The History of Fox Communities Credit Union

The history of Fox Communities is about more than loans and checking accounts and our video is about more than just facts and dates.

This credit union was started by a group of people who worked together at the Combined Locks Paper Mill, who wanted to join efforts to help each other achieve their goals. Although we’ve grown a lot in the years that have passed since those days, that same motivation is with us today. Here at Fox, we are driven to help our members live their best financial lives and to also work hard to build up the communities that we serve and are also a part of. Please give us 25 minutes of your time and hear, right from the mouths of our leadership and our community partners, just how passionate we are about what we do.

Greg Hilbert (Retired President & CEO, Fox Communities Credit Union): Combined Locks is kind of a suburb, or a bedroom community of Appleton. At the time, a lot of the residents kind of moved or formed that village because they were employees of the paper mill.

Brett Thompson (CEO, Wisconsin Credit Union League): The formation of credit unions in Wisconsin occurred in the early Twenties, but credit unions really had a sizeable level of growth coming out of the Depression.

Greg Hilbert: In 1937, there were approximately 16 or 18 individuals that worked at the Combined Locks Paper Mill that decided it was worthwhile to form a credit union.

Sharon Van Asten (Retired Mortgage Lender, Fox Communities Credit Union): It started in a little room down in the mill at Appleton Coated, in Combined Locks.

Steve Vande Hey (Retired Board Member, Fox Communities Credit Union): The mill itself just dedicated space to the Combined Locks Credit Union. So, it was a real small office.

Cathy Harvath (Vice President of Marketing, Fox Communities Credit Union): It was started by three men who collected money from other workers, in order to give out the money in the form of a loan.

Betty Mischler (Retired Board Member, Fox Communities Credit Union): Any time of the day that you were working, you would go down to this little office that they had and visit these people and do your financial work.

George Ulmen (Retired Board Member, Fox Communities Credit Union): At that time, you had to be a mill member. If you got a loan, they had to know you. And, it was basically a handshake.

John Rietveld (Retired Board Member, Fox Communities Credit Union): It was kind of a one-man operation. The treasurer at that time had a checkbook in his pocket that he wrote the check out.

Greg Hilbert: It was done on little pads, notebooks, or whatever, kept in the shirt pocket of the treasurer, who would then walk around at the mill. And, if you wanted to do a transaction, you did it with that person.
Sharon Van Asten: Very humble beginnings.

Greg Hilbert: From 1937 to 1974, that’s when they hit $1 million in assets. That was, a pretty big milestone.

Cathy Harvath: Back in the day, before direct deposit, workers would come to the location to get their paychecks.

Nancy Krahn (Chief Retail Officer, Fox Communities Credit Union): The mill people would get their paychecks and line up in our lobby and we would hand them a paper check. They would tell us their mill number and we would hand them their check.

Cathy Harvath: They would come – and there weren’t computers, so everything had to be handwritten. So, it was busy. Like, they were slammed on payday.

Nancy Krahn: Lines would be out the door. It was so interesting.

Cathy Harvath: And so as soon as everybody was gone, they would open their drawer, and they would all mix themselves an Old Fashioned! I thought oh my god, that’s the cutest story.

Nancy Krahn: Now, you think no one has a paper check anymore. In just over six years (1980), Combined Locks Credit Union triples its assets to $3 million.

Greg Hilbert: From 1974 to 1980, it had actually grown from 1 million to 3 million. At that time, the credit union had just become a community credit union.

George Ulmen: We were outgrowing our facility and the only way to expand at that time was to have a brick and mortar building.

Sharon Van Asten: As they grew and grew, an office was built in Combined Locks down near the mill.

Steve Vande Hey: We moved up, and created a new building on the edge of the property of the mill.

Sharon Van Asten: With all of the people that worked in the mill, it was a little bit of a sore spot in the beginning because they really liked having it on site. But, I think everybody understood that that couldn’t last forever.

Greg Hilbert: They had opened the membership eligibility up to the village of Combined Locks and that’s actually when I started.

Steve Vande Hey: I was part of the hiring team, search team, that brought in Greg Hilbert. When we did the interview with the other people that were there, we were very impressed with Greg.

John Rietveld: His personality. His answers to the questions. The openness. He was eager to do something with the credit union.

Steve Vande Hey: I felt he was very humble. He was assertive, but not overbearing. His whole mannerism, his whole attitude, we really felt very comfortable with. We made the decision to go forward.

Greg Hilbert: December of 1980 I was hired to take over for Fran Biersteker and became the leader and President & CEO of Combined Locks Credit Union.

Cathy Harvath: He didn’t start as a teller. He started as the CEO at age 24 years old.

Greg Hilbert: When I first started, there were 3 other employees. And so there were a total of four. The staff.

Cathy Harvath: The three people that started with him: Sylvia Johnson, Ann (Spearings) Feucht and Bernice McCormick

Steve Vande Hey: Greg came in, he had actual experience in the credit union industry already. We really needed to go to his expertise, because some of us on the board didn’t have the same knowledge base.

Pat Lowney (Past President, Lakeview Credit Union): Greg and I and some others, we all became CEOs at about the same time. There was an opportunity of that new blood being able to come in, with that willingness to say, “We need to try something different. We need to do some different things here.”

Steve Vande Hey: His leadership was really quite outstanding. He worked with everybody really well.

Greg Hilbert: When I first started, the Combined Locks Credit Union did not offer home loans, mortgage loans. I had been doing that already for a period of time, so to be able to bring that as a service to the organization, was exciting.

John Rietveld: He was a go-getter. Somebody that looked to the future, to the betterment of the credit union.

Steve Vande Hey: Once we had hired Greg, then we could see a lot of positive aspects of helping our members. Over five years (1980-1985), Combined Locks Credit Union grows to 10 employees. In 1985, they partner with Schmidt Oil Credit Union (U.S. Oil) to reach $9.9 million in assets.

Steve Vande Hey: These are salt of the Earth people, they wanted what was best for the whole organization and the members.

George Ulmen: Greg was picking out the right people. I don’t know if he ever had a miss.

Dan Wollin (President & CEO, PCM Credit Union): Greg is a measured, deliberate person. He follows through on everything. He analyzes and vets things.

Kory Kitowski (Chief Information Office, Fox Communities Credit Union): He’s very meticulous at making sure the right decisions are being made. He’s not one to need to jump into a decision.

George Ulmen: He’s excellent at his job. A good guy to work with and he always respected the board. Good boss.

Greg Hilbert: 1985, the Schmidt Oil employees’ credit union partnered with us (Fox Communities – at that time, still Combined Locks). That was a pretty big milestone for us. It was the first time we partnered – merged, essentially – with another credit union.

Paul Sippl (Board Member, Fox Communities Credit Union): I was working for a local company, called Schmidt Oil Company (which is now U.S. Venture) and we had our own little credit union there, which didn’t make any sense. We decided we should talk to a local credit union there and get rid of this. And we called Combined Locks.

Greg Hilbert: It allowed economy to scale, but it also allowed us to bring more services to those members.

Paul Sippl: He recognized all along that he was working for a member-owned organization.

Greg Hilbert: Partnering with other organizations brought other individuals; great employees, who understood what a credit union stood for and meant to people.

Paul Sippl: I was on the board way back, when we were a credit union for the people who worked at the mill. But back then, you know, you have strikes and layoffs and, being our primary members, I remember Greg really having concern, a legitimate concern of how are we going to get these people past their tough times right now? So, I just remember that being his driving factor.

Greg Hilbert: The whole mission of the organization is about helping others to help make their financial lives better, and that is – it just becomes the driving force.

In 1987, The credit union partners with Paperland Credit Union (Appleton Papers Credit Union)
After much consideration, Combined Locks Credit Union changes its name to Fox Communities Credit Union.

Steve Vande Hey: The decision to change names – well, this was kind of a challenge, because that’s, you know, the whole branding.

Greg Hilbert: Now, we’re having the location in Appleton, and we felt that the Combined Locks name might be confusing.

Janice Timmers (Retired Board Member, Fox Communities Credit Union): Because of our growth, we needed a name that would encompass all the areas.

George Ulmen: We couldn’t be Locks Mill anymore, and everybody came up with several names.

John Rietveld: It started out as Fox Cities Credit Union, but we were not Fox Cities.

George Ulmen: NOVA – Number One Valley Associate

Steve Vande Hey: One was Fox Heritage, and one was Fox Communities Credit Union.

George Ulmen: Betty came up with Fox Communities.

Betty Mischler (Retired Board Member, Fox Communities Credit Union): It was a difficult decision what to take. You know, what kind of a name to take.

Greg Hilbert: We had a little contest. We asked members to help us select a new name.

Steve Vande Hey: We did sort of a survey and people definitely warmed up to the Communities name much better. So, that was really a part of why we went in that direction.

Greg Hilbert: Ultimately, the board chose Fox Communities Credit Union.

Janice Timmers: This was the best. Fox Communities was definitely the very best choice.

In 1989, Fox Communities reaches over $23 million in assets. Celebrations occur as the Wisconsin Avenue branch opens in Appleton.

Greg Hilbert: As our credit union grew, it became more and more clear to me that growth and increasing our economy to scale is important.

One year later, in 1990, $39.6 million in assets is obtained as Fox Communities partners with St. Pius, Riverside, and Appleton Teachers Credit Unions.

John Rietveld: We had merged with quite a few credit unions. The office that they had over there in Combined Locks, the company needed it. So, it was time to look for a new building to service people in that area.

George Ulmen: I was on the building and grounds committee when we decided to build a new corporate office. We had to decide everything – floors, architect – and one day, after we got the approval to build a credit union, Greg and I and two other board members went out to eat. We started talking about who we’re going to hire for the architect, and when we got done eating, we were kind of pumped up. We decided to take a ride, and see if we could find some kind of brick that we wanted for this particular credit union.

Greg Hilbert: We were kind of touring some of the other financial institutions to see how they’re laid out, look at the drive-ups…

George Ulmen: And the more we did this, the darker it got. And Greg says, “Well, I got some flashlights in the car.” So, pretty soon we’re looking through the window, with a camera, with flashlights, taking notes, and we went to Little Chute, Kaukauna, Kimberly. And then, it’s about nine o’clock, and we’re driving to pick up our cars in Appleton, a squad car comes beaming down the street.

Greg Hilbert: We got pulled over – um, I think I had a headlight out or something.

George Ulmen: They pulled right in front of us. About – and they stopped – and we’re thinking, “What – What’s going on?” A cop comes up to the car, knocks on the window, Greg rolls ‘er down, and he said, “Officer, what’s the issue?” Cop says, “Are you guys casing banks?” Somebody reported us as casing banks. And none of us ever thought that just because we were peeking in every window in every bank from Neenah to Appleton, and beyond, that we’d be picked up for that. But, we had a good laugh about it. In fact, it was really funny.

Greg Hilbert: An interesting evening, that’s for sure.

Janice Timmers: In between all the buildings, of course, we were joining other credit unions.

Sue Tabbert (Retired Board Member, Fox Communities Credit Union): I joined our Appleton Teachers Credit Union early on in my career. At the time we were considering merging, it was growing, we couldn’t handle it anymore.

Steve Vande Hey: These smaller credit unions were not in a position to loan much money.

Brett Thompson: It’s very difficult for them, on a long-term basis, to keep up with the regulatory requirements, as well as the needs of their members, because they don’t have the resources to keep up with, in particular, technology.

Sue Tabbert: So, as board members, we listened to presentations from Greg Hilbert, and from the people at Community First.

Steve Vande Hey: We felt that we had the expertise and the ability, and people – capable people – to help move into that direction.

Sue Tabbert: We really felt that Fox Communities was the one to meet our needs.

George Ulmen: When you sell a product, sell a business, one of the intangible assets that you provide is goodwill. Greg has that goodwill. And he works with people.

Sue Tabbert: It was warm and friendly, homey. Regular people to deal with, not huge and we would just be…a drop in the bucket.

Char Besch (Mortgage Loan Officer, Fox Communities Credit Union): 1990, we were small. I was with Riverside Credit Union and there was maybe only a handful of employees. Maybe 8-10 employees.

Bruce Kotarek (Retired Chief Financial Officer, Fox Communities Credit Union): Our members were looking for an office on the South side of town. We couldn’t afford to do that on our own. So, it became a natural thing to look for a merger partner as it presented itself.

Cathy Harvath: Greg is so good with talking to other credit unions and finding an opportunity.

Bruce Kotarek: Our boards came together and there was a commonality and we were both in it for the same thing. Neither one of us was in it for ourselves. We were just in it for our members.

Char Besch: When we merged, we’d try and keep that heartfelt relationship that people have with their financial. That’s a big drive.

Sue Tabbert: The triumvirate at that time was Greg, Bruce, and then Don.

Don Vanevenhoven (Retired Vice President of Lending, Fox Communities Credit Union): I had worked for Community First Credit Union, a competitor, for 18 years prior to 1991. I wasn’t sure that banking was something I wanted to do the rest of my career. Once I came on board with Greg, and found out what kind of culture he ran, what kind of operation he ran, I knew that I could be very very happy the rest of my career in the financial business.

Sue Tabbert: Each step, more credit unions, more responsibilities, bigger jobs.

Dave Thone (Vice President of Internal Operations): The decisions that they made back then really set the foundation for what the credit union is today. They took chances, it’s not like it was easy to do, but they took calculated risks, and it just made sense.

Don Vanevenhoven: We grew by making a lot of the right decisions internally through mergers and acquisitions.

Brett Thompson: Many large credit unions in Wisconsin have grown because they have come to either merge in, or to the aid of, a smaller credit union.

Sue Tabbert: The growth was in acquiring members and facilities, making each new credit union feel comfortable with us.

Don Vanevenhoven: I don’t remember one employee coming over from those other credit unions without ever feeling very welcome. I don’t ever remember them being asked to leave, or being laid off.

Cathy Harvath: He is so respectful of all the staff who works at other credit unions. They all have jobs here.

Bruce Kotarek: When he talks to people about partnerships, he doesn’t approach them, “Let’s merge.” It’s, “Let’s have a partnership. Let’s see what we can do together.”

Don Vanevenhoven: Our reputation got around the state and when a credit union had to merge, or be acquired, it was just well-known on the street that this was the organization that would be a good partnership.

Bruce Kotarek: Fox Communities’ reputation in the credit union industry is so prominent, primarily due to Greg and his relationship-building with other CEOs and credit unions and his desire to serve our members.

Steve Vande Hey: This credit union did not grow for the sake of growth. They felt they had something to offer and the people responded to it.

Substantial growth over five years moves Fox Communities to $90.4 million in assets in 1995. In 1996, a new branch is opened in Clintonville.

George Ulmen: Credit unions have a – bylaws that you can’t expand beyond your vicinity. The only way to expand at that time was to have a brick and mortar building in your town.

Brett Thompson: It’s called a Field of Membership. Credit unions by law have to serve only people within their Field of Membership. For some credit unions, that means employees of a business. For some credit unions, that means maybe a member of a parish, or a member of a church. For many of our Wisconsin credit unions, that typically means a community or one or more counties.

Rich Scott (Board Member, Fox Communities Credit Union): We knew we had to keep getting bigger. With the regulation coming down, and all that, you couldn’t survive just being a 40 or 50 million-dollar credit union anymore.

George Ulmen: We had to move and grow.

Bob Drifka (Owner, Drifka Group, Inc.): I met Greg in 1996. I heard he was looking to build and expand. I called him (Greg) as an employee of a general contractor, to see if we could build some buildings for him. And, during our conversations, he had told me that, “You know, I’m set in my building. You know, I have an architect and a builder, I’m very set.” Because of our conversations, he knew I was wanting to open my own commercial real estate company. And he said, “If you get into commercial real estate, why don’t you come back and talk to me.” Seven months later, I opened Drifka Group, and Greg was one of the first people I talked to.

In 1999, Business Lending Group is founded. A unique collaboration between Fox Communities, Verve, and Prospera Credit Unions, BLG was formed to offer greater commercial lending possibilities for business members.

In 2000, Fox Communities Credit Union reaches $200 million in assets! In 2002, Fox Communities reaches $300 million in assets. By 2004, $450 million in assets and 240 employees. By 2005, $500 million in assets and additional branches in Appleton, Green Bay, and Neenah. By 2007, Fox Communities grows to over 62,000 members.

Margaret Killa (Retired Board Member, Fox Communities Credit Union): When we built the credit union on Calumet Street, that was going to be the main office.

Bob Drifka: One of the first projects I did with Fox Communities was their main office site. Greg would go and say, “Well, we bought so-and-so and we have four locations, let’s go and take a ride.”

Greg Hilbert: Building locations and branches, especially in the early days, we’re looking at a lot of things. We’re looking at the community, we’re looking at the level of credit union service in the area.

Bob Drifka: He would say, “Monitor all the areas. Try to get something here, something here, something there.”

Greg Hilbert: We look for good locations that are convenient, that are visible. We look for the long-term viability of the location.

Bob Drifka: Greg was always very professional, and knew what he wanted to do, and he always looked at the big picture.

Pat Lowney: Well you have to be able to kind of see around corners. It isn’t just looking at what’s right in front of you. A lot of times, you’ve got to be six or nine months out ahead of what’s happening.

Bob Drifka: Knows what he wants. Never operated on the cuff, on the fly. Everything was well thought-out.

Char Besch: He thoroughly thinks through things and everything that he’s done for the credit union, with mergers, with the ground rules that he’s given us, I think that’s where a lot of the growth comes from.

In 2012, Fox Communities celebrates 75 years of service to the Fox Valley.

Dave Thone: The biggest thing about Fox Communities is, yes, we’ve grown, but I think it’s really about the communities that we serve. We’ve grown to help people in our communities.

Brett Thompson: It’s not just innovation, it’s not just being in the right communities, it’s taking care of people along the way.

Rob Zerjav (President, Wisconsin Timber Rattlers): They’ve done a great job of getting into the community, and being a part of the community and the events that they do.

Cathy Harvath: We do fundraisers, we give our employees Volunteer Time Off.

Brett Thompson: They’re supportive of the local school systems, they’re supportive of the local charities.

Greg Hilbert: We recognize that part of our obligation is to give back, not only to our members, but to our communities.

Terri Green (Vice President of Human Resources, Fox Communities Credit Union): We truly are not just a financial institution. We are an organization that care about our members and our community.

Brett Thompson: They really have become a fixture and the entity you turn to. Not only for financial needs, but also for the greater community needs.

Joanne Bogenschutz (Board Member, Fox Communities Credit Union): We want to be the best financial institution to be able to help our members and the community.

Greg Hilbert: Supporting those events that our members partake in just helps make it a better place for all of us.

Jason Schmidt (Owner, Little Inspirations Childcare Center): They understand that to build a community, you have to work with the community. And I think they do a phenomenal job at it.

Dave Thone: Most communities that we’re in, they’re rich in family, rich in tradition, and if we can bring events to their community to do stuff as families, it’s pretty cool that the credit union can come back in those areas.

In 2014, Fox Communities reaches $1 billion in assets, managed by 298 employees.

Bruce Kotarek: We’ve always had financial strength in mind, and we’ve always had a financially strong credit union.

Sue Tabbert: The growth was through vision, knowledge of credit unions in general, through leadership.

Pat Lowney: The person at the top is the one who sets the agenda, they set the tone, the culture.

Don Vanevenhoven: We have these five core principles.

Greg Hilbert: The Fox Five Commitments, those are principles that we have internally, to kind of live by, to work by. So, it’s commitment to staff, to education, to own the request, commitment to our community, and our fifth Fox Five Commitment is to our members.

Don Vanevenhoven: We’ll take you as a member. It didn’t matter if the person had five dollars in their account, looking to borrow a hundred bucks, or if the person had a six-figure depository relationship. The Golden Rule, as far as Greg Hilbert was concerned, was you take care of the member.

Bruce Kotarek: When you have someone like Greg leading the charge, and he leads by such a great example, you follow that example.

Sharon Van Asten: I cannot think of anybody who ever worked here who did not really care about their members. And that goes from the teller line, to the consumer loan officers, to all the people who do deposit items and IRAs.

Nathan Vande Hey (Retired Board Member, Fox Communities Credit Union): Don called me up one day and said, “Hey, we’d like to refinance your loan at this rate, and we can do it tomorrow.” I said, “Okay, what’s the catch? How much?” And he said, “No catch. No catch. We want you here.”

Steve Vande Hey: That’s a big gift. Having employees in positions where they can make positive impact on things around them.

Cathy Harvath: We care about our members and our staff and each other. Because that’s really who we are.

Laurie Hermes (Owner, Soccer Heaven Sports Center): They will be there for you, if you call them. They know the answer, if you have a question. They are not only professional, but they are friendly. And you can trust them. It’s just a great place.

Greg Hilbert: People that we have as part of the team, they care. And if you care about others, the growth and the financial strength tends to come along.

In 2015, Fox Communities moves into the Lakeshore Area with new locations in Manitowoc and Two Rivers, bringing their total counties served to 12.

Bruce Kotarek: I just think back to when we were 45 million dollars in assets, and who would have ever dreamed that we’d have been at the size we are now, and with as many branches as we are.

Sue Tabbert: Wow. Wow. It was Combined Locks and Appleton. That’s all there was.

Betty Mischler: This little bitty town of Combined Locks to have such endurance and grow to such a big connection to so many people, it’s just unbelievable.

Chris Allen (President & CEO, Fox Communities Credit Union): When the credit union started, it was just three members. Now, we’re up to over 105,000 members. That truly is a tremendous accomplishment. But probably more so, they did it the right way.

Steve Vande Hey: They started with a good foundation, and kept their intentions very clear and basic.

Dave Thone: And it’s not about the loans, and the checking accounts, and the credit cards, it’s much more than that. We want to make a positive difference in people’s lives and we want to make these communities strong.

Brett Thompson: Fox Communities is a great example of the strength of Wisconsin credit unions. It is well-run, it is serving the community, and it has employees who believe in what a credit union is.

Char Besch: Sometimes organizations can get big, and it’s like the heart comes out of it. And I feel like, at Fox, our hearts are still in it.

Greg Hilbert: We drive the credit union forward from the heart. Yes, there’s pen and paper, we’ve got to have the financial decisions, and the numbers right; but if we build our business, build our organization from the heart, and we let that be our guide, then we’ll be successful going forward.