In the CEO Spotlight: Meet Dawn Van Ash
by Shawn Marie Brummer
Communications & Media Specialist

In 1983, Dawn Van Ash was fresh out of high school and cash poor when her financial institution, a local bank, charged a fee on her savings account.  Angry and unsure what to do, she vented her frustration to her dad.  He was a member of Oahe Federal Credit Union in Pierre, SD and suggested that she join.  She opened her first credit union account on December 1, 1983 and has never looked back.  This is Dawn’s story.

Dawn was born in Belle Fourche, SD and lived in the towns of Pluma, Sioux Falls, and Tea, but grew up mostly in Harrisburg, SD until the family moved to Pierre when she was in the 9th grade. As a senior at Riggs High School in Pierre in 1982, Van Ash took a class called DECA, which is essentially a business class and club that prepares students to become leaders and entrepreneurs for careers in marketing, finance, hospitality and management.  Through this class, Dawn was able to earn one credit for the class room work and one additional credit for working at the local Sears catalog store, and she says the experience had a positive and lasting effect on her work ethic.  “I not only earned a credit for working, but also earned income as well,” said Van Ash. 

She continued to work at the Sears store for about one year, until the owner sold the business.  Enjoying the retail world, Van Ash then went to work for Montgomery Wards, where she says she quickly learned some management lessons – particularly, how not to manage people.  “It was this job that instilled in me the belief that I would never in my life treat another human being like the owner of this store treated his employees and customers,” stated Van Ash.  “This business man hollered at his employees in front of customers, he would throw things at the walls, had no respect for anyone, and yet wondered why his business failed in the end.”  When Dawn finally made the decision to remove herself from the negative atmosphere and put in notice, that same owner told her in response that she would “not amount to anything”.  Dawn set out to prove him wrong.

Her next job was a “good paying” gig in 1984, as a data encoder with the State of South Dakota.  While she enjoyed the steady work and the people with whom she worked, she did not particularly love the job itself – day after day doing the same tasks, encoding numbers quietly in a cubicle with little human interaction.  One day, her sister, who knew Dawn was looking for something different, called to tell her there was an opening for a teller at Oahe Federal Credit Union.  Dawn applied and was hired, took a small cut in pay from $4.10 to $4.00 an hour, and says point blank, “It was one of the smartest decisions I ever made”.

This is how Dawn Van Ash started her career with Oahe FCU on April 7, 1987.  Yes, it has been exactly 30 years today that Dawn began her relationship with credit unions(Be sure to tell her CONGRATULATIONS when you see her at the Summit in Deadwood next week!)

While she started as a teller, she has worked her way through the ranks to the role of assistant manager and loan officer, and then to her current role as the manager/CEO, graduating from CUNA Management School in 2009.  When Van Ash started at the credit union, Oahe FCU had 2.2 million dollars in assets.  Today, the credit union has grown to 24.2 million and has six staff members – and is close to needing one more.

 Oahe FCU began as Pierre Federal Employees Federal Credit Union on April 22, 1955, and was granted approval to change to its current name in 1975.  During its existence, they merged with two other credit unions:  first with the South Dakota State Employees Federal Credit Union in 1980; then with South Dakota Retailers Federal Credit Union in 1988.  Through the years, Oahe FCU has also taken in other small employee groups, giving them a total of fourteen SEGs within their charter.  Even though the credit union has a closed charter, Van Ash says, “It is very rare that we find someone cannot join our credit union, because of the many employee groups that we do have.” With membership extending to small employee groups and their families, the credit union often brings in new members through family ties, just as Dawn became a member because her father worked for the State of South Dakota. 

It is, in fact, her father that Dawn says was her key mentor in life.  “He was the most amazing, understanding and kindest person who loved people, especially his family,” recalled Van Ash.  “He taught us the meaning of hard work and was always so proud of his children, and we knew it.  It was never a fear of being punished, but the disappointment in his face that was awful.  He always had a kind word for us, even if we did wrong, and by example he taught me how to treat my fellow employees and people in general.  I’m not better than my employees and I want them to be able to talk to me and confide in me and help them as best as I can.  After all, we are a team and I do consider them all family.  I love what it means to be part of the credit union family.” she added.

It’s no wonder that with an attitude like this, that Van Ash states unabashedly that she loves her job.  “I think the things I love most is that there are never two days that are the same, and no matter how long I have been doing it, I’m still learning things.  At least, I’m 99.9% positive it is something new and not something I have forgotten”, she joked.  Through her work, Van Ash has learned to love numbers, and says her favorite day to come to work is on the first of the month so she can prepare the financial statement. 

Not only does Dawn love her job, she loves being involved in the community.  Together with two of her staff members, she has served on the Oahe Days Sponsorship Committee for the past two years.  She has been the vice president of the local women’s softball league for ten years, and has served as secretary for the SD Central Chapter of Credit Unions since 2013. 

In 2015, Oahe FCU celebrated their 60th Anniversary by engaging the community, completing 60 random acts of kindness in that one year alone – no small feat with only five employees at the time.  Dawn says one of those acts of kindness stood out above the rest - assisting with the Special Olympics Basketball Tournament, and helping prepare dinner for the players and parents the evening before.  Because the kids were so inspiring to the credit union staff, they now help with this event every year. 

Those acts of kindness stood out in their community, and Oahe FCU was nominated for the Outstanding Chamber Member of the Year Award in 2015.  They also received the CU Social Good Award in 2015 at the CUAD Summit.  Further engaging the community that year, the credit union enlisted the well-known entertainment of Deuces Wild Dueling Pianos for their annual meeting, and opened the doors to the general public to attend.  The proceeds which exceeded $2,500 were then donated to two local schools, Pierre Elementary School and the Ft Pierre Elementary School, to help with purchasing new playground equipment. 

And the excitement just keeps building for this credit union.  Perhaps the best and most exciting news that Dawn wants to share is that the credit union purchased their own building on February 7, 2017.  They anticipate moving to their new location at 221 E. Pleasant Drive by April of 2018, perhaps sooner.  

On a personal note, Dawn has been married to her husband, Garry, since 1984.  He was one of the first people she met when the family moved to Pierre, when Dawn was only in the 9th grade.  They share one daughter, Jeanine, who apparently did not like being an only child and blessed them with four grandchildren that range in age from 5 years to 20 years old.  They are expecting a great-grandson this summer, and Dawn says, “That sure makes my husband sound old!”  In her free time, Dawn plays volleyball on a women’s league in the winter, and for the past 23 years, she has coached a women’s softball team – the same team she used to pitch for. 

Feeling blessed in life, Dawn and her husband are “paying it forward” in another big way.  For the past two years, they have opened their home to a friend of their grandson who needed a place to stay.  With their help, the young man is attending high school, and recently bought his own pickup.  But Dawn is used to opening up her home.  A few years back, Pierre held a state-wide memorial celebration to honor Vietnam Veterans.  Since there weren’t enough hotels in the community to house everyone who wanted to attend, the Chamber asked people to open their homes to families.  Dawn and her husband ended up hosting six families of complete strangers.  But that was only until they met. 



<< Go to Memo List