Called the Tennessee Eastman Credit Union, the office was staffed by one person on loan from his regular duties at Eastman to take deposits and hand out loans to employees within the company.
It was a modest beginning for a credit union that would grow to become the largest of its kind in Tennessee with $2 billion in assets and 112,000 members in 40 states and several foreign countries.
Eastman Credit Union is celebrating its 75th anniversary this fall and asking members to share any ECU memorabilia they may have from those early years. Members can go to 75.ecu.org for more information on the archiving efforts.
Just a few weeks ago, ECU Chief Executive Officer Olan Jones was cutting the ribbon to mark the opening of the organization’s newest branch, located across from the Kingsport Pavilion on East Stone Drive, when a man handed him an old TECU account book from 1935. It was the man’s father’s book, showing regular deposits of $1 as well as a loan of $50 and the payback schedule.
“I don’t know if that individual could have gotten that loan somewhere else,” Jones said. “In those days the company decided the credit union was an important thing to have. It was an employee benefit, really.”
Tennessee Eastman Credit Union was organized in September 1934.
The official records from the time offer no insight into who first came up with the idea for the organization.
James C. White was president of Tennessee Eastman at the time, and served as one of 10 company officials who founded the credit union. The others were J.R. Brandon, B.M. Brown, R.C. Caldwell, A.J. Carter, N.D. Grills, A.M. Moore, H.G. Stone, J.C. Stone, and R.L. Vaughn.
Within a week of opening the credit union, White issued a statement suggesting that Eastman employees who joined the new organization should start saving small amounts.
“In many cases, in the enthusiasm of getting started, they will bite off too much of a chunk,” White wrote.
Employees, looking for economic security when news headlines told of bank runs and 22 percent unemployment across the nation, lined up to join the credit union.
Created as a member-owned financial cooperative, TECU allowed Eastman employees to pool their assets and make loans to one another, earning dividends on savings. The organization was founded just a few months after President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed into law the Federal Credit Union Act in 1934. Before then, 32 states had already passed credit union legislation to help small borrowers, some of whom were being charged up to 42 percent in bank interest.
At Tennessee Eastman Credit Union, company officials hoped to boost employee morale by giving workers access to credit at affordable rates, Jones said.
The concept worked. And by 1941, TECU was completely self sufficient, and continued to operate under the philosophy of “not for profit, not for charity, but for service.”
By the end of 1945, the institution had more than 2,600 members, had made more than 60,000 loans totaling $3 million, and had paid $81,916 in dividends. The following year, assets hit the $1 million mark.
James Thurman of Surgoinsville joined Tennessee Eastman in 1947 and signed up for membership with the credit union.
“I started out saving one dollar a pay day,” Thurman said. “They’ve always been good and taken care of me.”
The TEC News reported at the time that TECU was, “fully prepared and ready to help you enjoy a better post war world by helping you better to plan your saving and your spending, and to teach your dollars to have more cents.”
Witt Langstaff of Kingsport worked at Eastman for 36 years and got the help of the credit union through those decades. When his son was preparing for college, he realized their last family vacation “with all of the kids” was nearing.
“We went to ECU. Our budget was pretty much committed and I didn’t want to pay any more payments. They proceeded to refinance two of our cars so we could have our wonderful family vacation. The kids still talk about it today,” Langstaff said.
From the time its doors opened in 1934, TECU quickly outgrown its tiny office in Building 75, and relocated in 1936 to Building 1, operating there until the early 1960s, when it moved to Building 215.
By that time, TECU had expanded its membership base to include Holston Defense Corp. and other Eastman subsidiaries.
Soon the financial institution also expanded its products and services, offering educational loans and loans for recreational vehicles, traveler’s checks, six-month investment certificates, and more.
In 1978, credit union officials dropped “Tennessee” from the institution’s name and a year later, membership was expanded to include employees at Eastman sites in Longview, Texas, Batesville, Ark., and Columbia, S.C.
In 1984, ECU expanded its offerings once again, this time adding mortgage loans.
In 1989, the credit union opened its first free-standing building near the manufacturing plant on Wilcox Drive.
By 1995, assets had grown to $500 million. And in 1998, under the leadership of new CEO Olan Jones, the credit union paid out its first extraordinary dividend.
In 2001, ECU topped $1 billion in assets and began looking for a new site to expand operations. It acquired property near the MeadowView Conference Resort & Convention Center in 2002 and moved forward with construction of a central operations center at the site.
In 2003, the credit union gained national recognition by being named the Number One Peak Performing Credit Union in the nation.
That same year, the organization continued its growth and merged the Sullivan County Employers Credit Union under the ECU umbrella.
“We were looking for opportunities and avenues to grow at a time period when employment levels were not growing,” Jones said.
And it continued looking for opportunities to grow. In 2005, the organization converted to a community charter, allowing it to extend membership to all who live, work, worship, attend school or operate a business in Sullivan, Washington, Hawkins, Greene, Hancock and Sevier counties in Tennessee, and in Scott, Lee, Washington, Russell, Dickenson and Wise counties in Virginia.
Thousands of people joined the credit union, and by 2008, its assets hit the $2 billion mark.
Today, ECU operates 19 branches and serves 112,000 members.
From his office on an upper floor of ECU’s MeadowView facility, Jones credited the organization’s success to its focus on serving customers.
“We’ve changed and we’ve evolved, but not on what we do or who we’re focused on,” Jones said.
“We were implemented in the depths of the Great Depression and we were highly successful right through the middle of the worst time in the history of this country. And we remain in a position to operate and provide the services that people need, whether it’s in a Great Depression or a Great Recession that we’ve recently had. Either way, we’ve continued to operate and thrive. I see that as a strong indicator that Eastman Credit Union in the future will be able to continue to thrive in all environments.”
For the past few years, ECU has paid out $4 million in extraordinary dividends to members. And its community involvement and contribution levels have increased through the decades. In the past several years, ECU has made significant donations, including $100,000 to the ETSU Pharmacy School, $100,000 to help build the visitor’s center at the Gray Fossil Site, and it provided money to help bring free wireless Internet access to parts of Kingsport.
Jones said ECU employees are also encouraged to get involved in their communities. Many serve on nonprofit boards and volunteer with various organizations.
“I think we have a pretty good reputation for supporting the communities and organizations. It’s aligned with trying to make the communities in which our members live, better,” Jones said.
He said ECU’s history is all about “service excellence.”
“It’s not only a fascinating story. It’s really a fairy tale about continuity, about long-standing integrity, about financial strength, about service to people,” Jones said. “It’s about service excellence. That’s really what we’re all about.”
ECU will be collecting stories, pictures and documents from its early days on Oct. 13 and 22 at the Wilcox Drive branch; Oct. 14 at the Colonial Heights branch; and Oct. 21 at the new East Stone Drive office. Collection times at each location will be from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.