A Family Tradition: Credit Information Systems Thrives on Innovation, Tenacity

If Heather Russell-Schroeder ever harbored any illusions about the difficulties of being a woman in a man’s industry, they all came crashing down at a meeting attended by a contingent of representatives of her peer companies.

“One of our vendors was having a think tank and invited us to come and give ideas, ‘Shark Tank’ style,” she said. “Each table had to come up with a new pitch or product or data or whatever. I didn’t just sit back and let the men run it. I was like, ‘What about this?’ One of the older gentlemen at the table said, out loud, to me, ‘She really does have some ideas.’”

Russell-Schroeder tells the story with a tight smile, but the third-generation leader of Credit Information Systems’ tone reveals that however diminished, there’s something in the statement that still stings.

“That was when I was just starting out, but I knew even then that you need to speak up and share your ideas and ask your questions,” she said, her tone brightening. “Don’t be afraid to share your ideas and don’t allow other people’s impression of you, whether you’re a woman or a minority or whatever, don’t let other people’s biases let you think less of yourself.”

An Unlikely Path

To listen to Russell-Schroeder today — and to see how the family firm she’s led since 2008 and co-owned since 2009 has thrived — is a voice fortified by the confidence of having competed and excelled in a sometimes cutthroat business. To have known her before 2000 might have sounded much different.

“Honestly, I thought one of my older sisters was going to be here because she had worked here since before and after high school,” she said. “When she ultimately had a life change where she decided she wanted to go work for a nonprofit, I still didn’t think it was going to be me sitting here. I thought one of my other sisters’ husbands, who worked at the office at that time, was going to jump into that spot. But that didn’t work out.”

Russell-Schroeder was so sure her path lay elsewhere, she earned a master’s degree in deaf education following graduation from Duchesne Academy of the Sacred Heart in 1989. She taught for two years in Crete Public Schools until her position was eliminated due to a lack of deaf students. She came home to the firm intending to work part-time and never left, taking over as her father battled and died of brain cancer.

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Trial by Fire

Almost immediately, she said, she faced an existential issue that threw her into the deep end of leading the company, which provides various types of screenings and background checks to lenders, everything from loan applicants to new hires.

“The biggest evolution in our company happened right when my dad was passing away,” she said. “The Dodd-Frank Act passed and we needed to have separation between the people who are ordering appraisals and the people who are completing the appraisals. So, we became an appraisal management company.”

Credit Information Systems is located in a historic Council Bluffs building. (Photography by Debra S. Kaplan)
Credit Information Systems is located
in a historic Council Bluffs building. (Photography by Debra S. Kaplan)

Under Russell-Schroeder’s direction a new division emerged, Star Appraisal Management, which played the necessary middleman between clients and the appraisers they had previously come to trust. The move not only kept the company moving forward but also set the template for Russell-Schroeder’s skill at leading through challenges and change. She’s applied these skills regularly throughout her time at the helm, most recently in the development and introduction of new employment and tenant screening products.

“We had offered the employment credit reports for a long time but we didn’t ever have the criminal background or drug screenings so we struck a partnership with somebody who had deep knowledge in that space,” she said. “Screening and background checks are a very, very different world compliance-wise and it varies state to state and even sometimes city to city. It was not something that I felt confident that we could just do, but it was something our clients had expressed interest in.

“With anything in business, when you’re servicing clients you have to see what their needs are and then find the solution to meet them.” 

Relationships are Everything

With years of experience under her belt, Russell-Schroeder can also point to numerous individuals who she has had a hand in developing, including her peer CEOs. She said her previous life as a teacher comes in quite handy when it comes to building relationships.

“I have a lot of good friendships with a lot of my peers in this industry. We call it ‘coopertition’ — we are in competition but we are all going for the good of the industry. When different legislative or different things come out, we like to make sure that we are all doing things correctly,” she said.

“Life is nothing but teaching, truly. If you’re in any type of leadership, you’re always teaching and learning.”

225 S. Main St., Council Bluffs, Iowa 51503
Phone: 800-782-9094
Website: www.creditinfosystems.com
Social Media: LinkedIn