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University of Illinois Community Credit Union CEO E.J. Donaghey describes Central Illinois Business’ Forty Under 40 Man of the Year Chris Harlan as intentional, measured and responsive.
Donaghey nominated the credit union’s executive vice president and chief operating officer for the honor.
Harlan, 38, learned those values growing up near Champaign’s Centennial Park, living in the same house all through Robeson Elementary School, Jefferson Middle School, Centennial High School and Parkland College.
Seated in his office with Chicago Blackhawks and Cubs paraphernalia behind him, Harlan said that aside from wanting to be a professional athlete growing up, “I always knew I wanted to be in business or some industry. That was in my head: I wanted to work at a desk and be a leader of some sort.”
Harlan’s first job was at K’s Merchandise Mart, where he stayed about five years.
“I really learned sales and customer service there,” he said.
After about a year, he was promoted to electronics department manager and learned about inventory and sales – and met his future wife, Katie, a coworker. Harlan decided to go back to school full-time to get his degree but continued working at the store.
“It served me well,” he said.
After graduating, Harlan owned a lawn and landscaping company, working 90 hours a week, and discovered he hated mowing lawns. After three years, he decided to pursue a career in financial services.
Harlan went on to spend five years with Busey Bank. Harlan has now been in the financial services industry about 15 years.
A friend and colleague introduced Harlan to the book “StrengthsFinder.” At the time Harlan was considering leaving middle-management for marketing or sales, but the book’s emphasis on doing what you’re good at resonated with him.
“I decided to stick it out and see where it takes me,” he said. “I feel challenged and fulfilled in the role I’m in now.”
Harlan now spends a lot of time coaching his team members on their strengths.
“I really like to meet with my team,” he said. “I’m able to give them individual attention and be updated on different things they’re working on. Part of what I love about this job is it’s different every day.”
Harlan oversees retail delivery channels, branches, marketing and lending. A majority of UICCU employees work for him or his team. He also manages the credit union’s strategic plan and planning process. Harlan is the co-founder and CEO of Campus Card Management Group, a credit union service organization.
Donaghey encouraged Harlan to get his University of Illinois MBA.
“He showed me why that was a great opportunity to take advantage of,” Harlan said. “I’ve been really fortunate to have great bosses, people who have been able to both challenge me and give me the opportunity to fail at times but also kind of correct myself along the way.”
At the time, he and Katie had a 3-year-old, a 1-year-old and a newborn.
“It was one of the most challenging times because I wanted to give my best to all aspects of my life,” he said. “Each was a tremendous opportunity, and I didn’t want to miss any of it. Unfortunately you realize you can only do so much, so I tried to just be present and give my best to whatever I was doing at the moment.”
Harlan said the best compliment he’s ever received is that he’s a good presenter.
“In high school, I was paralyzed by the idea of any kind of public speaking,” he admitted.
Harlan decided if he would ever be professionally successful, he needed to improve.
“So I started volunteering at every opportunity with the idea that the more I do it, the more comfortable I’ll be,” he said.
He focuses on preparation.
“I don’t like to be scripted but I do use specific bulleted talking points and then I’ll typically try to come up with some kind of icebreaker,” he said. “If I can just get into it, I’ll be OK. I’m pretty good at talking.”
Harlan serves on the Allerton Park and Recreation Center Board of Directors. He has been a Big Brothers/Big Sisters mentor, ran several United Way corporate fundraising campaigns, and he and Katie contribute as United Way Pillars and Compassion International supporters. Harlan also volunteers on the Illini Media Board of Directors, U of I College of Business Marketing Panel and the PSCU Advisory Board.
“Chris has dedicated his career to serving others and this community,” Donaghey said. “When it comes to serving this community, nobody has more spirit than Chris Harlan. As a community member, his roots run deep, and so does his appreciation and commitment to giving back.”
Harlan was a critical part of founding a GoFundMe account for missing UIUC student Yingying Zhang’s family. He and his team spent hours offering financial counsel and management in support of the family.
“The university reached out and said, ‘What can you do to help?’” Harlan said.
Originally, there was simply going to be a UICCU account set up for the family.
“My instant reaction was, ‘This is a major event in our community,’” Harlan said. ”It’s really caught the attention of not only this community but all the way overseas.”
By the end of the weekend it began, the GoFundMe account reached $75,000.
He recalled meeting the family for the first time.
“That was just unimaginable,” Harlan said. “Certainly they were appreciative.”
“Chris Harlan is a true fan of this community,” Donaghey said.
Harlan jokes that the only way east central Illinois could be improved is by importing southern California weather. He likes the proximity to Chicago, Indianapolis and St. Louis and the ease of traveling out of Willard Airport and says “the number of things there are to do in this area always amazes me.”
As for Harlan’s long-term goals, “I’ve always said I would like to lead an organization; I’ve never been shy about that,” he said.
Harlan believes in being yourself.
“In all circumstances, that seems to be the key to happiness and success,” he said. “Once you start trying to emulate or compare yourself to someone else, you will be disappointed.”
Harlan said he’ll never be done learning.
“I have had to recognize that the success of others is more important than my own success in order to achieve major goals,” he said. “This is really difficult for me because I’m naturally very competitive. I believe this will be more and more important in the future, and we could all benefit from an abundance mentality.”
Harlan enjoys traveling, cooking, spending time with family and friends and golfing.
“I love to be outside,” he said. “My wife and I love to travel and go to the pool with our kids.”
If Harlan had to choose an actor to play him in a movie, it would be Tom Hanks.
“My boss describes me as the oldest young person he knows,” Harlan said. “I’m pretty low-key. It’s definitely not going to be any of the action stars.”