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In the CEO Spotlight This Week
Story ID:8395  
Date Posted:  June 9, 2017

by Shawn Marie Brummer

Lonny Nygren has fond memories of his childhood, when most every Saturday morning, he and his parents, along with his older sister, would go through the credit union drive-through or stop in the lobby to get cash before they went shopping. His first savings account was at Citizens Community Credit Union, where Lonny liked to visit when he had a deposit to make, and maybe grab a candy sucker. “I even remember going to a few Pee Wee Penguin kid’s club activities, including a book club when I was in grade school,” recalled Nygren. Lonny was the baby in the family, his sister eight years older. His parents, both hard working citizens: father, a well-liked local barber for 40 years now; mother, who Lonny says has always been “his rock”, had an equally long career with Ottertail Power. “Without my parents’ elite leadership and guidance through life, I would not be here writing this story,” he stated.
Memories of family, and credit unions. This is Lonny’s story.

Area Community Credit Union was originally called the Grand Forks Public Schools Credit Union, and was a small SEG based credit union established in 1958 to serve school employees and their families. Many will remember the name, if not the person, of Mary Larson, who was the long-time CEO going back to 1974. Lonny hears the stories from senior members, who say that she used to run the credit union out of her basement for a number of years, with paperwork in piles everywhere. In 1994, the credit union merged with the Grand Forks Herald Credit Union to become a community charter, serving a 50 mile radius of Grand Forks, and moved to their current location at 2800 S. Washington Street. Mary Larson continued working as a consultant until 2006.
 
Meanwhile, Lonny (photo right) was growing up in the small town of Devils Lake, ND. Always the sports enthusiast, he played baseball, basketball, and football, and excelled at golf. In fact, besides his parents, it was his late former coach, Dave O’Gorman who has been a key influence in Nygren’s life. “He was just a no-nonsense leader that always instilled in us that there are no excuses in life, or on the field. He was one of my best friends that always pushed me to another level, whether it was sports or in the classroom,” recalled Lonny, who played as a starter on the high school golf team for six years, and two years at college.

After graduating from Devils Lake High School, he had received several scholarships and attended Lake Region State College in Devils Lake, where he received his Associate of Arts degree. While he was resistant to staying in the small community back then, now he says it was the right decision both personally and financially. “Being around the hunting and fishing that was part of small town living, and staying at home the first two years of college really made my parents happy and kept me from using any student loans right away,” he stated.

Following his time at Lake Region State College, Lonny attended the University of North Dakota (UND) in Grand Forks, and worked as an assistant manager at Carmike Cinemas for about five years. The flexible work scheduled helped him to succeed at school. “I attribute that job for helping me find time to get a lot of my studying in,” said Nygren. “I would make sure to schedule myself as a projectionist at the right times, because there was a lot of free time doing that where I could get all my reading done. There was a point where I did live with five other people, and obviously I couldn’t get much studying done in that environment.”

After graduating with a major in Business Management and a minor in Business Economics, Lonny took an insurance sales job with Combined Insurance. Unfortunately, he soon found out there had been a fraudulent agent working that area before he started, which made it extremely difficult to get any customer confidence in selling new policies. That job only lasted for about six months, but during that time Lonny was licensed to sell all the products and gained experience in talking and dealing with people on a professional level.

His next career move was a three year stint with Wells Fargo Bank, where Lonny quickly moved through the ranks – starting as a teller, receiving a promotion to lead teller after one year, and then working as a personal banker. “I liked the competitive atmosphere that Wells Fargo had, and I thought their training was second to none. But just like we heard in the news recently, I remember our team doing call nights there, and we were told to upgrade people on certain things even if they did not sign up for certain products at times.” The unethical practices did not sit well with Nygren. He returned to his childhood ideal financial institution that held so many positive memories: credit unions.

Lonny Nygren was hired at Area Community Credit Union in February of 2006 as the Consumer Lender. Soon after, he took over all of the collections, and within the year did the majority of the mortgage lending as well. For the next five years, he gained confidence and experience, and when the former CEO left, he was named the interim CEO, and then became the official CEO, a position he has held for the past six and a half years.

With a staff of six full-time and one part-time employees, Nygren says that he, like most small credit union professionals, has to balance segregation of duties and having to wear a lot of different hats on a daily basis. “The industry is going through a lot of changes and with regulations on the rise, it will be quite a challenge to keep operating as a small shop. One thing that sticks to mind is that you can end up being a jack of all trades but a master of none,” he remarked. So Nygren turns to his network of peers and the Association for support.

“When I took the CEO job, I was a big advocate to join the Credit Union Association of the Dakotas to have more resources to help me get off a Letter of Understanding, which was quite a challenge starting out. The credit union industry is awfully unique, the resources that are included with being in the league and having great contacts from a lot of other credit unions are priceless. Coming from one of the largest financial institutions in the nation to a small credit union was eye opening. The relationships that I have built during my time here will last the rest of my life.”

Lonny says that balancing professional and personal relationships can be difficult at a small financial institution. “Starting as a loan officer for the credit union was both good and bad. I probably know half of our membership by name, which gives it that homey feel, but that comes with the pitfalls of always working no matter where or what time it is.” One of the hardest things he has ever had to do in his work was to repossess assets from a personal friend. But, working with a great group of people (staff) and a supportive board of directors makes it all worthwhile. “I appreciate everything they do,” he added.
Over the past five years, Area Community CU has added a number of products and services to try to attract people in the target market age of 25-50 years old. And since Nygren was hired, the credit union has reduced the loan delinquency rate by over 5% on an annual basis, helping them to become financially sound. This past year, the credit union was even recognized by the Grand Forks Herald with the People’s Choice Awards for the best credit union. (Last year, they were runner-up.)

Besides leading his credit union, Nygren has been a leader in the larger credit union community, serving on the Marie C. Byrne Chapter of Credit Unions for the past five years, including two years as the chapter president. Meeting on average about four times per year, the chapter engages speakers to come in and educate credit union employees and volunteers on a number of relevant financial topics.  “Since a lot of our credit unions in the Grand Forks area are smaller, and most of us have a limited number of employees which makes it hard to get enough volunteers to make a difference on our own, we are planning on working together a lot more in the future for community activities,” he said. Lonny also reaches out to the community through the local chamber of commerce, and has been a member of the Young Professionals of America in the past.

On a personal note, Lonny has one son named Gavyn, who is 11 years old and lives with his mother in Bismarck ND. Nygren is a devoted parent who takes on the larger role during the summer months, and during the school year, spends time on weekends as much as possible. Gavyn has his father’s talent for sports, and is active in baseball, basketball, soccer, and golf. It is also important to Lonny that his son do well in school, and he is proud that Gavyn received the Presidential Award for Academics this year in the 5th grade has been moved up to 7th grade math starting next year. The proud father, Lonny said “Gavyn is such a well behaved young gentleman, which I have to attribute to good parenting on both ends. He has made a lot of good friends in Bismarck, which I feel is very important at his age.” At one time, Lonny thought he might want to live in a big city – but once his son was born, he says he was grounded to the area and gained an appreciation for the small town people and the local economy.

Lonny’s parents still live in Devils Lake, ND where they are enjoying retirement – sort of. His dad helps at a local barber shop on occasion, and keeps a barber chair in his home where he continues to trim and style his loyal clients to this day. Lonny is still very active in sports, including competitive softball, basketball on the men’s league, and bowling. (I have to mention that this past year, he rolled a perfect 300 game!) He likes to golf “as much as possible” and enjoys bonding with his son over tennis, Frisbee golf, ping pong and other sports that they play together.
 
Finally, he is an avid Minnesota professional sports fanatic, and you will likely find him yelling at the Vikings from his Lazy Boy most Sundays in the fall, “wasting time” watching the Timberwolves in the cold months, and cheering on the Twins in the summer. To sum it all up, Lonny says “I hate losing more than I like to win…” But this is really not a surprise. 

Lonny's perfect game displayed at the bowling alley.