FAIRFIELD — Patsy Van Ouwerkerk knew she wanted a career helping others, but she didn’t know exactly what a credit union was when she arrived for a credit union job interview 38 years ago.
She described the CEO who interviewed her as a “credit union zealot” who explained to her that credit unions were created by “people helping people,” and they existed to offer affordable financial services, especially to people of low and middle incomes.
“If she wanted to be of service to others, a credit union was the place to be,” he said to her.
Little did Van Ouwerkerk know at the time that she had found her life’s work and would become a self-described credit union zealot herself.
Van Ouwerkerk rose quickly through the ranks and served as senior vice president of The Golden 1 Credit Union in Sacramento, president of Alliance Credit Union in San Jose and then president of Columbia Community Credit Union in Vancouver, Wash.
In June 2002, she accepted an appointment as president and chief executive officer of Travis Credit Union – at that time, one of only six women in the United States to head a credit union with more than $1 billion in assets.
Van Ouwerkerk is retiring in August – not so she can kick back and relax, but so she has more time to devote to her three great loves: her husband of 41 years; spending more time with and living part of each year near her father and four brothers in North Carolina; and teaming with others to help her community and the credit union industry.
Love of teamwork was bred into Van Ouwerkerk from early childhood as she grew up with her brothers in a small town in North Carolina. Working together to accomplish goals was the hallmark of the family. When the work was done, Van Ouwerkerk and her brothers played team sports. With four brothers you’d expect that, wouldn’t you?
She credits her childhood as teaching her one of her greatest life lessons: “Working hard pays off, but it is also OK to have fun.”
Credit unions are all about collaboration, and what Van Ouwerkerk particularly enjoys is getting to know her employees and members personally and serving her community and the credit union industry. She has participated in and held leadership roles in a large number of community organizations including Rotary International, the Travis Regional Armed Forces Committee, the Vacaville Boys and Girls Club, Children’s Miracle Network, Solano Economic Development Corp. board of directors and the Vacaville Chamber of Commerce.
Under Van Ouwerkerk’s leadership, Travis Credit Union is dedicated to financial education in Solano, Yolo, Napa, Merced and Contra Costa counties. She also initiated a college scholarship program that provides $1,500 scholarship awards annually to 20 local high school seniors and an annual event to inform students about Cal Grants, California’s college education grant program. She especially values helping Travis Credit Union’s military members and their families manage their finances during deployment and transitions.
With all the duties and responsibilities as head of one of California’s largest credit unions, when asked what she most enjoys about her job, Van Ouwerkerk immediately replied, “Interacting with staff and being a role model for young people.”
What advice does she give them?
“Don’t set limits on what you can accomplish by not thinking big enough,” she said. “Look to others and learn from them and remember that it only takes one person to make a difference in someone’s life – whether it’s taking time to offer a word of encouragement or to listen to an idea.”
Finally, she would advise them, “Don’t take yourself too seriously, and don’t forget to have fun.”
Van Ouwerkerk’s achievements have been recognized by her colleagues and the community. She is proud of her election by the Credit Union Executive Society into its Hall of Fame for her lifetime achievements, her appointment by the Department of the Air Force to the 51st annual National Security Forum on global issues and national security, and the Vacaville Chamber of Commerce Athena Award for inspiration and mentorship of other businesswomen. She was also named Solano County’s Woman of the Year and received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the California Credit Union League.
What she values most, though, is when women tell her that she encouraged them in their careers.
But don’t forget about her desire to have fun. When asked what favorite memories she will take with her into retirement, she said, “Serving as a role model for young people, helping to create shared credit union branching in California, and being a founding member of the Global Women’s Leadership Network.”
“Oh,” she added, “And flying in a T-38 Talon supersonic jet pulling two Gs.”
Sherry Cordonnier is the director of corporate relations for Travis Credit Union.