.

Even in the draft of her letter in the upcoming annual report, Tuten’s style of crediting the team for the credit union’s success remains a constant.

“I’ve heard the word ‘legend.’ I’ve heard the word ‘queen,’” McGarry said. “She doesn’t give herself enough credit for her accomplishments.”

Tuten quickly pointed out McGarry got her CCUE, with high honors. “She’s always giving credit everywhere else, instead of herself,” McGarry said. “I’m just doing my job – and I love it,” Tuten said. “I love my job, I love my members and that’s what I was hired to do.”

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