by Melanie Threlkeld McConnell
Jake Robinson ’10 has come a long way from the days he got paid in honey buns for picking up aluminum cans in the auction ring after a sale at his grandfather’s stockyard.
As president and CEO of Canton-based Champion Credit Union, Robinson, 32, oversees an organization with six branches, $300 million in assets and more than 100 employees. He believes working at Cattleman’s Livestock Yard as a kid, and later lifting hay bales, moving steel drums and working a 12-hour industrial shift one summer as a WCU student, taught him something about the human condition — other than hard labor is tiring.
“It really gave me a good perspective on all the different jobs that many of the people that our credit union today serves,” said Robinson, recipient of Western Carolina University’s Young Alumnus Award. “I can kind of understand where they come from and what they do every day.”
Robinson, a Canton native who graduated with a degree in finance and a minor in accounting, was a Catamount basketball player for four years, serving as a team captain his last two. These days, he and wife Olivia Collins Robinson ’10 are members of the Catamount Club. He also is a member of the College of Business’s advisory board and served on the search committee that recommended new athletics director, Alex Gary.
Math was always Robinson’s favorite subject growing up, and he credited a freshman finance class taught by professor Grace Allen for fine-tuning his focus on a future career. “I just fell in love with the curriculum and the material. I enjoyed the numbers aspect of it, and I enjoyed the problem solving and the critical thinking skills that were necessary,” he said. “It was just something from that point forward I knew very clearly I wanted to pursue, and what I hoped to incorporate into my career.”
It’s been quite the journey for Robinson, who served two internships with Champion before joining the company’s management training program upon graduation. He then participated in a credit union school — a three-year commitment — through the University of Georgia to learn how to lead a credit union. “All the factors that are involved in my day-to-day operation, you learn those skills during that experience,” Robinson said. “It just gives you the skills necessary to be successful in this role.”
Robinson became Champion’s CEO and president in January 2015 at age 27. He’s humble when he explains how he made the meteoric rise to the top of his profession look so easy. “Having a sports background, it doesn’t matter if I’m throwing darts, or playing basketball or golf, or whatever it is, I want to be the best and I want to win,” he said. “I think that drive every day is what wakes me up and keeps me motivated.”
But there’s more to it. A self-described “Western North Carolina boy forever,” Robinson loves where he lives and wants his community to thrive, too. He serves on the board of directors of the Haywood County Chamber of Commerce and the Haywood Advancement Foundation. “I’m someone who’s not afraid to step up and lead and set an example for others,” he said. “I told my wife we were going to be successful one day, and success didn’t necessarily mean money, that it meant making a difference and helping our community. When I set my mind on something, I’m so competitive that I’m not willing to accept anything other than my best.”
Robinson credits former Champion CEO Mike Clayton for helping him find a successful career in his hometown. “I had some really good mentors, and my predecessor really gave me opportunities and challenged me to grow,” Robinson said. “It was really a blessing to have someone who believed in me at a young age. I put in the time and the effort after hours and during hours to learn and to work hard. But it was my goal when I stayed here in Western North Carolina to be in a leadership position. I wanted to try to make an impact in our community, and I’ve been fortunate enough to do that so far.”
Clayton said it was clear that Robinson had what it took to succeed in business. “Jake Robinson is a man of integrity. He is honest and treats people with respect. His great work ethic was developed in him by his family and the years he spent playing basketball under someone he admired, former WCU coach Larry Hunter,” Clayton said. “I recognized early on he had management ability and could move Champion Credit Union into the future. He has done so successfully.”
Was it beneficial growing up in a small town, especially when you return in such a high-profile job? “I think it really means everything, especially being able to come back after graduating from school and give back to the people who helped me get to where I am,” Robinson said. “It proves you don’t always have to move away to reach your goals and make a meaningful difference.”