By: Kelli J Gavin
My first job out of college was as a banker at a local financial institution. I loved the work, the clients and found that problem solving came easily when it involved tricky financial situations. In 1997, I switched positions to another bank and moved from new accounts and investments to new accounts and loans. I enjoyed the change of pace and the learning curve. Instead of people bringing money to me, they were asking me for money to purchase a vehicle, consolidate debt, purchase a new home or improve the one they already had. I found that underwriting and risk assessment were far more interesting to me than long term and short term investment goals and wealth accumulation. I took personal satisfaction in seeing someone establish credit, rectify a financial mistake or even purchase their first vehicle more than just watching people grow their already hefty investment portfolios.
Many times, I would have young adults request a loan to purchase their first car or truck. Sometimes it was a small loan just to get a vehicle to take them from to and from work. Other times it was a loan of 20k for a new to them vehicle. Some new clients wanted to establish credit and requested a simple, low limit credit card. Underwriting loans involves evaluating and reviewing established credit and payment history, verifying income and ability to make payments and hopefully establishing a financial relationship that will be mutually beneficial. I didn’t want to only grant a loan. I wanted to help with deposit accounts, credit cards, future purchases and request referrals from family, friends and coworkers. I wanted the client/customer to remember me as the first person that they called when they had a question. I wanted to build a level of trust so that they knew that I was there for them when they needed advice and financial assistance.
Many young adults are not able to qualify for loans on their own because of the lack of credit history and time on the job, the risk of a loan defaulting was too high. I turned down just as many loans as the ones that I approved. Often, if I felt that the young adult showed promise, could repay it on their own and showed good faith, I would request that they would ask a parent, relative or adult in good financial standing to cosign the loan for them. This means of course, that if the young adult couldn’t or didn’t repay the loan, that the cosigner would make good on the loan and repay it per the original agreement. If the young adult and cosigner didn’t make the payments and stay in contact with me, I then had the right to repossess the vehicle (voluntary or involuntary), sell it and recoup as much money as possible to pay off the loan. I didn’t like this part of financial lending, but learned a lot about being a woman of my word and letting my yes’s be yes and no’s be no.
By the time I was 25, I had written over $5 million in loans and felt that I had a fantastic referral client base. Between walk ins and established referral networks with clients, realtors, and mortgage brokers, I didn’t have to hustle anymore. I was able to work my book of business, request new business from current clients and assist those that were referred to me.
One afternoon right after I had returned from lunch, Elaine, the receptionist, (also my husband’s great aunt) rang me to let me know there was young man in the lobby filling out a car loan application and that he might be in need of a new checking account. I gave him a few minutes to work on the application and went to greet him. Maybe 19, 20 at most, this young man towered over me. Tall and thin, he stood to greet me and extended his hand. Grinning ear to ear, he introduced himself and told me his parents told him to come and see me. He indeed needed to purchase a new vehicle and he needed to start a checking account and wanted to deposit his first five paychecks. I shook his hand, and that is when the smell hit me. My nose threatened to actually fall off my face. His clothing was dirty and looked like it hadn’t been washed in weeks. The smell of his unshowered body made me feel light headed. I tried to recover as quickly as possible and released his hand just as fast as I had taken it.
I escorted him back to my office. I usually shut the door when assisting with new loan clients, but worried that the smell might increase behind the closed door. I found myself turning my head often as I typed his info in my computer. Sniffing my shoulder, hoping to fill my nostrils with the scent of my perfume long enough to turn my head back to him and ask another question. I was short and too the point trying to figure out his needs and assist him but also trying to get him out of my office as soon as possible. I didn’t get it. Yes, he had come to see me on his lunch hour, but was all this filth and stench from just that one morning at work as a car mechanic? Or had he truly not showered, not washed his hands or clothes in a week, maybe a month? I tried. I tried so hard to be civil, but my facial expressions I am sure betrayed me. While continuing to conduct business, I found my mind wondering. This is a bad day for him. Surely, this good looking young man didn’t live his life this way. He couldn’t function and have relationships and smell and look this way. I opened a new checking account, deposited his paychecks, started a savings account for him and quickly did a preliminary underwrite of his loan application. I told him things looked good with his job and income, but that he would need to have a parent or other adult cosign for him. He said that wasn’t a problem at all. Thanked me for my help, asked a few more questions and then he left. I refrained from shaking his hand again.
I stood there feeling like my nose had been assaulted. I needed to wash my hands. I threw away the pen he used. I knew I was going to have to wash my desk and quite possibly do something about the lingering smell in the chair. How was I going to fumigate my entire office?! I quickly went to restroom and scrubbed my hands and arms. I don’t often feel gross after touching people but this time I did. I stood there looking in the mirror and felt bad. I had made so many judgements in my mind about this young man. I was convinced this was a fluke. He had a tough morning, no time to shower and car mechanics really did get that dirty. The next time I saw him, he wouldn’t present this way. It wasn’t possible. I returned to my office to find Elaine asking what she could do to help to eliminate the smell. She gathered two amazing candles and promptly placed them on my credenza and lit them. She went and borrowed air spray from the teller line. (stinky drive up deposit tubes sometimes needed help) My coworker Ryan then presented a new chair to me from an unused office and removed the offending piece of furniture. He said he would put in a special request for the chair to be cleaned. Ryan found cleanser and rags in the janitors closet and helped me clean everything up in my office. He even washed down the clipboard from the loan application before returning it to Elaine at the reception desk.
Two days later, I received a phone call from the young man and he said that his dad would be coming in with him later that day to complete his portion of the cosigned loan application. Once again, believing that the other day was a fluke, I thought great. He is following through with the application and his dad has agreed to help. I scheduled them for 4 pm that afternoon. When they arrived through the side door of the bank by the receptionist desk, I saw the same dirty shirt, the same holey filthy jeans and the smell started wafting into my office. He and his dad appeared to be arguing. The dad’s face seem to be all contorted and he seemed to be yelling at his son under his breath. I stood and walked out from behind my desk as they approached, and heard the dad say, “You could have least taken a shower or changed your clothes!” I smiled and stepped closer.
“Excuse my son. He needs to go and wash his hands.” The son was mortified. I told him it was down stairs and to his left. I ushered the dad into my office and had him take a seat. “I am sorry. My son is a mess. He smells, he never takes a shower and my wife and I are at wits end. We are constantly trying to get him to take more pride in his appearance and he thinks we are just meddling in his life and trying to control him! He doesn’t think that what we have to say is helpful. I don’t know what to do!” The poor dad actually looked like he was going to cry. I then understood. This now grown child really didn’t see anything wrong with his appearance. He always presented like this. I tired to calm the father as much as possible. I asked about friends or a girlfriend, and he said his son didn’t have any. That he worked and had one friend who wasn’t a good influence. And that the boys just went out and drove trucks, went hunting, and fishing and that their son just used his daily hobbies and his job as a mechanic to always avoid any attempt at personal hygiene.
At the wise old age of 25, I had already found that I had a way with words. I found that sometimes all it took was a suggestion from an adult who was not a parent of a child, even a grown child would modify their behavior. I decided to make it my mission to teach my client what was acceptable. Without sharing any of this with his dad, I had made up my mind that I was going to be the person who would help their son make a change.
I completed the loan application with his dad, underwrote his portion and was able to quickly state that we could absolutely write this loan based on the father as cosigner. Both father and son smiled ear to ear. I gathered the additional necessary information and we scheduled an appointment for 4pm the following Monday. Addressing my client, “This will be your first car loan. Now that you have a very good full time job, you are earning a decent paycheck, you have a checking account and savings account, you are accomplishing a lot of things many young people want to. Along with all of these things, an effort in how you present yourself needs to be made. When you have a meeting at your bank, or when you purchase your car, it is very important that you take pride in your appearance. Clean clothing, a shower, combing your hair. I love how hard you work as a mechanic. When you look good, you often feel good. And when you feel good about yourself, you often accomplish more. What is something that you would like to accomplish? ” Silence. My client looked uncomfortable with the conversation as he rubbed his hands together over his jeans as if the filth and stench would disappear if he rubbed hard enough. “I want to be a shift lead. I want to be able to deal with customers at the garage and coordinate repairs. I want the guys I work with to report to me. ” I smiled. Now that was a goal.
We continued to talk about goals and that hard work and
perseverance pays off. He seemed encouraged as you could see the wheels turning in his head and planning what he could do at work to make this goal a reality. We finished up our business, I thanked them both and said I would see them the following Monday. My client left my office first and his dad turned back to me and took my hand again, “Thank you for what you said. Thank you.”
The following Monday, I seemed to be stuck on phone call after phone call. Mortgage companies, insurance offices, other local banks, scheduling loan closings for later in the week, ordering title work and clarifying flood certification requests. My processor brought the loan closing file and prepared docs to me and slid them across my desk only about 15 minutes before my clients were set to arrive. I quickly reviewed them, placed all the flag stickers where signatures and initials were required and put the file back together while finishing my last call.
I saw my client enter the side door of bank before he saw me. He looked different. Even from across the lobby. He was wearing a reasonably clean white tee shirt and cleanish jeans. And he had showered. For real. A legitimate shower had taken place since I last saw him. I quickly rose and made a bee line for him. As I approached, I saw his hands. They were not just clean, they looked like another mans hands. I smiled and took his hand. “You look wonderful! Come on in!” He couldn’t stop smiling. He had heard what I said, wasn’t hurt by it, and applied what he could over the past few days. “I know I could have dressed up for today, but that isn’t something I would normally do. I did do my laundry. I had a lot of loads to do. They are clean. my jeans look a lot better and I even pulled out one of my newer tee shirts. I think I have just lived like this for so long, I didn’t know that it might bother other people than just my parents. I always thought my dad was just a jerk and liked to tell me what to do. I talked to him and he said that you wouldn’t have taken the time to talk me about all that if you didn’t care. He said I have to make an effort. Every day. I am gonna try.”
I complimented him and complimented him again. His smile seemed to grow bigger if that was even possible. I asked when his father was joining us just as I saw him enter the bank out of the corner of my eye. I waved to his dad and he quickly covered the space of the lobby with his long strides. He stopped dead in his tracks in the doorway of my office. As if he couldn’t believe his eyes, “Who is this attractive boy I see before me? ” They both laughed. “Oh my son, you look so good. And smell so good. You clean up good!” My client stood and embraced his father. He hugged his father. From the look on both men’s faces, this hug was long past due.
The loan closing was smooth and went quickly and I handed both men copies of the closing documents and passed an envelope containing the check for the vehicle purchase across my desk. “Congratulations. You are the owner of new vehicle. Take this to the dealer this evening, they know you are coming, they have all of your purchase documents ready for you and all of the bank information on file that is needed for the title and insurance.”
“Kelli, thank you. Thanks for helping me get this loan and for taking the time to explain everything to me. Thanks for talking to me about how I looked. Just thank you.” My heart melted a bit right there and then. I helped him not just buy a car. I helped him gain confidence so that he could make an effort at the goals he had placed before himself.
This past May, I saw my client in at the Chaska Library. I wasn’t sure if he would remember me, so I didn’t go out of my way to go to him and greet him. But then I didn’t have to. He approached me with that ear to ear smile I remembered so fondly over the years. “Is your name Kelli? Did you used to work at the bank in Chanhassen?” I confirmed I was Kelli and greeted him warmly with a hand shake. He was an adult. The adult I knew he would become. Still tall and thin, nice clean clothing, great haircut, and cleanish hands.
“I wanted to thank you. I don’t know if you remember, but I was struggling when we met at the bank all those years ago. I was just diagnosed with depression, and I didn’t care about much. I just worked and hung out with my friend. I looked horrible and smelled horrible. When you were so nice to me and suggested that I take a shower, wash my clothes and make an effort at cleaning up, it meant something to me. I was lonely, I wanted more friends and I wanted to meet special someone. I didn’t think much of myself, but started to gain self esteem when I started showering and washing and changing my clothing. My parents loved it of course, so did my boss. I started volunteering for extra shifts and going the extra mile at work. Maybe 6 months after you did my truck loan, I got that promotion that I told you wanted. I loved it. You were right. Perseverance. I met a woman I fell in love with and we have been married for 15 years and have 4 kids. She knows I still am a outdoors man at heart, but she loves me anyway. I just wanted to say thanks for being kind. I remember you always wore suits and looked nice. But you always shook my hand. That meant something to me and still does. I now own my own small garage and have 5 employees. I still love the work. Thanks for showing me that goals matter. You were a good influence on me.”
I was in awe. It was as if he had a practiced speech and was waiting to deliver this thank you to me for the past 20+ years. I hugged him. Right there and then in the Chaska Library. I don’t remember what I said to affirm him. But I made sure he knew how proud I was of him. Of setting a goal, of taking steps to meet that goal, of accomplishing the goal. I was proud of who he had become. A man that is hard worker, who loves his wife and children and remembers that we all need a helpful hand from time to time. His helpful hand came from a 25 year old female banker who just wanted him to smell better. I also found myself thrilled that my gentle critique was heard and not received as hurtful.
I love interactions like this one. Years later, conversations that were meant to happen. Finding out about someones life and family. About who they love, and sometimes about what they have lost. These human connections, these touch points, affirm, encourage and inspire. I, too, have had a conversation with someone years after the original encounter. I thanked them for speaking truth to me right when I needed to hear it. For knowing that I just needed to be loved on and treasured, even for a moment. I thanked them for being genuine and kind, open to all things awkward and for a life giving conversation. Little did they know, that my impressions of the interaction meant so much to me. The other kind soul, worried and analyzed what they had said to me, concerned that what was conveyed wouldn’t be received with the love it was intended. It wasn’t only received with love, it was treasured.