For the last decade the appointments, or repeats, to the NCUA board have been a total surprise to the credit union community. New names, no industry references.
After the fact, we learn the selections arose primarily from their Washington insider connections. Their lack of credit union cooperative understanding and/or management experience is glaring.
With no vision or expressed views on the unique role of credit unions, appointees instead swear an oath to safety and soundness. That mantra is used to justify whatever actions, regulations or policy changes are subsequently proposed.
Appointees lacking credit union experience has not always been the case. Until credit unions reassert their collective interest in NCUA board nominations, these three positions will continue to be consolation prizes for party loyalists seeking a government sinecure.
Appointing the First Federal Regulator
When the Federal Credit Union Act was passed in 1934, the responsibility for creating a new federal system was placed in the Farm Credit Administration (FCA). The concern of Roy Bergengren (a founder with Filene of the credit union system) was that there should be a single integrated movement, not dueling state and federal charter designs.
The Governor of the FCA asked his first assistant, Herbert Emmerich (who had helped draft the federal legislation and coincidentally, was a credit union member) to serve as interim director of the credit union division, until he hired an assistant to devote full time to this new responsibility.
Who did Emmerich ask for leadership recommendations? Roy Bergengren. They had worked together on the final legislation.
Bergengren knew that the new legislation must be implemented by a credit union advocate or end up stillborn. He gave Emmerich seven recommendations. Bergengren was in turn asked to determine each person’s interest.
The “Proper Credit Union Spirit”
Bergengren’s first choice was Claude Orchard, who when approached, said he would accept the $4,600 per year job. He thought Orchard had “the proper credit union spirit.”
In his July 17, 1934, response to Bergengren’s outreach, Orchard wrote: “I hope the “assistant director” will be permitted the chance to get out into the field to actually set up a few key credit unions and have the opportunity to train organizers both paid and volunteer. That would be a fine sort of job for me.” (Moody & Fite, page 167)
Once on the job, Orchard got Emmerich’s permission to actively encourage the founding of both state and federal charters. His main goal — to increase the number of credit unions in the United States — was a spectacular success. One example of his public advocacy is a speech to the New York Credit Union League in 1937 as reported in the New York Times.
Who Was Claude Orchard? Why was he so successful as the first Federal Regulator?
Claude Orchard began working at Armour and Company in Omaha, Nebraska in 1903. He was intimately acquainted with the financial problems of the company’s employees, many of whom were poorly educated blacks and immigrants working for 17-18 cents per hour.
He first heard about credit unions in 1929 from a lawyer sent by Bergengren to help organize credit unions in Nebraska. The two quickly organized the first Armour credit union which so impressed the company that management freed Orchard to travel to other Armour plants to organize more credit unions. By 1933 the number of Armour credit unions had grown to 70.
The Takeaway for Today: Speak Out
Ed Callahan, NCUA chair (1981-1985), frequently observed “people do what they know.”
Experience matters especially for those in positions of senior leadership. It frames relationships, brings life’s hard-earned lessons and shapes the values a leader follows in the job.
Two of the most sought-after outcomes in secular life today are money and power. But cooperative design is based on an inversion of these traditional market driven ambitions.
For credit unions to continue as a unique resource for America will require modern day Claude Orchards. These leaders must define and implement policies to bring renewed purpose to a movement whose regulatory institutions are desperately short of cooperative belief and understanding.
Isn’t it time for credit unions to SPEAK OUT before NCUA board openings are filled — rather than spending years trying to educate board members about the industry they supervise? Or more likely, to be totally dependent on the bureaucracy’s recommendations?