Craig E. Polejes, 48, is president of Junior Achievement of Central Florida Inc. He was chief executive officer of Florida Bank of Commerce until November, when he joined JA. He spoke recently with Sentinel staff writer Richard Burnett.
CFB: From banker to non-profit executive — why such a dramatic career change?
CFB: What factors came together?
I've been a volunteer in Junior Achievement for more than 20 years; I love it and what it stands for. Last summer, after my predecessor was promoted to national, our organization conducted a job search and, although a number of external candidates were considered, the right person just never surfaced. At the same time, FBC had just gone through a merger with Prime Bank of Melbourne and had settled into a nice groove with new leadership. So when the offer was made at JA, I felt comfortable in stepping aside, changing my career in mid-stream and going to work for an organization that I love dearly and a mission I believe in so thoroughly.
CFB: Financially, it must have been a challenge for you to take a non-profit job.
Believe me, I'm not doing this for the money. And the way non-profits are under such scrutiny these days, I'm determined to run this organization as efficiently as possible. We are in our 50th year at JA, providing educational programs and experiences in Central Florida. The organization has fared very well over that time. Last year, through the help of 3,700 volunteers, we provided more than 4,300 classes to 84,000 students. That ranks us among the top Junior Achievement organizations in the world.
CFB: What do you miss the least about banking? What do you miss the most?
The least? Regulation — that's an easy one to answer. Dealing with regulation, mediation, litigation. … The pressures of doing more with less. As opposed to the work I do now: the positive energy of working with kids and education and making a difference in the lives of young people. As far as what I miss the most in banking, I would say the people — helping provide financial products to help entrepreneurs realize their financial dreams.
CFB: When you were in banking, describe how you felt when the financial crisis began?
Well, of course the fourth quarter of 2008 was really the moment of come-uppance for banks — and for the whole country, for that matter. That was when Lehman failed, then we went through Bear Stearns, and the market crashed. That is when the economic downturn and the extent of its severity became very real. I think most people felt the boom in housing and that economic cycle was not sustainable. But I am quite sure nobody expected this downturn to last so long — that the housing and construction sectors would still be challenged as it is today.
CFB: Do you consider your work with JA a long-term commitment?
Our board recently adopted a five-year strategic plan to guide us into the future. I view my role as the one to execute that plan. After I do that, I'll take a look back, re-evaluate and go forward on from there. I won't rule out returning to the financial sector. Like I said earlier, a year ago, I wouldn't have imagined doing this. But I won't be doing anything else any time soon. This job has my full commitment; anything less would a disservice to an organization I love.
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