New CredAbility chief Phil Baldwin aims to help Americans on edge

By Maria Saporta
Friday, December 2, 2011

After 100 days in Atlanta as the new president of CredAbility, Phil Baldwin is a study in contrasts — rural versus urban, rich versus poor, local versus national and international.

Baldwin is welcoming his new role of leading the Atlanta-based national nonprofit credit counseling organization as a way to help change the economic equation for Americans living on the financial edge.

Coincidentally, Baldwin also holds a national strategic position as board chairman of United Way of America — the second Atlantan in a row to hold that post.

In many ways, CredAbility is a continuation of the work that Baldwin has been doing for years — as a banker or with United Way. But the playing field is strikingly different.

For more than a decade, Baldwin was president and CEO of Southern Bancorp, a $1 billion bank holding company that is the largest rural development bank in the country. The bank’s mission was to help transform struggling rural areas in Arkansas and Mississippi along the Delta and the river.

Baldwin’s office was in a two-story bank building, one of the tallest, in Arkadelphia, which he described as Mayberry, USA. His home was on 3 acres frequently visited by wildlife.

Contrast that to his new Atlanta life. Baldwin, and his wife, DeeDee, live in a high-rise in Midtown where they can view the city from their balcony. He works at 270 Peachtree St. downtown where his 18th floor corner office overlooks Atlanta’s skyline.

At Southern Bancorp, it was not unusual for the bank to work in communities where unemployment was between 30 percent and 40 percent and where no new building had been built for 40 years. A new Walgreens was viewed as major new economic development.

Contrast that with Atlanta. And yet, Baldwin’s mission in both places is remarkably similar — to help bring about social change by improving the financial situation of residents.

“I see this as such important work,” Baldwin said. “The financial stability of families and individuals is being severely challenged.”

Baldwin said he became interested in joining CredAbility after hearing that its longtime executive, Suzanne Boas, was retiring. “I knew of all the great work CredAbility had been doing, and I knew of the great work that Suzanne had done,” Baldwin said. “We are in the business to do good for people.”

In his first 100 days at CredAbility, Baldwin has been visiting the organization’s 25 offices across the Southeast and meeting its 427 employees, including 217 counselors.

“I wanted to get a really good sense of the strategic structure of the organization and try to put together a plan of how CredAbility can effect real change in our country through personal financial stability,” Baldwin said.

Many of our nation’s economic problems can be traced to the financial issues facing families. For starters, financial pressures are a leading cause for divorce. And the ability for families to improve their station in life is directly tied to their financial stability.

“You have a hollowing out of the middle class, which is a really dangerous thing,” Baldwin said. “I think CredAbility stands to help with that. We really can help them make decisions to get back on their feet.”

Already, CredAbility provides services to people living in all 50 states as well as Washington, D.C., Guam, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. It has seen its phone and Internet counseling expand, which has enabled the organization to become more national in scope.

But Baldwin believes that CredAbility, which was founded in 1964 and was known for decades as the Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Greater Atlanta, can do more.

“The priority would be to expand the vision of CredAbility in relationship to the need that individuals and families have out there,” Baldwin said, adding that the organization is trying to figure out “what does this national nonprofit need to do to help the middle and lower-income class, and what do we need to do to help people achieve financial stability.”

Among the possible answers: expanding the organization’s services across the country, expanding its Internet capabilities and opening new offices beyond the Southeast.

As part of his national United Way role, Baldwin has become a strategic civic leader in Atlanta. He was officially introduced Nov. 28 as a member of the Rotary Club of Atlanta, and he was introduced by Boas, his predecessor.

“In Atlanta, I see good civic leadership, and I see strong corporations and a really strong philanthropic community,” said Baldwin.

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

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