In the CEO Spotlight: Meet Melanie Stillwell
by Shawn Marie Brummer
Communications & Media Specialist
5/12/2002

Melanie Stillwell grew up on a family farm just northeast of Minot, ND in a little town named Upham.  The family raised mainly small grains, and also some cattle. “My parents,” she explained, “were extremely hard working, had a strong faith, were community minded, and were just genuine, good and caring people.”  Melanie grew up learning their work habits and ethics, and she and her siblings, two younger sisters and an older brother, had many chores and a lot of responsibilities on the farm.  “My parents taught me that every job I do should be done right and to the best of my ability – many times that was cleaning calf pens and grain bins, running combines and tractors, mowing lawn, vaccinating cattle, and all of those duties that are needed on a farm.”  Meticulous by nature, she has kept a daily diary since the age of 12 years. This is Melanie’s story.

“I think I was always meant to work in a financial setting,” stated Melanie when we first started talking about this interview.  “From a very early age, I kept records for my dad of the information on the cattle – dates of births, genders of calves, when vaccinated, how many females versus males each cow produced, temperament of the cow, etc.   It was in a form that we would now call excel, but I was doing that manually.  I have always had a love for working with numbers.” 

Melanie attended Upham Public School, and then Minot State University (Minot, ND) graduating with a double major – receiving degrees in accounting and finance, plus a minor in music.  Fresh out of college, Melanie began her job search.  She remembers clearly the day she received her first interview request.  It’s easy to remember, because she and her family were glued to the television, watching the news.  It was the same day the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded, January 28, 1986.

As the family sat absorbed in the tragic story, the phone rang.  Melanie had been using a government site seeking employment, but had no idea who “NCUA” was when they requested an interview.  “I first asked, ‘What is NCUA’?  They said they insure and regulate credit unions.”  Melanie’s second question: “What are credit unions?”  And there started her 31 year history with the industry.  Yes, (gasp) Melanie’s first real job was as an NCUA examiner. 

Originally hired for the Fargo, ND area, Stillwell was sent to Denver, CO for training.  While there, she was asked if she would consider staying in Denver.  She agreed, and worked as an examiner and made her home in the Denver area for the next 12 years.  It was also during this time that she met her husband.

“I could write a book of credit union stories from when I was an examiner,” remarked Stillwell.  “Some of those stories are quite amazing and humorous.  I examined credit unions from the 9th largest credit union in the country down to a credit union that was (literally) in a box.  Credit unions in the middle of nowhere – in a shed in the backyard of someone’s house.  In a motel.  In a prison.  In a mine.  In a hospital.  In churches.  In a house.  In a school.  On military bases.  In an airport.” 

But, after years of working as an examiner, she decided it was time to move on, to the other side.  Still, she says, one of her mentors was an NCUA supervisor who influenced her career.  “He was one of those people that you knew would always go to bat for his employees, and always had their back.  I learned much from him,” she stated.  She took those management lessons with her.

Next, for a time, Melanie worked for Safeway Rocky Mountain FCU in Denver as the Senior VP of Finance.  But when a good friend called her with information about a position at Western Cooperative Credit Union back in her home state of North Dakota, she decided to apply.  Melanie was hired as the Executive Vice President in 1998, and was mainly in charge of the lending departments.  She held that position for about four years, and earned the title of CEO when the previous president left for another job.

Western Cooperative Credit Union is a large, community chartered, agricultural based credit union that was formed with an initial deposit of $17.50.  The credit union still does a significant amount of agricultural lending. While the institution originated in Williston, they have grown through the years with mergers and new branches, and now have nine locations in western North Dakota.  Along with several offices in the city of Williston, there are branches that employ 85 full-time and 12 part-time employees in the towns of Dickinson, Hebron, Beach, Glen Ullin, Ray, and Tioga.  When Melanie first started at the credit union, they were at $75 million in assets – today they are at an astounding $328 million.  Located in the heart of “oil country”, the credit union has seen its share of the unique benefits – and the problems associated, such as maintaining entry-level positions and an over-abundance of deposits, setting the balance sheet off with too much cash.

Next year, Western Cooperative Credit Union will be celebrating their 80th anniversary, and Melanie could not be happier with the success the credit union has seen, not just financially, but personally.  “We have many long-time employees working here, and that is a testament to the quality of people we have working for us.  We really do have great employees, and it is a privilege and a pleasure to work with them,” stated Stillwell.  It is, in fact, the people that she has met on her journey, employees, board members, community figures, and individuals throughout the credit union network that she most enjoys about the credit union industry.  “The fact is, we really are another choice for members, and we can help improve people’s lives,” she added.

Helping to improve people’s lives.  It’s a mission that Melanie takes seriously, and it shows in her volunteer work and support for many organizations.  With a CPA Certificate in both North Dakota and Colorado, her financial skills are in high demand.  She is currently on the North Dakota State Credit Union Board, and was recently elected to the CUAD Board.  She is a board member for Pactola, the lending CUSO that was established by Dakota credit unions, a member and past president of the Williston Rotary Club, a board member of Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota, and a board member of Lutheran Social Services Housing.  She has previously served on the Mercy Medical Hospital Foundation Board for 9 Years as Vice Chairman, served on the Mercy Medical Finance, Audit, and Compliance Committee for 12 Years, was a board member of the Williston Casual Day for Charity, was a previous member of the Williston Ambassadors Club and served on the Williston Economic Development Board as Treasurer, taught Junior Achievement over the years, and is an organist in her church, Gloria Dei Lutheran. 

“I grew up on a small farm in rural North Dakota – a pretty down-to-earth upbringing.  I feel that credit unions and the people that work for them are those types of people.  They tend to be community minded and have a passion for helping people,” she concluded.  The family still owns the farm she grew up on, and Melanie’s mother happily spends her summers there. 

On a personal note, Melanie makes her home in Williston “surrounded by her boys,” including her husband Bill, their son Ryland who is a junior in high school, and their two cats, Slippers and Klay.  She enjoys following her son’s many activities, along with reading anything she can get her hands on – from newspapers to cookbooks, novels to magazines, and of course, the CUAD Memo!  She loves word games and puzzles such as Sudoku, Futoshiki, and crosswords, and still explores her musical side by playing the piano.  The family enjoys traveling together and has explored many places including Mexico and Jamaica, New Zealand and New York City just to name a few.  In fact, she only has 10 more states in the US to visit and then she can say she has officially visited all 50.  Over the years, the family has travelled to numerous sporting events, following the NBA, MLB, the NFL and NHL games, as well as NASCAR, PBR rodeos, country music festivals, and motorcycle rallies.  They have jumped on Amtrak trains, on boats for deep sea fishing, always enjoying the journey as well as the destination. 

In addition to being a sports fan, Melanie herself is a sports enthusiast, who played on the varsity fastpitch softball team and the varsity volleyball team during her time at Minot State University.  While she continued playing both for many years after college, she recently decided it was time to retire from sports. 

Last but not least, we cannot let it go unnoticed that Melanie is a strong supporter of Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals and the CU4Kids organization.  This is, in part, because she has a strong connection to the Fargo Children’s Hospital.  You see, Melanie’s son, Ryland, was a patient there about 17 years ago.  Born at the hospital at only 1 pound 8 ½ ounces, he is a true miracle to Melanie, who lost one baby prior to Ryland, and testament to the difference that our CMN Hospitals can make. And she herself had a close call, nearly drowning at the age of 7.  Perhaps this is why she keeps a running list of “Important Things in Life” that start with the letter F.  Among her list: Family, Friends, Faith, Fun, and Financial. 

 

 

 

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