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Nick Tonelli - Determined to Grow

When you talk about being determined to get what you want in your career, you should think of Nick Tonelli. Growth is painful, growth can be disappointing, but not giving up on yourself is worth it and what you envision for yourself is something many struggle with. Nick put his goals at the forefront, took chances, gambled on himself; all of which allowed him to grow through the credit union ranks. He is determined, enjoys a challenge and wants to grow - his credit union, the industry and himself. We sat down with Nick to discuss his journey to CEO.

You have had an interesting journey to becoming a CEO. Tell us about your journey.

My journey in the financial industry started shortly after graduating from Iowa State University with Finance and Management Degrees. I had been working at local grocery store, Hy-Vee, for almost 10 years; and the bank at the front of the store seemed like a logical first step. I worked at Midwest Heritage Bank for about a year before being promoted and running my own branch. A year later I was promoted to overseeing multiple branches.

After about three years, a former co-worker who had made the switch to the credit union industry mentioned an opening at Greater Iowa Credit Union. Having been a longtime credit union member and having some reservations about the pursuits of profit getting in the way of helping my customers at the bank, I made the switch. At Greater Iowa I fell in love with the credit union movement and turned a job into a career. I helped grow several branches at the credit union branches in Ames and West Des Moines.

After almost 10 years of being a branch manager and waiting for all-too-rare opportunities for upward mobility, I was fortunate to join Collins Community Union as a Regional Manager, I helping to bring Collins into the Des Moines Market. I helped opened 4 new branches, hired and trained leadership teams and Universal Associates to lead the expansion, all while managing a total of 7 total branches.

After much soul searching and self-reflection, I realized Collins wasn't a particularly good cultural fit for me. I found myself missing a lot of things that I had come to love about working at a smaller credit union. With that in mind, I set forth looking for my next career. While at Collins I had determined that my ideal next career step was to be the CEO of a small credit union. I had interviewed at local credit unions for CEO positions 3 times but came up second each time. At that point, I had decided that the right position was important enough to look at the possibility of relocating. With the full support of my wife (and her aversion to cold weather) I broadened my search to the southern United States. I found an abundance or opportunities. I connected with CU Resources out of Houston, Texas and found several potential positions that would be a good fit.

Three months later I found myself flying into one of the largest cities in the country and driving 50 miles to a town I’d never heard of to interview with the board of directors of Germania Credit Union, a small credit union in Brenham, Texas. I told the board my story. I told them I had a passion for people, I had grown every credit union I had worked at, that I work tirelessly to improve processes by removing barriers to success and implementing new innovative processes, procedures and products. They told me that they didn’t want to merge and that even though the credit union has exceptional sponsor support, a great potential membership base and fiercely loyal members they had struggled to grow.

A year and a half later I find myself 1,100 miles away from my hometown managing the second-fastest growing credit union in the Cornerstone League; a great credit union that is impactful to its members, has an engaged board, as much business as it can handle and is in no danger of merger.

Props to you for your resilience and determination along your career. What can other young professionals do to defeat the stigma that YPs can’t hold executive jobs?

This question reminds me of my time working in Ames, Iowa at Greater Iowa Credit Union early in my career. My branch was located in an area with an older population on the north side of town, and we had a lot of senior members. I was constantly told by the membership that I was to young to be a Branch Manger even though I had been a branch manager for nearly 5 years. I ended up growing a beard to appear older to help the members get over the stigma. I know “grow a beard” is not particularly good advice for at least half of YP’s and that’s the point. You cannot control the stigma you can only control your reaction to it. Managers and members get over stigma when they see results. Act like you belong because you do! Know when to ignore ignorance…always.

You are very involved with the Cornerstone League; they are incredible people who have a passion for helping YP’s develop. What are ways others can get involved with leagues and what has Cornerstone done that other Leagues can implement.

My biggest piece of advice for YP’s is to get involved, and not just in the YP stuff. Don’t assume you can’t do x because you are not a CEO or at a large credit union. Boards, chapters, committees, all need diversity, and that includes age and experience level. A common conversation in one of my committees is how to increase diversity and engage YP’s to get more of them on the league’s committees.

Cornerstone is a great CU League that does a remarkable job engaging its credit unions. One item we are working on in the Innovation and Engagement Committee is launching I3 initiatives similar to the ones that other leagues run with Filene. It’s a great way to add additional engagement, YP opportunity, and value to the league.

That is great to hear. What have you learned as CEO that you wish a younger Nick would have known?

I have two things I would tell a younger Nick.

First, that you will never improve yourself, your career, your leadership, your promotability or hire-ability until you start accepting critical feedback. If you try and minimize problems instead of facing them head on, you will severely limit your personal growth. Accept constructive feedback and use to grow.

Second, that success is not always a straight line. I have heard this phrase over and over again in my career and even nodded my head as others said it. Meanwhile in my head my career was always a straight line… until it wasn’t. Don’t let a bad interview, bad project, poor review or even getting fired define you. Learn from it and grow. You are a product or your experiences not a victim of them. By trying to force your career into a straight line you limit your experiences and learning opportunities. If you are in a rut and feel like you have learned everything you can in your current capacity, seek a new project, role, or position.

That is great advice. What’s next for you in 2020?

2020 looks to be an exciting year. Many new projects and a large amount of growth are planned at Germania Credit Union. I am excited to continue my journey at Southwest CUNA Management School in 2020. I highly recommend CUNA Management School to any to any YP or anyone that is looking to further their career in the credit union industry. Beyond being a great way to learn about all areas of credit union management, leadership, and strategic planning, it’s a great opportunity to build a life long personal network of like-minded credit union leaders.

CUltivate is people helping people with our mission to spread the word, connect the people, and give an outlet to share your stories. Know someone in the industry we should interview? Drop us a line at


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