John Sackett embodies the term ‘distinguished director’ in everything he does for the industry.
In the early 1970s, John Sackett walked into a bank with a simple request. He had just returned to his hometown of Eau Claire, Wisconsin, after serving four years in the U.S. Air Force. As a young man building his professional career, he needed a credit card for business-related expenses.
“The bank declined my application, which I found surprising,” Sackett says. “I couldn’t think of anything from my background that would have precluded me from getting a credit card.”
Fortunately, Sackett had a friend who was a member of Royal Credit Union in Eau Claire. “My friend referred me to Royal, and I was able to get the credit card,” Sackett recalls. “The process was very quick and very professional.”
That encounter from a half-century ago was the beginning of a strong bond between Sackett and Royal Credit Union, which eventually led to a strong bond between Sackett and the credit union industry as a whole. He has served more than 40 continuous years on the Royal CU board of directors, including 17 years as chair. Additionally, he has served in impactful roles on several national boards and committees, contributing to important work being done on behalf of 132,000 million credit union members nationwide.
Based on his dedication, Sackett has earned the title of CUES Distinguished Director for 2022. CUES bestows this award on volunteers whose achievements have strengthened their credit union and the industry, and certainly Sackett’s contributions have done both.
“I believe in this industry, and it’s been my philosophy to do everything I can to support it,” Sackett says. “I’ve always tried to take advantage of opportunities to make a difference and to have a positive impact by helping others, whether it’s a fellow board member, another credit union or members of my own credit union.”
A Stunning Transformation
Sackett started his journey as a credit union volunteer in 1982, when Royal CU approached him with a request to help out in the internal audit department in a nonpaid capacity. “It was a chance to do some work for an organization I respected, so I said yes, and that eventually led to my becoming a director on the board,” he says.
Over the next four decades, Sackett has played an instrumental role in the organization’s transformation from a small, community-based credit union to a regional powerhouse that now serves 275,000 members in Wisconsin and Minnesota.
“When I started on the board, we were an $80 million credit union with one office and 13 employees,” he recalls. “We are now a $4.5 billion credit union in two states with 23 branch locations and 650 employees. None of this came about by accident. It took a strong board to lead the way, working hand in hand with an excellent management team. We each know our own role, and we continue to be on the same page.”
Concurrent with many of his years of credit union volunteerism, Sackett had a distinguished career in the areas of finance and accounting. Having earned a bachelor’s degree in comprehensive public accounting from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, he worked eight years for a CPA firm. He also spent 27 years as director of finance for the Eau Claire Area School District, which serves 15,000 students. Now retired, Sackett still has a strong affinity for education and is particularly proud that Royal CU established its first in-school credit union location while he was serving as chair.
“This was a concept that was brought to the board, and we very rightly said, ‘This is what we at Royal Credit Union should be about—educating the next generations in financial literacy,’” Sackett says. “The first branch was established at an elementary school 29 years ago, and we now have 30 student-led branches in elementary schools, middle schools and high schools. It’s a program that has evolved and become very successful throughout the years.”
The in-school branch program later served as template for Royal CU to offer financial literacy education at several county jails and correctional facilities in northern Wisconsin. CU staff provide the education to individuals at those facilities so that they’ll be better able to manage their finances when they return to their communities. While Sackett was no longer chair when this program launched, it grew out of the commitment that the board had already exhibited toward educating the community.
“I wouldn’t say I had a significant part in establishing this program, other than supporting it strongly,” Sackett says. “It is something of an evolutionary process, where some of the programs we’ve established have led to other programs with similar goals.”
Sackett has a lifelong commitment to learning, as exhibited by his own continuing education efforts. To better himself as a board volunteer, he has taken several classes and earned an industry certification in the process. Other board members have followed suit, and now Royal CU requires that all board members become certified—one of the first credit union boards in the nation to have this requirement.
“Our board is very cognizant of the value of continuing education, not only for our members but also for ourselves,” Sackett says. “I think that has a lot to do with the success that this credit union has had.”
A Valuable Mentor
After 17 years as Royal CU board chair, Sackett was ready to pass the torch of leadership to a successor. But he continued on the board, serving 10 years as treasurer and then taking on additional roles by chairing or serving on committees. He also was instrumental in establishing the RCU Foundation, which since its founding in 2012 has donated more than $7 million to community projects. Sackett continues to serve the foundation as its president.
“I chose to step down as chair,” Sackett says. “I’m a firm believer that no one owns a position like that. I also believe that it’s healthy for organizations to make changes periodically.”
During his last two years as chair, Sackett devoted considerable time to mentoring Doug Olson, who was vice chair at the time. “I included Doug in virtually all of the activities that the chairperson has to be involved in,” Sackett recalls.
Eventually Olson succeeded Sackett as board chair and served in that role for 13 years. During his tenure, there were two CEO transitions, and Olson is particularly grateful for Sackett’s guidance in understanding the nuances of working with CEOs.
“John really helped me learn the ins and outs of the job,” recalls Olson, a CUES member, and now Royal CU’s treasurer. “He taught me the importance of working effectively with the CEO to make sure that everyone is on the same page and pulling together as a team to do what’s best for the member, but at the same time to realize that the board isn’t just there as a rubber stamp for whatever the CEO decides to do.”
Olson has been on the board for almost 28 years, and during that time, he and Sackett have gotten to be good friends. “John is a very outgoing and gregarious individual,” Olson reports. “He’s also very confident and will lead the board in the direction he believes it should go.”
However, Olson adds that Sackett is open to hearing dissenting opinions. As friends, they know they can shoot straight with one another. “We’re not afraid to say to each other, ‘I don’t agree with you’ or ‘I think you’re wrong about that,’” Olson reports.
CUES member Tom Huffcutt, who succeeded Olson as chair in 2021, likewise has benefited from working closely with Sackett. “John has been a very valuable mentor to me,” Huffcutt says. “He’s there to answer any questions I may have and to offer his insights as someone who has been the board chair, but he also gives me the space to do my own thing. When somebody’s been a leader as long as John has, it’s easy to fall into the habit of thinking, ‘I know what’s best,’ but John isn’t that way at all. He’ll share his opinions, but he won’t tell me what to do.”
Olson and Huffcutt also appreciate the broader perspective that Sackett brings to the board based on the experience he has gained from working on national boards and committees. He was the first and is currently the only volunteer board member on the CUNA board of directors. He also currently serves as the vice chair of the National Credit Union Foundation.
“John has a very global orientation with regard to the credit union industry,” Huffcutt says. “He brings that back home to us, which helps us think globally but at a smaller institutional level. We never settle into the mindset that ‘we’re based in Eau Claire, so we don’t have to think much beyond our own market.’ John, because of his connection at the national level, keeps us focused on knowing the national perspective on issues.”
As such, Huffcutt certainly believes that Sackett deserves the Distinguished Director award. “To me, the term ‘distinguished director’ describes John exactly. He’s not just filling the seat. He’s been a director for many, many years, but he continues to grow and evolve with the industry, and he’s always a little bit in front of it.”
Olson likewise finds Sackett’s influence in the industry very inspiring, “He’s made such an impact not only at Royal Credit Union and what we’ve done for our members but also in what’s he’s done at the national level to help promote credit unions. I think that’s why he’s so well respected. … He’s not afraid to ask tough questions and not afraid to make strong suggestions.”
Beyond mentorship, Sackett is always eager to share his vast knowledge with others in the credit union industry. He has made presentations at numerous industry conferences and also at individual credit unions throughout the country, sharing his insights on such topics as board recruitment and the importance of industry education.
Sackett is grateful for the opportunity to attend conferences, including the most recent Directors Conference in December, noting that it gives him the opportunity to interact with board members from across the country and other people in the industry. “I always try to pick a table at lunch or in a meeting room where I don’t know anybody,” Sackett reports. “That way, we can all start from ground zero and just talk about our organization. It doesn’t matter if the credit union is large or small. We all have something we can learn from each other.”
Fire and Dedication
Sackett’s life outside of the credit union industry is also very active and fulfilling. He is an advisor to the Eau Claire Community Foundation, which supports nonprofit organizations in the local community. He also has served as chairman of the finance committee of his local church.
In addition, Sackett is a devoted family man. He and his wife, Kristine, have four children—James, Jessica, Joel and Micah—and six grandchildren. James has followed in his father’s footsteps by becoming a credit union volunteer, currently serving on the board for $4.3 billion TruStone Financial Credit Union, Plymouth, Minnesota. Like his father, James is a CUES Distinguished Director award recipient, having received the honor in 2018 while serving on the board at Firefly Credit Union prior to its merger with TruStone Financial CU. They are the only father-son duo to ever win the award.
Throughout his four decades of service, Sackett continues to be energized by the credit union mission. “One thing that I’ve never lost in all of this time is the fire and the dedication I have for what I do,” he says. “I am a big believer in the credit union philosophy of people helping people. And I’m especially a big believer in the guiding light at my own credit union, which is to create a positive impact in the lives we touch.” cues icon
Based in Missouri, Diane Franklin is a longtime contributor to CU Management magazine.