Feature Story

Jill Berdan


Photo: Kris Kathmann

3rd Place: Business Person of the Year 2016

1 In A Million

As Sleepy Eye Branch President of SouthPoint Federal Credit Union, Jill Berdan serves her community through her passion for financial literacy.

Titles aren’t all that important to Jill Berdan.

Berdan is the Sleepy Eye Branch President of SouthPoint Federal Credit Union, but she sums her job up a little more informally: “I’m supposed to get out into the community, build relationships, and find ways to fulfill needs and to drive businesses back to SPFCU.”

Since Berdan, now 47, joined SPFCU in 2005, she has been instrumental in helping to grow the credit union from two branches to four; 7,950 members to 14,200; and $140 million in assets to $290 million.

Berdan views both her job and her community involvement as simply doing what needs to be done.

“My parents were always doing things for others, helping with snow removal, fixing things, making baked goods that we would deliver,” she explained. “My passion is financial literacy, helping people to succeed with their finances now and in the future.”

That passion has fueled far-reaching results and built such a solid reputation within Berdan’s community that, when it came time to collect nominations for Connect’s 2016 Business Person of the Year, everyone from coworkers to nonprofit heads rushed to recommend her. That community support, along with Berdan’s impressive business presence, earned her the title of second runner-up for this year’s award.

Titles might not mean much to Jill Berdan, but she should be mighty proud of this one. She deserves it.


Berdan’s first professional success came at age 16, when she convinced the owner of a family-owned women’s clothing shop in her hometown of Hutchinson that she would be an asset to the business.

“I applied, but was not hired because they thought I was too young for the job,” she said. “Most of their customers were professionals or more mature women. They hired someone else, but when I saw the ‘Help Wanted’ sign back in the window, I phoned the owner from a pay phone at school. I got an interview and landed a 30-day trial period. The summer after my senior year, I was working at their new store in St. Paul and supervising nights and weekends. The day before my 21st birthday, we opened a store in Edina. I wanted to own my own store someday.”

While working in St. Paul, Berdan attended the University of St. Thomas, majoring in sales and marketing. She cut back to part-time classes to gain the real-life experience of managing the Edina store. Then her life took a new direction. She left the clothing business, returned to Hutchinson and took a job as a Land O’ Lakes district administrative assistant.

“I was burnt out,” she said. “Retail is fun, but exhausting—nights, weekends, holidays.”

Her interest in sales led to a real estate career. She received her real estate (CRS, GRI) license in 1995, shortly before she married her husband, Jeff, whom she met through Land O’ Lakes.

“I so loved the sales,” she said, “but my husband was also in sales, which was fine before we started a family, but made for a scheduling nightmare after we had two children. So I was a stay-at-home mom for four years, which I loved doing.”

An offer from a lender with whom she’d worked in real estate led to a return to the job market at a New Ulm mortgage company.

“For that job I took a four-week mortgage lending course in Atlanta,” Berdan said. “It was my husband’s turn to be the full-time parent. I still use the information I learned.”

When the mortgage company closed after one year, Berdan was hired by SPFCU as a Financial Services Representative, opening accounts and making loans. She was promoted to FSR supervisor and then to Sleepy Eye Branch Manager. She recently earned a Financial Educator Certificate through a one-year University of Minnesota Extension program and has joined other credit union colleagues in community development training and initiatives.

“We put a huge emphasis on education at SPFCU,” Berdan said. “My goal in taking the U-M Extension online program was to be lined up with what other financial educators are doing. I learned about resources for specific issues, interactive budget sheets (so I don’t have to develop them from scratch), and why people manage their finances the way they do.”

Berdan has been described as “thinking outside the box” and “always willing to stand up for what she believes is right for the customer.” It’s those qualities that helped her take on what she termed one of the credit union’s “biggest challenges.” The Sleepy Eye branch is located in an aging community with an already high rate of membership, which led to a decrease of members through attrition. The program she created to reverse that process is one of her “outside the box” ideas.

“A credit union is built on thrift, savings and education,” Berdan said. “Education is huge. What do employers want? Employers want productive employees. When employees are stressed, they are less productive, and most stress is caused by finances. With a team of co-workers, I developed a program called SouthPoint @ Work. It’s a way to approach area employers about helping their employees through financial education.”

Berdan explained that SouthPoint partners with employers by offering seminars at their workplaces. These seminars address various topics that could impact finances, such as budgeting, identity theft, mortgage loans, investments and how to improve a credit score. Some employers incorporate SouthPoint @ Work into their wellness program.

“I don’t know of any other financial institution that does anything like this,” Berdan continued. “We develop a relationship and develop trust.”

Since the program SouthPoint @ Work began, the Sleepy Eye branch has grown by two members per week—about 100 new members over the past year. The education process continues after new members join.

“We never just deny a loan,” Berdan said. “We tell the member, ‘I know the answer I will give you today is not what you want to hear.’ Then we explain what’s affecting our decision, and what can be done about it to obtain that type of loan in the future. It’s the right thing to do. We don’t make a loan to someone who cannot be successful with it. We have the knowledge of how to improve a credit score, and we share that knowledge with them.”

“People helping people” is a credit union philosophy, but for Berdan, it’s also living out the philosophy of treating others with the same respect you give family members. This applies even more to credit union members who may have health or mental conditions such as early dementia issues.

“It may be difficult to deal with them,” Berdan said. “We tell our staff, ‘This could be your mom or dad. How would you want them to be treated?’ We may need to adjust our relationship to connect with that member as an individual.”

Credit unions are unlike other financial institutions in that the members are part owners. According to Berdan, the credit union’s profits are returned to members in fewer fees, lower loan rates and higher interest rates on deposits.

“We are committed to helping people every time we interact with them,” she said. “What we do is not just transaction based anymore.”

Berdan also has helped develop and launch other SPFCU programs, including Growth and Giving, Retail Financing and Community Partners, as well as EzSkills Workshops for high school juniors and seniors.

With the Retail Financing Program, merchants with credit union memberships can allow customers to use SouthPoint Visa Credit Cards for purchases that will then retain zero percent interest for six months.

“It’s a great way to partner with our retail business members,” Berdan said. “It encourages shoppers to buy from that merchant, deepens our relationship with our members and encourages potential new members to consider SPFCU. Another benefit to the merchant is there is no cost to them and no risk.”

Another program, Community Partners, offers member businesses free advertising on the SPFCU website. A Community Partner business is featured monthly on the main page, and participants may link their website to the credit union’s.

Through the Growth and Giving program, SPFCU donates $10 to the school (within the field of membership) of every new credit union member’s choice. SPFCU also supports having staff go into schools to share their knowledge. Having been a guest speaker in high school classrooms, Berdan recently launched the EzSkills Workshop, a program she developed from an idea she saw on a webinar.   

“We pay high school juniors and seniors $25 to attend the EzSkills Workshop to learn how to successfully manage their own finances,” Berdan said. “EzSkills is another way we can use information to build relationships and trust, and hopefully to grow membership. We want the students and their parents to think of SouthPoint when they are looking for someone to trust now and in the years to come.”

One trend affecting credit unions is more online interaction, such as being able to apply for and sign a loan online. Berdan sees that as a great convenience to members, but also as a challenge to be met.

“We build relationships,” she said. “Hopefully, we are still building them by giving members the tools they need, the products and services they want, and providing advice they need or expect. If I could change one thing, it would be to have the opportunity to interact with every one of our 15,000 members in seven counties, even though I know that will not happen.”

Berdan’s community leadership and volunteer involvement are also important parts of her life. Having served on the Sleepy Eye Chamber Board of Directors for five years, she currently is the vice president and twice was emcee for the annual Chamber meeting, as well as emceeing events for other community organizations. She takes part in events ranging from Music in the Park to Buttered Corn Days to golf tournaments.

Six years ago, this was not the case. It took a small push to propel Berdan into community action.

She explained, “Although I live in New Ulm, I’ve worked in Sleepy Eye since 2005. It was five years ago that SouthPoint’s CEO told me, ‘Jill, it’s your turn to serve on the Chamber Board.’ My first thought was, ‘But I have all of this work to do.’ I had not yet been integrated into the Sleepy Eye business community. The Chamber of Commerce did that for me. I’ve met so many wonderful people, and there are so many things to do. It makes me sad that I can do only some of them and that a board member can serve only two three-year terms.”

Three years ago, Berdan helped launch a B2B (business-to-business) quarterly networking luncheon for Sleepy Eye Chamber members, inviting non-Chamber members in hopes they would see a benefit in Chamber membership. Membership has grown by 22 percent since B2B began. In addition, the Springfield Chamber of Commerce started hosting its own B2B events after sending some members to Sleepy Eye’s event.

“It’s not my brainchild,” Berdan said. “The Chamber board discussed how to get Chamber members better acquainted with one another and what they are doing at their business and in the community. The first time there were only eight people at the networking lunch. Now, 50 to 60 show up each time to hear people speak about what’s going on in their business. Some businesses bring five or six people. We’re talking Sleepy Eye (a community of fewer than 5,000 people).”

Berdan also serves on a Chamber committee focused on finding ways to encourage young people to stay in Sleepy Eye.

“In a small town, kids tend to grow up and leave,” Berdan said. “We want them to know they can have the jobs and careers that they are seeking elsewhere right here in their small town.”

To do this, the committee developed an “On the Job” training program in the Sleepy Eye high schools. Students interested in OJT apply, interview and attend a training session that includes topics such as how to brand yourself, social media image, appropriate apparel for work and even handshakes. Students are “hired” (without pay), shadowing an employee or doing real work, depending on the business, during a class period. Students can explore banking, sales, accounting and other areas. Some of these “jobs’’ have led to full-time employment.

Berdan also is an integral part of the Sleepy Eye Junior Achievement Committee, which includes helping raise funds to support JA classes in the Sleepy Eye schools.

“I began teaching Junior Achievement when my children were in elementary school,” she said. “I have taught 4th-grade JA at both St. Mary’s School in Sleepy Eye and in the New Ulm Area Catholic Schools. The public schools also have volunteers.”

Berdan received the Shining Star Community Service Award from the Sleepy Eye Chamber last February. The person who receives the award is described as a positive role model, one who generates inspiration to others and demonstrates how civic engagement contributes to a healthy environment and successful society.

Last September, Berdan was recognized for her dedication and distinguished service to education and to the community by being inducted into the New Ulm Area Catholic Schools Hall of Fame. In addition to being involved in NUACS’s Junior Achievement program, she has sewn and directed the costuming for New Ulm Cathedral High School’s theater productions for several years. She’s also involved in community fundraising events, serves as volunteer on the Catholic school’s accreditation committee and serves as a Eucharistic minister at the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity.

“A lot of what I do fills my bucket,” Berdan said. “I get more out of work and volunteering than I give. My job is challenging in that I am tasked with growing the membership base of the SPFCU main branch, which has been in business since 1936 and serves 75 percent of the households in our community in some fashion. By implementing some unique strategies, we have seen growth that we didn’t previously think was possible. I am excited to see what the next few years have in store for us as we continue down this path.”


Berdan Basics

Childhood: Fourth of five girls in Hutchinson, the youngest for 13 years until the baby came along.
Family: Husband Jeff, sons E.J. and Ian
Hobbies: Baking, sewing, scrapbooking, four-wheeling through the river bluffs. (“I used to want to be a race car driver.”)
Accomplishment of which most proud? “Landing that first job at 16.”
Three words that describe you? “Committed, involved, service oriented.”
If you weren’t in this business? “It would have to be something with sales and service. That’s what fuels me.”

SouthPoint History

In the depths of the Depression, St. Mary’s Church of Sleepy Eye, seeking a place to save and borrow money at reasonable interest rates, formed the St. Mary’s Parish Sleepy Eye Credit Union on April 21, 1936. Membership was originally limited to parish members, their immediate families and associations of such members. Two years later, membership was expanded to members of the Japanese Martyrs Church of Leavenworth (a small community southwest of Sleepy Eye). In 1965, membership was extended to all parish members in the New Ulm Diocese who resided in Brown County. In 2002, all residents and legal entities of Brown, Redwood and Renville counties were added.

The name remained unchanged until 1970, when it was modified slightly to St. Mary’s Parish Credit Union. In 2002, the National Credit Union Administration approved the application to convert from a state to a federal charter, causing the name change to St. Mary’s Federal Credit Union. On September 15, 2005, the name was changed to SouthPoint Federal Credit Union, to better suit the expanding field of membership.

SPFCU now serves seven counties in southwestern and south central Minnesota through branches in Sleepy Eye, New Ulm, Springfield and St. Peter.

What Others Say

“I am extremely impressed by Jill’s passion for the success of our business, members and the broader communities we serve. Her positive and passionate approach makes her an extremely effective communicator, coach and leader.”
– Jay Gostonczik, Vice President of Member Services

“Jill is a standup person who is passionate about supporting her local community.  She makes an excellent example to all in the business world.”
– Kayla Ruch, Junior Achievement District Manager

“Jill has been an advocate for our organization in regards to financial education.  Her passion for our mission in regards to helping our members achieve their goals and dreams is her focus.”
– Maxine Meine, Branch President of SouthPoint Federal Credit Union

“Whichever group Jill commits her energies to, you always know that she will roll up her sleeves and become part of the solution. She is a model of the person that all of us would like to be.  She genuinely cares about others on both a personal and business basis… If we had more people like Jill Berdan, our community would be just that much more successful and positive!”
– Julie Anderson, Mathiowetz Construction Company


SouthPoint Federal Credit Union
Address: 920 East Main, Sleepy Eye, Minnesota
Phone: (877) 794-6712
Web: southpointfed.com

Carlienne Frisch

A freelance writer and college instructor from Mankato.