In an earlier chapter of her life, Kala Smith worked as a recruiter for a financial services company.
Then the tables turned. The recruiter became the recruited.
“In January 2013, I met Erika Ardouin [Director of Recruitment for Garber] at a career fair,” Kala said. “I was recruiting and so was she. At the time, Gateway Financial Solutions [GFS] was small. I didn’t know a ton about GFS. But then I met with Erika, and we hit it off right away.”
Though she had a solid job at the financial services company, the idea of joining Gateway was intriguing to Kala.
“The growth opportunities attracted me right away, so I pursued it further,” she said.
She took a leap – and it paid off. Now as the Regional Vice President of Sales for Gateway Financial Solutions (GFS), Kala is a proud team member under the Garber umbrella.
Kala wasn’t planning on working for Gateway. Now she doesn’t plan on leaving.
Playing the Long Game
During her process of getting hired at Gateway, Kala had numerous interviews.
“I had a meet and greet, and it was almost like dating because they wanted to get to know me as a person, but from an employer/employee perspective, like, ‘Do you want to take the relationship to the next level?’” she laughed. “I met with a different person, then a third and maybe a fourth. You meet a wide variety of people when you are interviewing here.”
Getting hired to work with the Garber organization is an intentional process. With intention often comes patience – and for good reason, Kala said.
“Garber uncovers the onion to see the roots of a person before we hire them, which I love,” she said. “We take the time to invest in a person. That’s one of the reasons there’s longevity here at GFS. People are here for years and years because we take the time to really ensure we hire the right people.”
After going through the intentional interview process, Kala got hired on as a credit analyst for GFS in June 2013. She was green to the industry, but she knew right away that she had found the right fit.
“After my first day at Gateway, I came home and my husband asked me, ‘So what exactly do you do?’ I said, ‘I’m not sure yet,’” she laughed. “It was very exciting to go to work because it was something new, and I wanted to learn and grow with this company.”
As a new employee, Kala immediately noticed how unique the culture was throughout the entire Garber organization.
“Working here is like something I’ve never imagined before,” Kala said. “Coming in, it’s weird because it’s so different from any other place. At first, you’re like, ‘What’s this all about? Is this too good to be true?’ The true love for people and their work…it’s amazing. A lot of places are cutthroat. Here, everyone is trying to make sure you’re successful and find the right fit for you. If you have an idea, you can express it. It’s a lot of greenlight thinking.”
Onward and Upward
When it comes to growth, Kala said Gateway is beyond supportive of helping team members add skills to their resume and reach their goals.
“The people here invest in your success, not just what they are doing,” she said. “We invest the time and want people to grow. I’ve grown up with this company. I get to work with colleagues who invest in you and your life. GFS is such a strong foundation of people. You’re not a number. You’re a true, genuine person.”
Kala’s career is evident of that support. She has learned, grown and added more responsibilities since her start in 2013.
“After I got hired, I was in the credit analyst role until January 2015, then I was promoted to portfolio manager for all of Michigan except Detroit,” Kala explained. “In February 2017, I was promoted to funding manager. For my current role, I threw my name in the hat in January 2020 because the position became available. I went to my supervisor and said, ‘Why not me?’ I was pregnant with my third child, but I wanted to make this work. And I got the job.”
Gateway –a sub-prime lender that finances auto loans– also offers services that go beyond financial solutions, Kala said. The company helps improve people’s quality of life.
“What we do for our customers makes us really unique,” she said. “We are really helping them get on their feet. We are actually helping customers get kids to school, get groceries, not have to take the bus, and really take those important life steps.”
Along with investing in its team members’ growth and customers’ successes, Kala said the company pours time, talents, and resources into the community.
That attitude starts at the top.
“Dick Garber is the real deal,” Kala said. “He’s done so much for the community. I strive to be just like him.”
Garber and Gateway often partner with Habitat for Humanity to host a volunteer week. Team members across the company volunteer to help with house repair.
“I’ve willingly volunteered with Habitat for Humanity while I was eight months pregnant with my son Thomas,” she said. “That’s what we do here: we service the community. I love it.”
She said the company’s opportunities to get involved in the community can also help newcomers establish a social circle and feel involved.
“I came from such a small town and then moved to Saginaw,” Kala explained. “In that situation, you don’t know how to come in and build a life. But this company lays it out for you because you can easily get involved and build a community.”
Since joining Gateway, Kala said she has grown in immeasurable ways.
“I’m a completely different person now that I work at this company,” she said. “I never thought I’d be the VP of sales. I’m more outspoken now and aware of my surroundings and how I talk to people. Being pushed outside of my comfort zone has helped reward me with more confidence. I’ve broken out of my shell, it’s all because I started working here.”
First job? I worked for a pickle farm in Unionville and picked cucumbers. You’d lay on the back of a tractor and reach down off the truck to pick the pickles. Your legs would get so burnt from laying in the sun.
First car? 1995 Ford Taurus station wagon. I named it Gumby because it was green.
Three things you can’t live without? Family. Sports – I grew up playing softball and basketball, and I love all sports. Traveling – I can’t stay in one place.
Something people would be surprised to know about you? I started skiing when I was 2 ½ years old, and now I can’t ski to save my life.
Best piece of advice you’ve received? “Tall buildings have strong foundations.” Dick Garber says this, and I believe it. I want to make sure we are all strong pieces in this foundation.