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GreenPath’s new CEO focuses on financial wellness – Detroit Free Press

  • May 1, 2016
  • By: Greenpath Financial Wellness

Kristen-Holt-CEO-Freep

The new CEO of GreenPath likes to begin meetings — and perhaps appropriately given the nonprofit’s name — by giving employees a chance to breathe and relax with something she calls “Zen poetry.”

The small group stands in a tight circle, pauses and then one by one each shares one word.

“It’s not a haiku,” President & CEO Kristen Holt, 42, tells a small group of employees at the credit counseling organization in Farmington Hills. (Detroit Free Press photo: Eric Seals.)

It’s not easy. Initially, words stumble out, such as “sunshine” and “rewarding.”

The idea is to have a beautiful poem, but the first go around is more like a badly garbled sentence. Even so, the exercise is lighthearted enough and a pleasant way to open some doors and to close others.

Holt started her job on April 11. She is the former chief operating officer for United Way for Southeastern Michigan. Before that, she was chief financial officer at NSF International, a global nonprofit based in Ann Arbor. She arrives on the scene as GreenPath Debt Solutions revamps into GreenPath Financial Wellness to broaden its education offerings.

The power of positive words, as well as exercises to instill calmness, can do wonders in the long run for those who live with financial distress, as well as those who counsel people who must juggle burdensome student loans, high monthly mortgage payments and out-of-control credit card bills.

“I don’t want to be the CEO of a company that celebrates when the economy goes bad,” Holt told me in an interview at her office. “We can be that guide to people in good times and in bad.”

The nonprofit, with about $40 million in revenue, has more than 400 employees across the country. Much of its work is done over the phone. But face-to-face services are available at more than 60 offices in 16 states, including Michigan, Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, New York and Florida.

GreenPath, founded in 1961, focused for years as a debt-management service where counselors negotiated payment plans with credit card issuers.

High rates and too much spending alone didn’t keep people overburdened with debt. Some problems spiraled out of control because of late fees, over-the-limit fees and hikes on rates. The Credit Card Accountability, Responsibility and Disclosure Act that took effect in 2010 evened the playing field by curtailing many bad practices by credit card issuers.

Some of those changes, though, cut into business for credit counseling agencies.

GreenPath has added some services over the years. In 2005, it became one of the first agencies approved by the U.S. Department of Justice to offer bankruptcy counseling and education. It also played a role in offering housing counseling during the financial meltdown in 2008-09.

Now the goal of GreenPath Financial Wellness is to continue to help people get into debt management programs but also to expand services related to student loans and other financial challenges.

“Our job is to educate people so they understand what their options are,” Holt said.

Holt wants to broaden education to offering seniors information about such financial products as reverse mortgages. For younger consumers, she sees GreenPath offering education about buying a home and ways to improve your credit.

GreenPath Financial Wellness says its goal is to empower people to reduce stress, stop living paycheck to paycheck, and to take control of their money and their future.

Yet all has not been calm in the past several months. The new CEO comes on the scene while the previous CEO has filed a wrongful discharge lawsuit in Oakland County Circuit Court.

Jane McNamara, 61, who spent 35 years at GreenPath, was let go June 25, 2015. McNamara, who lives in South Lyon, had no plan to retire for six or seven years, according to the suit. But a financial firestorm took off during lengthy negotiations of a contract.

As for Holt, she wants to build on GreenPath’s reputation as a place where consumers can go for financial help and information.

GreenPath is rolling out a new employee financial wellness program for employers. The Health Alliance Plan or HAP is one of the first local partners and will make GreenPath services available to HAP employees, as well as to organizations insured by HAP.

GreenPath also is focusing more on helping consumers tackle problems associated with student loans.

GreenPath offers student loan counseling for a $50 fee, which includes reviewing student loans to help someone understand how much they owe and what kind of repayment options might be available on specific loans.

A more detailed support system involving addressing delinquent and defaulted student loans is available for $200.

“Student loans are just such a huge burden on such a large number of people,” Holt said. “Many people don’t even see a way out of it.”

Holt said falling too far into student loan debt can affect all aspects of someone’s financial life — making it harder to buy a home or raise children.

Kristen-Holt-CEO-Freep

PHOTO CUTLINE: GreenPath CEO Kristen Holt by one of the cubical areas where employees handle and help advise customers on solutions to getting out of debt on April 20, 2016, at the headquarters in Farmington Hills. (Photo: Eric Seals, Detroit Free Press)

The bulk of the nonprofit’s fees continues to involve debt management programs. GreenPath has about 35,000 consumers on debt management programs nationwide.

The fees for debt management programs vary by state of residence and the debt amount. A one-time set up fee ranges from no fee to up to $50. The monthly fee can range from no fee to up to $75 a month.

GreenPath said its average monthly fee is $36. The nonprofit said the fee is far less than the overall amount that its clients save on waived late fees, over the limit fees and reduced interest rates on credit card debt.

“I’ll be looking at expanding the business wherever it makes sense,” Holt said.

Holt, who has two children ages 6 and 10, said she’s long been passionate about making sure that savings is a regular part of every paycheck. She was taught to save half of the money she made as a teen and later aim to save 20% of her pay when she began a career.

Holt tells a story of volunteering at her daughter’s class and talking about when it’s good to use credit cards. Holt was proud that her daughter raised her hand and offered that you use credit cards to get points. Yes, the mom said, and you pay it off every month.

Contact Susan Tompor: 313-222-8876 or stompor@freepress.com. Follow her on Twitter @Tompor.