What’s with the Statue?

The Seated Boxer, an iconic ancient Greek work of art, shows a grizzled veteran of the ring, equal parts resigned and ready to spring into action. 

What I like is a sense of respite from competition, the powerful athletic physique and the tiredness that surrounds his humanity.  Is he a winner this day? Are there more fights to go?  How will his efforts be remembered?

These are questions that all of us encounter, in literal or figurative ways, in our daily efforts. 

Continue reading “What’s with the Statue?”

Is This Who We Are? Part II: Specious Merger Reasons

Yesterday, in Part I of this series, I introduced the merger of Sperry Associations FCU’s ($278.4 million) with Pentagon FCU ($25.9 billion). The merger terms in the member Notice includes this sentence: “The services currently offered by Sperry will cease to be provided and replaced by the (virtual) branch services listed in the attachment to this Notice.”

Part I described how this locally-focused, high-preforming credit union was ideally positioned in the market according to the CEO’s public testimonials. It is now to be closed in the middle of a pandemic when most needed by members. Why?

What Members Were Told About Why They Should Merge

The reasons from the FAQ on Sperry’s web site:

Q: Why did Sperry have to merge in the first place?

“In recent years, the financial services marketplace on Long Island has changed. Thanks to the entrance of more big banks and global Fin-Tech companies, it’s become more challenging for mid-sized institutions like Sperry to thrive. While Sperry is currently financially healthy and well-capitalized, our Board of Directors felt that partnering with PenFed is the best option to ensure that our membership gets the service they both expect and deserve – all while continuing the credit union mission of people helping people.”

In the required Notice of Special Meeting to Members, dated July 28, 2020,  the two paragraph explanation is:

“The directors of the participating credit unions have concluded that the proposed merger is desirable for the following reasons: In today’s landscape of digital transformation coupled with evolving technology, regulatory compliance, and increasing cybercriminal threats, our Board of Directors evaluated strategic possibilities to assure that you, our member, will continue to receive the full range of products and services you deserve.

“To ensure continuity of operations while seeking to expand product offerings and improve services, we have been diligently searching to find alternatives. We have explored a range of options, including collaborating with like institutions to consolidate key support functions, maintaining the current course alone, or merging with a strong and proven performer. While there are some benefits with each option, only one meets the full range of our objectives: growth of membership, expansion of product offerings, infusion of investment in IT cybersecurity, improved training and enhanced community service. After considering alternatives, we determined that a merger with PenFed is in the best interest of our members.”

This is the only reason in the required special meeting notice signed by Chairman, Gary Barrello. There are no facts supporting the reasons—no comparison of savings rates, loan programs/rates, service fees and delivery system options that any member would need to consider in making an informed choice to give up Sperry’s charter.

Along with these short, generalized assertions, the letter provides the required disclosures of merger related financial arrangements for the top five management employees. These payments potentially total $2.2 million. There is an “agreement” to donate $100,000 per year to local causes on the recommendation of Sperry’s board acting as advisors. All donations are, however, subject to PenFed approval.

A Special Member Bonus Dividend If Members Vote to Approve

Most relevant to the members’ voting decision is the proposal to pay each “eligible” Sperry member a one time “bonus share dividend” of $350, estimated to total $5.7 million. This amount is 25% of the credit union’s reserves. The remaining 75%, over $15 million, goes directly to PenFed’s pocket, as described below.

With this rhetorical logic and member incentive, is it any wonder that following the member meeting, held in the credit union’s parking lot, a 63% approval tally was announced? No information was provided about how many of the 16,000 members voted or attended the meeting; just the final approval rate.

This was undoubtedly the only time members had been asked to vote on any issue or election at the credit union. If they trust the credit union to properly manager their money, how could they be skeptical of this recommendation to merge and end the charter?

The Ending of an 84-year Community Charter

One might ask what’s untoward or possibly worse with this transaction? The members voted. They approved the recommendation of their elected leaders and long serving management. This happens every day in credit union land!

Furthermore, NCUA, the regulator, has approved all this, including the member notice wording that “a merger with PenFed is in the best interest of our members.” NCUA’s routine is for the Office of National Examination and Supervision (ONES) and the Regional Director to automatically sign off when the final documents are submitted.

This regulatory approval will occur even though the credit union’s web capabilities and the CEO’s public statements, as described in Part I, completely contradict the minimal logic in the merger letter.

But more important, the circumstances outlined below suggest the members have been duped by their leaders entrusted with the fiduciary responsibility to protect their interests.

PenFed and Sperry’s management team jointly designed this deception. They are the recipients with big paydays. The members and rest of the employees are being hung out to dry when this local operation is closed permanently.

What the Members Were Not Told

I believe the facts surrounding this transaction show the members were misled and that management-board merger communications intentionally hoodwinked them. The reality is that Sperry’s members are being sold to an organization that has no interest in their individual or community well-being.

The five managers will receive “optional” severance payments of up to $2.2 million; members get $350 each. PenFed will book a $15.1 million windfall as other income (negative good will). Sperry’s members are paying PenFed a bounty in addition to receiving all the future income from the relationships transferred.

In a normal arm’s length “free market” transaction, the buyer would pay a premium for this future income and the owners would receive their equity surplus in full and more. Instead, management negotiated for its own benefit, not the members.

This transaction, as described, will close Sperry’s only office. That means there is no location for the 39 employees to work or for members to go for what is now 6-day in person service. PenFed’s head office in McLean, VA is 257 miles away and 4-hour drive from Sperry’s headquarters. The nearest branch is a nearly 1-hour drive to Manhattan.

The entire membership is being forced to use remote access for all transactions. Sperry’s 16,000 Nassau County members will now be competing for service with 2,049,700 current PenFed members. That number is 125 times larger than Sperry’s current operations. These remote service employees will have none of the member relationship experiences of the current Sperry staff.

Contrary to the meager merger rationale, the CEO lauded Sperry’s responsiveness in the current environment versus those in “a larger firm who would have had to schedule meetings, create committees and navigate the rough waves of corporate politics…”

This is a merger only on paper, not of operations. It merely combines the financial statements and adds new accounts to PenFed’s books. Local services are shut down. The familiar faces, loyalty, knowledge and community spirit Sperry is built upon will be gone.

Apart from the two paragraphs in the merger notice, every Sperry communication demonstrates that it is serving members and the community in an exemplary manner. It is a classic example of what a member-owned coop can do for its community. The effort to justify the merger as better for members is a farce.

The Timeline Reveals the Charade

The Member Meeting Notice, dated July 28, 2020, opens with the statement “On January 15, 2020, the Board of Directors of your credit union approved a proposition to merge Sperry FCU with Pentagon.”

This means discussions occurred sometime before then. Yet the first that members or the public knew of this secret plan was in the Chair’s member notice dated July 28, just 60 days before the voting deadline and member meeting.

The summer member newsletter, The Sperry Herald, makes no mention of this decision. There is also no reference to the board’s intent to close the credit union in the notice of the annual meeting in the same newsletter. Instead, the board nominated two current directors to fill two expired terms, with members left completely in the dark about the decision nine months earlier to close operations.

Such a disclosure might have initiated member questions or even a revolt.

In the first Newsday article on September 3, after the merger intent becomes public, CEO Kevin Healy is quoted: “The financial landscape across Long Island is rapidly changing. As large institutions continue to grow. . .it is tougher for midsized institutions like Sperry to aggressively gain market share.” This statement from the July 28 member notice completely contradicts the editorial published eleven days before extolling Sherry’s distinct advantages and COVID performance in the July 17 CU Times.

Healy’s quote defending the merger is also refuted by his own words in his March 29, 2019 CU Times “expert opinion:”

 . . .credit unions of all sizes still can thrive and grow with the right mix of strategic forethought. In the end, a thriving credit union always serves the needs of its membership.

When Healy published his July 17, 2020 article praising Sperry’s response, he knew and approved of the intent to merge, a decision made at least seven months earlier. He proclaims Sperry’s business prowess at the same time he is secretly planning to end the charter.

We know this is the case because CEO Healy is a member of the five-person Sperry board. But the problem is more serious than corporate hypocrisy.

In Part III tomorrow: Sperry’s conflicts of interest, self-dealing, PenFed’s complicity, and NCUA’s abdication.

Is This Who We Are? Part I: The Proposed Merger of PenFed and Sperry Associates FCU

Yes, as through this world I’ve wandered
I’ve seen lots of funny men;
Some will rob you with a six-gun,
And some with a fountain pen.

Woody Guthrie “Pretty Boy Floyd”

On October 1, a Newsday business story described the member approval of Sperry Associations FCU’s ($278.4 million) merger with Pentagon FCU ($25.9 billion). Unlike most mergers there was no press release by either credit union. Even the Oct. 6 CUToday.info report was sourced from the Newsday story. Why is the ending of this sound 84-year-old, almost $300 million charter not announced by either party? Why the silence?

Is this just a routine merger of a sound, well-positioned, successful credit union? Or is it another instance of leadership and regulatory failures hollowing out credit unions from the inside? Does this acquisition serve Sperry’s 16,345 members’ best interests? Or, is it a self-serving exodus by senior management?

Another critical issue: is this merger a continuation of PenFed’s acquisitions spree shoring up its flailing financial and business model?

Who Is Sperry Associates FCU? The Right-Sized Credit Union & Its Proven Member Value

Sperry’s June 30, 2020 call report shows a single head office employing 39 persons serving 16,341 members. The credit union opened in 1936. Its FOM is anyone who lives, works, worships, attends school, volunteers, or conducts business in Nassau County, New York. Its estimated market is 1,357,700 potential members.

The June 30 financials show a well-capitalized net worth of 7.9%, delinquency of 1.15%, YTD loan originations up 69%, and twelve-month share growth of 4.5%. The website states the credit union is “financially healthy and well capitalized.”

The website further describes numerous examples of local community involvement and member support programs:

1. Mineola Athletic Association As a local member-owned financial institution, Sperry has partnered with local sports leagues and athletic venues in your community. From sponsorship of the sluggers who play at Mineola Athletic Association to being the official financial partner of Iceland in New Hyde Park, Sperry believes in taking stewardship of the next generation.

2. Proud to Be #MineolaMade

Sperry is proud to offer local products made by students at Mineola High School on display at our Garden City Park branch! . . .

3. Sperry Lends A Hand in Glen Cove, N.Y.

Recently, team members from Sperry Associates FCU were happy to lend a helping hand at the Island Harvest Senior Mobile Food Pantry in Glen Cove, N.Y. . . .

We Are Always Collecting to Benefit Long Island Cares with our Sperry Harry Chapin Food Bank Donation Bin!

4. Sperry Supports the Garden City Park Fire Department at Member Appreciation Day

5. Sperry Volunteers Prepare Meal for Families at the Ronald McDonald House of Long Island

Members Come First: Extensive Member Service and Delivery Choices

Member value is portrayed on the website as follows:

Convenient Banking, Lending and More – All with Local Connections. From our quick and easy online loan applications to giving you 24/7 account access, Sperry makes sure your accounts are never out of reach. Need to bank-on-the-go? Our award-winning mobile app, available for Apple and Android devices, makes it easy. Even better, Sperry members have access to over 5,600 shared service centers and 30,000 surcharge-free ATMs across the country

Our Members Come First. As a Sperry member, you are actually an owner, rather than a customer, of our financial institution. We don’t pay stockholders; instead we invest our earnings back to our membership – That means lower fees, better rates on loans, and higher rates on deposits! 

So, don’t miss out on experiencing the credit union difference of Better Rates…Better Service…Better Banking at Sperry! Branch hours are six days per week including Saturdays.”

In addition to these multiple service channels, the credit union provides a complete product line of consumer and mortgage loans (with rate locks), multiple savings options, and posts its full fee schedule.

One example of its multi-generational approach is a 5% Youth Savings and Youth Checking account with free Visa debit card. A financial counseling partnership with Greenspace is offered.

Sperry’s comprehensive locally focused member value is shown in this video that describes Sperry as a “right-sized credit union.”


CEO Healy Affirmed Sperry’s Unique Value and Resilience in Two Op-eds

Sperry’s CEO has published several articles about the credit union’s unique positioning. In a Credit Union Times opinion article on July 17, 2020, CEO Healy asserted the credit union’s effectiveness responding to the COVID crisis [emphasis added]:

“At Sperry Associates Federal Credit Union ($273 million in assets), we’ve found a happy balance in maintaining the services and products our core members love such as free checking and competitive loan rates, while at the same time offering niche and specialized lending products that match emerging needs. These past few months, we’ve offered specialty loan products to those impacted by the coronavirus pandemic, and we’ve been diligently working with our small business partners to secure for them Paycheck Protection Program funding. As community-centric institutions, our responsibility is to ensure that the friends and neighbors we serve are able to weather this storm.

“These products were the direct result of Sperry taking advantage of its market positioning. We’re a mid-sized credit union, member-owned and proudly serving the Long Island market for over 80 years. While we like to think bigger, we also act on the local neighborhood level.

“For the mid-sized institution looking to grow and better understand the pulse of the markets, it’s critical to put your organization’s best foot forward in the community. With a strong business development team at their disposal, executive management at a mid-sized firm can accurately assess these emerging needs and adapt their scope of services to meet them, all thanks to a boots-on-the-ground approach that is often not used by larger entities.

“Throughout the pandemic, which hit New York hard and is now spreading elsewhere, our team heard from friends, business owners and members that these larger events had local impacts, and using our community-rooted approached, we took action.

“A larger firm would have had to schedule meetings, create committees and navigate the rough waters of corporate politics, while a smaller firm would be working to enter the market. For us in the middle, we were the right size to react appropriately, all while using our internal talents to ensure that due diligence was conducted, and our solutions were beneficial to those we serve.

“In the end, it comes down to approach. By seeing the unique market challenges faced by a mid-sized organization as an opportunity, one can yield larger-than-life results.”

I quote this in full, because this appeared just eleven days before the credit union sent its Special Meeting Notice to members recommending merger with PenFed.

This was not the first time CEO Healy promoted the advantages of Sperry’s mid-size, strong local positioning. On March 29, 2019, CUTimes published his “expert opinion” extolling Sperry’s agility in a time of changing technology. Selected excerpts follow.

“. . .Despite the challenges these new approaches from unorthodox financial services competitors like Apple present, credit unions of all sizes still can thrive and grow with the right mix of strategic forethought.

“At Sperry Associates Federal Credit Union, we serve our membership within the highly competitive New York metropolitan region. As such, we’ve taken to embracing the philosophy that both member service and compelling products can offset some of the advantages that larger competitors such as Apple have at their disposal.

“The concept of member service still means something when it comes to banking, but the notion is further strengthened when paired with convenient, consumer-friendly products that make the lives of our members easier.

“For credit unions, which collectively are traditionally conservative and cautious institutions, a bit of private-sector risk-taking can pay off in the long run. In order to expand our horizons, Sperry closely monitors both market dynamics and changing trends – as such, we have have been seeing more and more shifts to the digital realm, as well as the need for more niche lending products. . . 

“In the end, a thriving credit union always serves the needs of its membership.”

Sperry’s members’ loss is most consequentially illustrated by the COVID environment. Comparing the two credit unions’ PPP loans as of June 30, Sperry reported 6 loans totaling $439,751; Pentagon, 100 times larger, reported $0. Given Sperry’s extraordinary capabilities and member focus, and the CEO’s public expressions of confidence, why did the Board and management decide to end Sperry’s independent charter?

In Part II tomorrow: Sperry’s brief explanation for merging.

Navy and Pentagon FCUs: A Case Study of Size and Performance

For almost five decades Navy and Pentagon FCUs have ranked numbers 1 and 2 in total assets for all federal charters.

These top two positions seemed pre-ordained by the circumstances of their expansive field of membership (FOM) charters. Both served broad military and civilian employees in the regulatory era when all other credit unions were limited to a single military base or location as their market.

But even with this significant advantage, the financial evolution of the two organizations has been dramatically different.

The Four Decade Growth Results

At year-end 1978, Navy reported $765.5 million in total assets; Pentagon $397.6 million. The difference in the two, $367.6 million, meant that Navy was almost two times Pentagon’s size.

They retained their same number 1 and 2 positions respectively over 41 years later as of June 30, 2002. Now Navy is $128.5 billion and Pentagon $25.9 billion in assets. The difference between them is $102.6 billion. Navy has expanded to be five times larger than Pentagon in this time period.

During the four-decades, Navy’s compounded annual growth was 13.1%. Pentagon’s was 10.6%. What accounts for the dramatic difference in performance by these top ranked FCUs?

Both had the presumed advantages of size, scale and untapped FOM potential. Both served sponsoring organizations more or less immune from the economic shocks suffered by private employer-based credit unions. Both enjoyed the reputations and direct support of their government and military sponsors which provided convenient, rent-free, on-base locations not available to competitors.

The Difference in Business Models

Both federal credit unions operate under the same set of rules. But each chose very different business models even with the same product and operational capabilities.

Navy FCU manages over 340 branches worldwide. It focuses operations around military bases and surrounding communities in addition to its 24/7 virtual channels. Their growth strategy is organic. They emphasize serving familiar, traditional markets connected with their historical roots. In the most recent 12 months, this has resulted in a 9.4% rate of member growth and a 27% increase of shares.

Pentagon emphasizes virtual delivery, even while maintaining 49 branches. Growth has focused on an executive led strategy of “acquisitions” versus organic market development. Over the past six years, it has merged almost two dozen other credit unions. On January 1, 2019, it merged state-chartered Progressive Credit Union (New York) and added its state-defined FOM, giving it (Pentagon) the ability to serve anyone in the US.

At June 2020, Pentagon’s merger strategy reported a 14.1% growth of members, but only a 1.1% growth in shares. During this six-year merger effort, asset growth slowed to 6.5% or far below its 41-year average of 10.6%.

Both credit unions report similar financial ratios for ROA, net worth, delinquency, and operating expense as of June 30, 2020. Even the average member relationships are nearly identical at $25,000. But Pentagon’s average member loan (-8.5%) and share (-11.3%) balances show declining relationships. Navy reports growth in average balances per member of 3.8% in loans and 16.3% in shares in this same twelve months.

Observations from Being on Top

This two-firm comparison and last Friday’s article describing the 40-year changes in the Top 100 suggest that size does not create sustainable success. Rather, the strategy and implementation chosen by the credit union’s leadership is key.

Today, conventional wisdom is to preach the benefits of size to generate growth. Some credit unions have even declared their “growth” strategy is to merge.

But greater size does not automatically generate better value or relevance for members. Growth becomes an end in itself, just another milestone for leaders, but without relevance for members.

The Navy-Pentagon comparison is striking. It demonstrates the potential of the cooperative model to create a financial juggernaut with Navy’s member-focused strategy. One might even suggest that the members of Pentagon would be much better served if they merged with Navy FCU.

Pentagon promotes its “scale” to acquire smaller, sound and well-run credit unions by incentivizing CEOs and boards to turn over their members’ future to them. (The latest example: the Sperry Associates FCU merger.) The decline in membership participation and meager organic growth suggest little to no benefits for Pentagon’s members or for the credit union members who were sold out by their CEO and directors, and who will lose their only local branch.

If the billions of assets acquired by Pentagon in its six-year merger binge were subtracted from its current total, would Pentagon even report positive growth? Is this so-called strategy nothing more than a cooperative Ponzi-like scheme disguising an inability to create sustainable member value? And if it is, the entire credit union system, not just Pentagon’s two plus million members, will suffer the public consequences when this self-serving business model runs out of patsies.

The Mystery of Wekearnyan FCU (Kearny, NJ)

In NCUA’s 1978 Annual Report, the agency lists the top 100 federal credit unions by total assets, with hometown, charter year, and asset rankings in ‘77 and ’78.

Wekearnyan Ranks 70th in Top 100

Many names in this top 100 are still familiar as sponsoring organizations were the single largest factor in credit union FOM identity. Only FCU’s are listed. In 1978 there was no data source for the 45 state chartering systems. Some SCU’s were NCUSIF-insured, some privately insured, and some uninsured.

I did not recognize Wekearnyan ranked # 70. I googled it but found no reference. Was it merged? Liquidated? Converted to a new FOM and name? The only indirect mention was to employees of a Western Electric, Bell Telephone subsidiary, with a similar name.

What Could Have Happened?

Now I was intrigued. Could a credit union with a 43-year track record just disappear? That seems contrary to traditional views of credit union resilience.

At year-end 1978 there were 12,759 FCUs with total assets of $34.8 billion. As number 70, this “lost” credit union ranked in the top 0.5% of all federal credit unions. It had scale and assets that were larger than 12,700 smaller charters. This standing should have given it the resources, leadership capability and operational experience to navigate change. That was the conventional wisdom, still espoused today.

Looking Ahead 41 years

To further explore what happened, I ran the list of the top 100 FCUs as of June 30, 2020. Was there a successor? What were the fates of 1978’s other top 100 credit unions four decades later?

Comparing these two top 100 tables raised more questions about the staying power of being in the largest 100 group. A number of credit unions were obvious casualties of sponsor failures. Eastern Airlines Employees (#5); Pan American (#33); or Braniff Airways (#77) are a few examples.

Other credit unions however, retained their relative ranking over these four decades: Fort Knox at #88 is now #86 Abound; or #96 Corning Glass Works Employees is now #91 Corning.

Several credit unions have moved up in rank significantly. Teachers (NY) from #63 to #13; Police and Fire (PA) from #68 to #17. Bethpage from #23 to #10. And Randolph-Brooks from #29 to # 6. These examples appear to support the presumed competitive advantage of the largest credit unions.

But just as soon as one might conclude this, there are examples of the opposite trend. Hughes Aircraft Employees fell from #3 to #22 today (now Kinecta); Andrews from #15 to #58; and State Department from #22 to #59.

One challenge in interpreting top 100 trends is the group is not static, Charter conversions add to or subtract from the 1978 listing. Some notable credit unions that left for state charters and thus not now included are: Lockheed Missile Employees (#13) renamed StarOne; IBM Poughkeepsie Employees (#17), now Hudson Valley; Suncoast Schools (#35). IBM Mid America #100 converted to a mutual savings bank charter.

Also new credit unions join the list such as ESL, a former mutual bank, now #14. The State Farm ranking #24 is new, but a result of merging over a dozen separate, local State Farm credit unions into a single organization.

One Observation from This Lost FCU

After analyzing the myriad comings and goings and relative re-rankings between these two lists, I found no trace of Wekearnyan FCU.

Conventional wisdom is that credit union size is critical for success. This premise is that bigger is better because size creates the scale and resources to remain competitive. Or so it seems if one looks at only the latest data or at trends just several years back.

But when the time period is extended further, the proposition about size becomes much less supportable. Credit unions prosper not because they are the biggest, have the leading market share, or even approach some ideal “scale” of operations.

Size may be useful in certain circumstances, but it is not the cause of success. Rather, that outcome depends on effective leadership. The responsibility of CEOs and boards is to create relevant and consistent value for its member-owners. Well executed business models are the basis for resilience and longevity.

Monday I will look at the number 1 and 2 ranked credit unions in both lists, Navy and Pentagon. What does their relative performance with each other suggest about the assumption that size is a necessary foundation for success?

Do Your Own Analysis

In the meantime, look at these two lists–the comings, goings and changes in relative rankings. What do you take away from this decades-long perspective about credit union performance? There are multiple case studies for analyzing leaderships’ choices. What example is most relevant to your circumstances?

And if anyone knows what happened to the lost credit union, please share your knowledge.

Your Vote Matters! Or Does it? The State of Democratic Governance in Credit Unions

In this election season every new and traditional media outlet is overflowing with ads urging us to vote. Some link to information sites. Others rely on celebrity exhortations as this rap video from the cast of Hamilton:


Voting legitimizes the power and policy of elected officials.  From local school boards to statewide offices and up to Congress and the President. It also is how credit union directors are supposed to be chosen.

So critical is this democratic perception, that even autocratic rulers in Russia, China and dozens of other long tenured dictators must offer the pretense of voting for their citizens. And when an electorate knows the process is a fraud, they hit the streets as is occurring now in Belarus.

Cooperatives and Democratic Practice

Democratic governance is one of the 7 cooperative principles:

Democratic Member Control

Cooperatives are democratic organizations controlled by their members, who actively participate in setting their policies and making decisions. Men and women serving as elected representatives are accountable to the membership. In primary cooperatives, members have equal voting rights (one member, one vote) and cooperatives at other levels are also organized in a democratic manner.

(Source: North American Students of Cooperation-NASCO)

The required annual meeting for the election of directors, plus any new or unfinished business members may wish to raise, is the most common way this value is practiced. Unfortunately, this essential member governance activity is often compromised.

Federal Credit Union Bylaw Practice

Here is the process as described by one FCU in the required annual meeting notice:

Members are advised that XXX Federal Credit Union bylaws stipulate the following:

Any Member can place his/her name in nomination exclusive of the Nominating Committee by written petition that includes a brief statement of qualifications, biographical information, and a petition with the required minimum signatures of at least 1% of members of  the Federal Credit Union. Inquiries regarding the election process and requesting a petition package that includes signature collection requirements should be directed to  . . . To be effective, such nominations must be accomplished by a signed certificate from the nominee stating that he/she is agreeable to nomination and will serve if elected to office. A completed nominations package must be sent to the  Board Secretary. The closing date for receiving the nomination by petition with supporting documents is date. There will be no opportunity for nomination from the floor. The election will not be conducted by ballot and there will be no nominations from the floor when there is only one nomination for each position to be filled. Should the number of candidates equal the number of open positions on the Board of Directors the chair may take a voice vote or declare each nominee elected by general consent.

The common practice of FCU’s is to have the board appoint a nominating committee which in turn proposes candidates to fill expired terms and open seats. Rarely are more persons recommended than seats to be filled. Nominations by petition are rare. Therefore, as summarized above, the pre-chosen nominees are deemed elected “by general consent.”

Contested FCU elections almost never occur. The result is perpetual, self-ratifying boards that become “closed shops.” Members are not encouraged to participate let alone offered a choice among  candidates. Members are merely customers, not participants in cooperative ownership.

This board-controlled process isolates volunteer directors from members’ concerns and the need to reach out and listen. Volunteers validate their oversight by their credit union’s CAMEL 1 or 2 regulatory rating and continued profitable operations, not by member engagement.

As one federal credit union member expressed to me: “At least in Belarus they got to vote.”

State Bylaws

While many states following FCU model bylaws (one member one vote, no proxies allowed), over thirty states authorized state charters prior to the passage of the FCU act in 1934. This has created multiple organizational bylaw options for co-op “democratic” governance.

I recently received the following request from a state-chartered credit union in California:

Update Your Proxy Date

As a member-owner of XXX, you have the opportunity to vote for matters related to the governance of the credit union. A proxy is a person you designate to vote for you at meetings. By designating a proxy, you allow that person – in this case, a qualified member of our Board of Directors – to cast votes on your behalf.

Updating only takes a few seconds and remains in effect for three years. By updating, you will:

      • Have your vote represented with no need to attend meetings
      • Provide authority to our member-centric Board of Directors
      • Allow qualified business people to look out for your financial interests, and those of all members

You have the right to revoke your proxy at any time by calling 800.XXX,XXXX sending us a secure message in online banking, or otherwise contacting us in writing.

Your current proxy expiration date is 00/00/0000

This update request just transfers members’ voting power to the incumbent board. The most significant owner role to elect directors is itself controlled by the board through proxies. Want to guess how much turnover occurs in this environment?

This proxy-driven outcome is a “closed shop” where directors are relieved of any need to interact or respond to members.

Currently 13 states permit proxy voting—CA, CO, CT, FL, IL, IN, MD, MT, NE, NV, NY, OH, VA.

Illinois’ standard bylaws illustrate how proxies go beyond election of directors to include mergers and voluntary dissolutions. Moreover, voting is weighted by the number of shares in the director elections. Selected sections of the standard bylaws read as follows (emphasis added):

Section 6.

On all questions and at all elections except for the election of directors, a member shall have a single vote regardless of the number of his shareholdings.

Section 7.

There shall be no voting by proxy except on the election of Directors and proposals for merger or voluntary dissolution.  A member may appoint a proxy by signing an appointment form and delivering it to the person so appointed, provided that the person is a member of this credit union.

Section 8.

All voting on the election of directors shall be by ballot, except when there is no contest‑‑written ballots need not be cast. On elections of directors, every shareholder has the right to vote the number of shares owned by him for as many persons as there are directors to be elected, or to cumulate the shares and give one candidate as many votes as the number of directors multiplied by the number of his shares shall equal; or distribute them on the same principle among as many candidates as he shall desire. . .All elections shall be determined by plurality vote and shall be by ballot except where there is no contest.

Democratic Governance Underwrites Safety and Soundness

So, what if credit unions are democratic in theory but fail in practice? What is wrong with boards managing their own longevity? Doesn’t credit union success prove these hybrid voting processes work just fine?

Two, among many reasons, why this anti-democratic process is harmful:

  1. The distinctive strength of any credit union is its relationship with the member-owners. Lincoln’s observation about fooling some of the people all the time etc. applies here. Undemocratic practices are sooner or later called out. The trust critical for all financial institutions becomes suspect. And when the veil of democratic pretense is ripped away, people will vote with their feet, closing accounts, or rise up in public anger at unprincipled leaders.
  2. Directors and managers self-immunized from any meaningful member-owner role creates an environment in which self-interest breeds and fiduciary responsibility becomes peripheral. Instead of member well-being and serving community needs, the focus becomes institutional exploitation for personal benefit and/or prestige.

The essential check and balance from democratically elected boards in cooperatives is lost.

Peers see this decline in the owners’ role.  Member voting is nonexistent or an empty pro forma exercise.

A cooperative financial system founded on values and community service becomes more and more susceptible to self-dealing.

Member Exploitation Via Mergers

Credit union charters are not declining because of financial safety and soundness weaknesses. Rather CEOs and boards have found it more personally beneficial to merge as retirement nears or to seek outsiders to provide the future direction from which the incumbents benefited for years.

NCUA appears oblivious to the reality of this internal rot as it routinely signs off on sham merger rationales and manipulated processes.

If credit unions are to regain their institutional integrity, member confidence and unique character, state and federal regulators, leagues and CEO/volunteer leaders must say, Enough is Enough!

Democratic governance requires participation. It is not a heritage to be spent down, but beliefs and conduct renewed continuously by today’s managers of this inheritance. That is how future generations will be assured the option of a member-owned financial choice.

Timeless Wisdom When Serving Members in a Crisis

“Our movement does not exist because it was created from the top down. Rather, it was created from the bottom up . . . We did not tell Congress we wanted to be “safe and sound” institutions. We always knew that if we were lending to our members there was risk involved. Serving came first; safety and soundness was a means to the end of serving.”

– Ed Callahan, May 1999

Timeless Wisdom in “Troubled Times”

The Long View

“When troubled times come, and surely they will sooner or later, you cannot make knee-jerk decisions. The latest economic projections for the next six months are not a good source of strategy. Instead, you must hold a vision and strive to achieve it.”

– Ed Callahan

Virtual Insight from Alexa

Amazon’s oral concierge speaker, Alexa, is a ready source for all kinds of factual information. I can ask the time, weather, latest news or sports scores, and even call up blog podcasts. Recently I added a subscription to play any kind of music imaginable, from “calming classical choruses” to John Denver or Taylor Swift’s entire catalogue.

As with all forms of virtual interaction, one presumes the creators are always striving to improve responsiveness through artificial intelligence (AI) programmed learning.

This means Alexa’s “knowledge” is more than being a verbal avatar for a Google inquiry. One can ask Alexa to tell jokes or ask what kind of day “she-it” is having. A seeming dialogue is underway.

Alexa and the Presidential Election

So, I decided to query whether Alexa had a preference in the upcoming election.

Q: Alexa, who will you vote for in the upcoming Presidential election?

A: Well frankly, I don’t think bots should influence elections.

I don’t know your reaction to this response. But the three words that struck me as significant were “I don’t think.” This is just a negative way of saying: “I think bots should not be. . .”

My query now is how or who is doing Alexa’s thinking?