Next year will mark 30 years that Michele Johnson has led Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Nevada and Utah, and it is hard to imagine the nonprofit without her.
But without a twist of fate early in Johnson's career, her long tenure at the credit counseling agency might not have happened.
"It's synchronicity. One opportunity leads to another," she said, reflecting on her far-from-smooth path to the top. "We can't always control our lives."
Johnson, a 52-year resident of Las Vegas, has been working in consumer finance for her entire adult life. She graduated from Western High School and headed almost straight into a job at a local consumer finance company, then named Dial Finance. Dial would later merge with Norwest.
There, Johnson thrived while handling the needs of customers, most of who were seeking small loans. It was the late 1960s and early 1970s, and Visa and MasterCard were relatively new and rare, she recalled.
"It was before people could readily access credit cards," Johnson said. "We did small consumer loans that the banks didn't want to deal with, from $300 to $2,500."
In those days, she recalled, women and minorities weren't considered management material in the consumer finance industry. That was a problem for Johnson, because she had a passion for her job and wanted to advance at Dial.
"I wanted to go into management, and they said 'no' because I was a female. They didn't say it was because I was female, but I knew," she said.
Because a promotion didn't seem to be coming, Johnson quit her job at Dial to pursue a teaching career. That was her father's profession, and one that had brought her family to Las Vegas from Colorado when she was 12.
But just 90 days after resigning from Dial, Johnson was called back to work and offered the management position after all. Minority employees sued Household Financial, a Dial competitor, for discrimination. Then, she said, Dial had a change of heart.
"I left Dial Finance for 90 days, and in that 90 days, a ruling came down (against) Household that every third person promoted had to be a minority," she said. "So, they called me back. I guess they figured, 'At least we know Michele will do a good job.' "
That she did. Johnson succeeded as the first female consumer finance manager in Southern Nevada. She left Las Vegas only briefly to follow her then-husband, another Dial employee, back to Colorado. She couldn't wait to return to Las Vegas.
In 1982, Johnson's mentor at Dial offered her a part-time position at Consumer Credit Counseling Service. Calling the two three-hour shifts a week her "dream job," Johnson jumped at the chance. Today, she works about 60 hours a week and has earned a certification in nonprofit management from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
Consumer Credit Counseling Service has grown with the valley. So has the demand. Many Las Vegans had debt problems even in boom times, and are now underwater in their homes, owing more on their mortgages than their houses are worth, and overwhelmed.
"Last year, we helped 36,000 people, and 90 percent of those were in Nevada," she said at the end of 2010. "I tell people, 'Control your own finances. Don't let a mortgage company control them for you.'"
Question: Do you consider yourself a trailblazer for other women and minorities as the first female manager of a consumer finance company in Southern Nevada?
Answer: I don't know if I am a trailblazer, but I do think because I did a good job as manager, I opened doors for other minorities, not just women.
Question: How do you advise people who ran up their credit cards balances during the holidays?
Answer: If I had the opportunity I'd say, "Don't do it" before they've run up the credit cards. Since that's a bit late, I'd advise them to make their New Year's resolution to begin the road to financial stability in 2011 ... For 30 days, a family should not change (its) spending habits but should track every dime they spend ... After gathering all this information, as a family, you prepare a realistic monthly budget, paying fixed expenses, savings, debt repayment, and then those discretionary expenses.
Question: What are the biggest changes you have seen at Consumer Credit Counseling since you joined it in 1982?
Answer: We've grown from one small branch with two very part-time employees to serving two states (Nevada and Utah) through seven physical locations with a staff of 30.
We've added ... free tax preparation, bankruptcy counseling and education, loan modification and foreclosure prevention, down-payment assistance, unique programs to assist with establishment of checking and savings accounts, and dramatically expanded financial literacy opportunities. In the very near future, we'll be buying multifamily housing to provide affordable rental units to community members.
Question: What effect has walking away from mortgages had on your clients?
Answer: Homeowners too often make emotional decisions. Or they pay for service from someone with a vested interest in the outcome, rather than consulting with our (Department of Housing and Urban Development)-approved agency ... Though the total effects may not be visible yet, given that "walking away" is in the recent past, I'm concerned many homeowners are going to find it is not nearly as painless a process as they've been led to believe .
Question: After 28 years at Consumer Credit Counseling, what do you think your legacy will be among nonprofits in Southern Nevada?
Answer: Our goal is to always do what we said we would do when we said we would do it ... and to do it correctly. ... Though our agency is mission-driven, it has always been run as any business should be run ... My hope is (that) other nonprofits will strive to emulate what we've done.
Contact reporter Valerie Miller at email@example.com or 702-387-5286.