2021 CUES Distinguished Director Joan Nelson strives to make a difference in people’s lives.
Joan Nelson, CUDE, has worked hard to reach the upper echelons of corporate leadership during a career spanning nearly 40 years. Nelson is VP/quote-to-cash operations for North America and Latin America at multinational tech giant IBM, but her achievements don’t stop there. For almost a decade, Nelson, a CUES member, has exhibited exceptional leadership as the board chair of Coastal Credit Union, having found a strong affinity with the credit union movement.
“To me, it’s a passion for people,” says Nelson in describing her devotion to Coastal CU, headquartered in Raleigh, North Carolina, and serving 290,000 members in a 16-county area centered on Research Triangle Park. “When you have a passion for the people in your community, you want to have an impact and make a difference in their lives.”
Nelson’s passion, dedication and leadership have earned her recognition as 2021 CUES Distinguished Director, which honors her for achievements that have strengthened her credit union. Nelson cites several milestones that occurred during her tenure on the board, the most noteworthy of which is a period of strong growth.
“When I first started on the board in 1996, we had less than a billion and a half in assets,” Nelson reports. “We are now at $4.5 billion and continuing to grow.”
Nelson also stresses Coastal CU’s achievement as a leader in technological innovation, including the distinction of being the first credit union to adopt 100% virtual tellers. “Our credit union played a big role in the design of the personal teller machines and took our whole teller staff virtual in about 2005,” she reports. “This enabled us to expand our service, and now we are supporting our members seven days a week from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.”
This virtual technology has proven especially beneficial during the COVID-19 pandemic, as the necessity for remote, socially distanced transactions emerged. “COVID was less disruptive for us than it otherwise would have been because our teller staff has been virtual for so long,” Nelson observes. “We didn’t skip a beat in providing service to our members.”
Another major achievement at Coastal CU was the formation of a foundation in 2011 and the launch of a major fundraising effort, the Power of Sharing Gala, in 2016. Through the foundation, Coastal CU works with its corporate partners to award individual and collaborative grants to deserving local organizations.
“The foundation and our gala give us the opportunity to have an impact within our community by supporting and recognizing those nonprofits that align with our values and our principles,” Nelson reports.
a difference in their lives.
Nelson attributes Coastal CU’s achievements to a fruitful collaboration among board members and staff. “We are blessed at Coastal with a board of seven who all get along very well,” she says. “We also have a tremendous relationship with our CEO, [CUES member] Chuck Purvis, CCE, and with senior leadership and staff. It doesn’t mean that we always agree, but we discuss, debate and collaborate until we come to an agreement that’s in the best interest of our members and our community.”
Purvis likewise characterizes his relationship with Nelson in positive terms. “Joan and I have had a great partnership since I became CEO in 2012,” he reports. “She cares deeply about our employees and our members, which shapes her thinking and her leadership on the board. She asks good questions, does her homework and runs efficient board meetings. She works full-time in a very demanding job at IBM but still puts in the time be an effective chair. That’s incredibly commendable.”
Ready to Serve
Nelson’s involvement in the credit union movement came about thanks to the persistence of an IBM colleague by the name of Sam Jordan. “Sam was on the board of Coastal, and he said to me, ‘Joan, I’d like you to come volunteer for the credit union.’ At the time, I had no idea what the difference was between a credit union and a bank. I told him, ‘Sam, I’m much too busy,’ but he never gave up. Every year, he would ask, ‘Are you ready? Are you ready?’ And finally, one year, I said yes.”
Starting out by serving a term on Coastal CU’s supervisory committee in 1993, Nelson immediately felt a connection to the credit union’s mission. “That was my first exposure to what it meant to be a credit union versus a bank—that we are not controlled by stockholders but are guided by the philosophy of people helping people,” she says. “Being part of a credit union became a lifelong passion for me. Once I got started, I couldn’t let go.”
Nelson became a board member three years later and moved up to her position as board chair in 2012. She learned a great deal about credit unions in those early years, and to further her knowledge, she earned her Credit Union Development Education designation from the National Credit Union Foundation in 2018. During her early years on the board, Nelson was blessed to have Jordan as a valued mentor.
“Sam retired from the board several years ago, and since then has passed away, but he remains a big part of my heart to this day,” Nelson says. “He, along with board members Bill Smith (a CUES member) and Dick Bloom, encouraged me to learn about the credit union and to be actively engaged—not only by attending meetings but by going to industry events, participating in industry education, hiking the hill and taking on leadership roles. He was always in the background, pushing and mentoring me, which helped me become the leader I am today.”
Now that she is a veteran credit union volunteer, Nelson provides encouragement to others in the same way that Jordan encouraged her. “I have always mentored the directors who came behind me, and I also take an active interest in supporting the staff at Coastal,” she reports. “I participate in the staff’s education programs, and I attend their celebrations. I want them to know that the board stands with them and stands behind them, and we’ll do whatever we can to support them.”
An Impressive Career
Nelson embarked on her impressive career at IBM after earning her degree in industrial management with a minor in accounting from Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. She has spent her entire career at IBM’s Research Triangle Park location, the first 11 years in accounting, but she aspired to do something more.
While working at IBM, Nelson completed a law degree at North Carolina Central University School of Law in Durham, which qualified her for a higher-level job writing contracts. Next, she transitioned to the manufacturing side of the business as a materials manager, managing inventory and moving products to IBM’s various markets internationally.
“It was fascinating to be able to interact with our partners and suppliers all around the world,” she says. “It was a job that fit well with my skill set, and it kicked off a number of opportunities to travel the globe in support of IBM’s business.”
Nelson’s climb at IBM has included serving in the roles of director of customer fulfillment, director of acquisitions and divestitures, and then returning to the customer fulfillment side of the business. “Most recently, I was named the vice president for quote-to-cash, which is the new name for customer fulfillment, supporting North America and Latin America,” Nelson reports.
Every role has afforded Nelson unforgettable experiences. “It’s been simply wonderful to meet colleagues throughout the world, to learn different cultures and to see different cities,” she says. “I’ve had amazing opportunities over these past 39 years that I’ve worked for IBM.”
While serving on the Coastal CU board, Nelson has had the opportunity to work alongside several high-powered individuals. Among them is CUES member and board director Beverly Baskin, who spent her career in the Better Business Bureau system. Baskin’s achievements include serving as the interim CEO for the Council of Better Business Bureaus, the umbrella organization for the Better Business Bureaus in North America. Having seen leadership in many forms throughout her career, Baskin has a strong appreciation for Nelson’s abilities.
“Joan is a wonderful person and a true leader who comes to the table well-prepared on all issues,” says Baskin. “She encourages everyone to have a voice and has a gift for making sure that everyone is heard.”
Baskin marvels at Nelson’s ability to synthesize the various points of view expressed in the boardroom. “She listens intently to different perspectives and then summarizes what has been said in a clear and concise manner, devoid of the emotion that sometimes occurs during these discussions,” Baskin says. “She provides everyone with a fair and straightforward synopsis of the issues that have been expressed, and from there, we are able to have a valuable conversation based on what she has outlined for us.”
Like Baskin, Purvis is impressed by Nelson’s ability to lead a productive discussion. “Joan is a calming influence on any situation, and that leads to much more constructive dialog,” he observes. “She encourages everybody on the board and everybody on my team to engage in the conversation.”
Baskin notes that Nelson always makes sure the board considers one central question when making tough decisions: Is this what is best for our members? “Joan never loses sight of why we are there, sitting in that boardroom,” Baskin explains. “She always brings it back to what is best for the members and for the employees. When we use that as our compass, it almost always leads us to the right decision.”
Making an Impact
Nelson’s volunteerism at Coastal CU is consistent with her desire to make an impact in her community. “I’ve always been a person who believes in giving back,” she says. “I’ve always volunteered in one way, shape or another.”
One of Nelson’s biggest passions is Habitat for Humanity (habitat.org). She is pleased that this passion led Coastal CU to adopt a Habitat House. “The employees raised the majority of the funds needed to build the house, and they also participated in the build of the house,” she says. “So, it was truly a Coastal Habitat House. After the house was complete and we had the ribbon-cutting, just hearing the thankfulness from the family brought us all to tears.”
Coastal CU employees continued their commitment to their Habitat family by raising funds to buy household items for use in the new home. They presented these goods to the family during Coastal CU’s employee celebration event. “Again, we were brought to tears by the family’s reaction,” Nelson recalls. “The tireless giving and commitment of the Coastal team to touch the lives of others means a great deal to me.”
In her personal life, Nelson has felt enriched by her relationship with her now-grown foster daughter, Alisha Deleston. “Alisha actually worked for Coastal when she was a student in college,” Nelson reports. “It was exciting to see her come to appreciate what it meant to work for a credit union versus a bank, and she’s been a credit union advocate ever since.”
Deleston followed in her foster mother’s footsteps by becoming an accountant. She works for the community college system in Florida while raising three children. “Now I have three grandsons who are the absolute loves of my life,” Nelson says. “I spoil them rotten and make no apologies for it.”
In addition to volunteering for Coastal CU, Nelson serves on the board of several other organizations, including Dress for Success Triangle NC, which empowers women to achieve economic independence by providing a network of support, professional attire and development tools; Triangle Women in STEM, which supports girls who are interested in careers in science, technology, engineering and math; and the United Way of the Greater Triangle.
Nelson’s commitment to these organizations stems from the same altruism that led her to Coastal CU. As the 2021 CUES Distinguished Director, she is pleased to receive the validation that her efforts are having their intended impact.
“To realize that I can make a difference in the lives of others—that I can help them with everything from financial education to fiscal responsibility to having better costs for products and services—has resonated with my heart,” she says. cues icon
Based in Missouri, Diane Franklin is a longtime contributor to Credit Union Management.