Just out of grad school with no practical experience and an MBA in hand, an encounter with a single client at my very first job likely saved my entire career in the financial services field. It made such an impression on me that the conversations are still as vivid now as they were 27 years ago. I learned I could make a real impact for the better on a person’s life.

Like many newly graduated students, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. (And the decision felt that significant and overwhelming, too.) When I graduated, the job market wasn’t exactly as robust as it is today, so there weren’t as many opportunities for young professionals. Especially those with no practical experience. I followed my instincts, taking a job that sounded good at the time, and hoped for the best.

The opportunity that came my way was with a consumer financial services company that fell somewhere on the spectrum between top-tier banks and payday loan companies. In my role, I worked with many people who had varying amounts of debt and didn’t qualify for typical consumer loans because they either didn’t have enough equity in their homes or they had credit problems. While we did not originate first mortgages, I could potentially help people consolidate their credit card debt into a second mortgage. However, I had never had any success with this product. Most of our clients did not own their home, had too much debt, didn’t have enough equity in their home or were too far gone and beyond any help that I could provide.

I certainly learned a lot about basic credit in my role, which was a good foundation for my entire career. But, I spent a lot of time questioning humanity and my career choice. There were bleak days. I remember thinking that everyone lies and nobody repays their debts. There’s also a certain amount of compassion you develop for the financially strapped, desperate people who’d call for help. More often than not, they found themselves in a financial downward spiral as a result of a major medical issue or an unexpected job loss. Most of the time I could not help them.

The Impact of One Client

One day, I answered the phone and a lady started crying; her name was Bonnie. She said she was about to lose everything and thought she was beyond help. Based on my previous experiences, I figured she was correct. But, I asked her to tell me what was going on. In efforts to help their children and pay their own medical bills, Bonnie and her husband had built up significant credit card debt. They had maxed out 15 credit cards and could no longer cover the minimum payments.

Fully expecting her to say they did not own their home, or they had just refinanced it, or they already had a second mortgage on it… I rolled the dice and asked. Much to my surprise, she said they did own their home and were due to pay off their mortgage next year. However, she was now behind one payment and was afraid they would ultimately lose their home to foreclosure. It appeared they had enough equity in the home to consolidate all of their medical and credit card debt into a second mortgage. This would reduce their monthly payments and resolve their cash flow problems. But, I warned her “this was a very unique, one-time opportunity.” “If you go back to using credit cards, your only move will be to file for bankruptcy.”

A couple of weeks later, my manager and I went to Bonnie’s home to sign the loan documents. As we sat down at the kitchen table, I could tell she had something on the table covered by a dish towel. She came over and pulled the towel off the table – it was hiding a small pile of jagged pieces of credit card plastic. She said, “I wanted you to know you saved us. We put one emergency card into our safe deposit box, and that’s where it’ll stay.”

Positive Outlook

Making a lasting, positive difference in Bonnie’s life really turned my attitude around. Suddenly, I saw my career as an opportunity to give someone else a chance to change their life for the better. I still carry that core belief with me today. I went on to make hundreds of loans to farmers, ranchers, trucking companies, and other individuals since my encounter with Bonnie, so many years ago. Most have been significantly larger and more complex. But, hers is the one that sticks out in my mind and keeps me coming back day after day. While my role is different at First Business Bank, that experience still drives what I do today - helping businesses operate efficiently and grow with the right banking services. So, in the end, you could say that I owe a debt to Bonnie! She showed me the positive impact of financial services and gave me a real purpose within the field.