Would Your Competitors or Peers Invite You to Talk to their Senior Management Team?

Yesterday Kelly Evans, a CNBC host, reported a meeting last week between Elon Musk and the senior management team at Volkswagon.  And no, it had nothing to do with merger or buying technology.  Here is the opening of her story:

Here’s a headline that should stop you in your tracks: “Tesla’s Musk dials into Volkswagen executive conference.” My first thought, when I saw this, was that it must have been either some kind of quirky Elon Musk prank or a weird fluky accident.

But it was neither. It was, in fact, an invitation by the CEO of Volkswagen for Musk to address a meeting of 200 top Volkswagen executives in Austria, in order to “galvanize [their] top brass for a faster pivot to electric vehicles,” according to Reuters. I’m sorry, what?! Can you imagine, circa 2015, “Microsoft invites Adobe CEO to talk about transitioning to the cloud,” or today, “Facebook invites TikTok CEO to talk about their success in short-form videos and algorithms.” Or maybe, “Jacksonville Jaguars invite Patrick Mahomes to talk about success on offense.”

Anyhow, Volkswagen’s CEO, Herbert Diess, confirmed his invite and Musk’s “surprise” Thursday video appearance on Twitter and LinkedIn. “Happy to hear that even our strongest competitor thinks that we will succeed [in] the transition if we drive transformation with full power,” he wrote. You have to give Diess credit. He sounds like a disgruntled CEO who sees the future but can’t pivot his company fast enough, and is now pulling out all the stops to get there–including inviting his “strongest competitor” to give his own employees a pep talk.

How did this happen? How could the CEO of the world’s largest automaker for much of the last decade be calling a company that won’t even deliver a million cars this year his “strongest competitor”?

The Credit Union Analogy

Would your credit union’s success be such that a bank or other financial institution (mutual fund, insurance  firm or broker dealer) would invite you to share your vision for the future of financial services?

Or, is the bank just inviting you over to see if you would like to buy them out at a multiple of book value?

Unfortunately, banks are unlikely to ask for an Elon-Musk kind of briefing thinking they there is little to learn from credit unions.  They believe coop success is due to an uneven playing field, especially the tax exemption.

A good test of how your competitors, local and otherwise, view your effectiveness is not the dollars they spend lobbying, but rather whether they seek to emulate your credit union’s perceived advantage.

Unlike Volkswagen, I have not heard of any banks trying to become credit unions in practice or by conversion.   But I read a  lot about credit unions buying banks.

Which model do you think has the real competitive edge? And which is most likely to transform financial services as they exist today?

When competitors respect you, then you know you are doing something special in their eyes.

Even when interest in your business initiatives are only from your co-op peers, that is one indication that your credit union could be “driving transformation with full power” using Elon’s criteria for strategic advantage.







Charitable Giving by Individuals and Credit Unions

A donor advised fund (DAF) charitable investment account is an option for individuals who wish to support charitable organizations in a more organized manner. The funds are administered by third parties such as a mutual fund or broker dealer.  A person can contribute cash, securities or other assets and take an immediate tax deduction.

The funds can be invested in various investment options for tax-free growth.  Donors  can recommend grants to virtually any IRS-qualified public charity (501C3) they may wish to support at a future date.

The major advantage is that DAF contributions provide an immediate tax benefit while allowing assets to potentially grow tax free in the future.  The flexibility in managing contributions and subsequent gifting versus answering numerous individual appeals  is an advantage along with the tax planning options.

The annual reports of these various funds also provide insights into where this segment of the population focuses its giving.

T Rowe Price’s DAF 2021 Annual Giving Report shows its 1,600 donors made over 29,300 individual grants to 11,100 charities.

The five most supported charities were:

    1. Doctors without Borders
    2. Salvation Army
    3. Maryland Food Bank
    4. American Red Cross
    5. Planned Parenthood

These individual donors are  a very small and possibly elite sample of the population.  However I found the top five instructive because they are well known charities and national in scope.

While I would presume many donations were made to educational, religious institutions and other local charities, it was heartening to see the communitarian spirit indicated by these leading gifts.

Credit Union Charitable Activity

In addition to individual credit union 501C3 foundations, the most popular long term charitable effort has been the Children’s Miracle Network.

However credit unions in 2013 received another  option via Charitable Donation Accounts.  These accounts were approved as an incidental power by NCUA. Multiple credit union organizations including CUNA Mutual, CUES, and Members Trust Company offer programs for managing these special investment accounts.

While limited to 5% of net worth, their advantage is they can invest in securities outside those permitted for credit unions by rule 703. Their only requirement is that 51% of the total return must be donated to 501C3 organizations over a five-year period.

As of June 30, 2021 there were 187 credit unions which had established CDA’s with a total value of $1.084 billion.

The CDA option is established, credit union by credit union, for both fund contributions and subsequent donations. Individual accounts range in size from Pentagon FCU’s $136.4 million to Temple-Inland’s $1,000 balance.

There is no current process for aggregating and reporting these individual charitable efforts as in the T Rowe Price report.  As the majority of these accounts appear to be managed by three providers, it would seem feasible to report collective donations by credit unions on an annual basis.

Credit unions certainly promote their individual donations, often with press releases and photos; however the overall impact is missing.   I wonder what the top five credit union charitable contributions might be?   Whether these are local, national or even international organizations, the message of cooperative community assistance is only being partially told.







Doing Our Job in a Time of Tragedy-Credit Union’s Role after September 11th

In September 2001 Ed Callahan was entering his 14th year as CEO at Patelco Credit Union.  He continued to write a monthly column for the Callahan Report.  In the issue right after the 9/11 attacks he assessed their impact and the role  credit unions were now called to play.

He opens by acknowledging the pervasive feelings of fear and vulnerability.  He follows with the need to stay open to keep the economy functioning and provide assurance and forestall panic.

And finally he urges cooperatives to be “out in front”with expanded efforts for service.  A leader’s thought  about Doing Our Job, meaningful then, 20 years later, and in any future crises.

Here is the full article:

September 11 was a profound shock, and caused a deep wound from which we as a nation can never completely recover. In some respects it was the darkest day in our history. When the two towers fell, so did the illusion that the United States of America was protected by its two oceans.

We never thought something like this could happen, and yet it did. And I am sure on that awful morning everyone thought: “If this can happen, what else — and worse — could follow?”

When you have that sort of question on the minds of millions, panic can be just around the corner. Panic arises from fear of the future, and that kind of fear can likely be far more destructive than what kindled it. Franklin Roosevelt was right in 1933when he said: “Fear is the greatest enemy of all, because it destroys everything it touches.”

Staying Open

This is why it was so important for credit unions — indeed all financial institutions — to remain open on September 11 . . . and the 12th and 13th and subsequent days.

This is not meant to be a macho statement. I firmly believe it.

Firefighters and other emergency workers were on the front lines. That was their job. But financial service workers had their job too. They had to demonstrate that the financial system of the country was still functioning, that people’s money was safe and available. This was not the life-threatening work of the emergency workers, but it was absolutely essential nonetheless. It kept the lid on fear; it quashed panic. Just imagine those days if all financial institutions had shut their doors and turned out their lights.

Service: We have to mean it

When President Bush addressed the nation on the night of September 11, the first thing he said after stating that the country’s government was operational was that its financial system was functioning. These were not idle thoughts on his part — they were carefully included to dispel any notion that people’s money was not safe or accessible.

People at my credit union and undoubtedly thousands more wanted to be with their families on that terrible and unsettling day — who knew what else might be in store for us, or where? I sympathized. I felt a keen need to be with my family also. We allowed anyone to go home who felt strongly they should do so.

But others remained and kept the doors open that day, and the days following. This was important on two levels. One was symbolic, of course — we would show a face of continuity, and we would not take an action that might lead others to succumb to fears about their savings.

The other was functional — we really were there to carry out transactions, provide cash or whatever else people wanted. Credit union employees are service workers, not isolated business units, and they have to provide a service in good times and disturbing times. They often have to provide that service to settle the waters, because if they do not the waters will roil. Thus, we need to be grateful to everyone who worked that day and that week and to express our gratitude in both words and acts.

Cooperatives to the Front

All this said, we can be more helpful. People everywhere have been asking, “What can we do?” Credit unions can step up to the plate. They can be the conduits to relief efforts. They can encourage their employees to contribute to the United Way and other worthy relief organizations that are sending food, medicine, supplies and financial resources to emergency workers and victims’ families. They can research and post for their members those relief agencies most effective in delivering aid to the greatest needs.

People faced with this horrible attack want to help heal and rebuild — it is the essence of cooperation. Let America’s cooperatives show what they are made of. Together we can bind the wounds, relieve the widow, raise the orphan, and reconstruct both our confidence and our damaged buildings. We owe that to our forebearers who built this country and to our children who will inherit it.

One month later in Doing Our Job in a Time of Tragedy-Part II, Ed described Patelco’s  enhanced efforts to serve members.  The plan used Internet delivery and was called eAccess Freedom Trail.   His second column and the project summary  can can be accessed here.

When a Bank Owner is Better Off than a Credit Union Owner

On September 3rd, South Division Credit Union’s merger with Scott Credit Union was completed.  In this time of political and ethical disorder, this combination raises a critical issue for the future of the cooperative system.

I described the unusual circumstances of South Division’s merger in an August 13 post, Can’t We Do Better Than this?

The credit union’s commitment  to its members was clear on the website:

Once a Member, Always a Member

Membership with SDCU is on your terms. No matter where you move or how your life changes, you can maintain Membership with us. And when those life-altering moments do occur, SDCU assures you that we will be there to offer support and personalized financial services to suit all of your needs.

Our commitment to you is the driving force behind our credit union, because your life is our priority.

But the July 14, 2021 Special Meeting Notice from the CEO and seven directors recommending merger, paint a very different picture as follows:

South Division Credit Union has not grown in size or membership participation for several years and has been faced with increasing operational, regulatory and compliance expenses; lack of managerial expertise, aging Board of Directors and no effective succession plans. 

Multiple facts support this self-confessed failure.  Membership has fallen from 6,724 at December 2016 to 5,287 at June 2021.  Net worth has almost been cut in half, from 14% at yearend 2019, to 7.47 at this midyear.

This capital decline was due to operating losses of $1.995 million in 2020 and another $252,211 for the first six months of 2021.

Full time equivalent employees have been reduced from 26 to 17.  Total member loan balances have fallen by $2.5 million or 15% over the past twelve months. Top line total revenue has decreased year over year since 2016, and by 14% in the first six months of 2021 versus comparable period of 2020.

An Abandoned Ship?

Members and employees both appear to be fleeing a leaking if not sinking ship. However, during these years of declines, the CEO was garnering significant recognition from the credit union system.

At the merger date, the CEO had been in place since 1987, or 35 years.  A July 2013  Illinois Business Journal profile listed her many career involvements including :

  • Director of the ICUL board since 2003
  • Chairman of ICUL in 2014
  • President of two credit union chapters
  • 30 Year Member of CUES and Illinois CUES Council Chair
  • 30 Year Member of the IL Political Action Council and past chair
  • Service on Cuna’s Governmental Affairs Committee
  • Three years on CUNA’s state government subcommittee
  • Internationally, a member of the World Council of Credit Unions for 25 years and a founding member of the Women’s Global Leadership network.

The article also enumerated more than a dozen local charities, school and educational involvements plus multiple civic engagements by the CEO.

The awards granted to the CEO in just the past decade include:

  • The Evergreen Park Chamber of Commerce “Business Person” of the Year for 2011
  • Induction into the Illinois credit Union Hall of Fame-April 2017
  • The Credit Union House Hall of Leaders Recognition at Capitol Hill-March 2018: “a distinguished group of individuals whose leadership serves as a model for credit union leaders throughout the country.”
  • The Perpetual Tribute Award from the Illinois Credit Union Foundation at the ICUL’s 89th Annual meeting-April 2019

The Final Tally

One of the reasons for South Division’s loss in 2020 was the increase of over $1.0 million (74%) in salaries and benefits from the prior year. Was this a bonus or other benefit paid prior to announcing the merger where a disclosure would be required?

State chartered credit unions must file 990 IRS forms by May 15 after each yearend which would disclose the compensation for senior management and to the board, if any. There was no IRS 990 on file for South Division for 2020 as of the merger date.

Prior year’s filings report total CEO compensation rising annually  from $206,643 in 2016 to $290,474 for 2019. In addition, the 990’s show a split dollar life insurance plan as an asset for $3.8 million and a pension plan balance of $2.8 million.

The Merger and the Members

At June 30, 2021 the credit union reported net worth of $3.9 million less an “other comprehensive income” account of negative $2.5 million, not otherwise explained.  If this is a pension plan or other unfunded benefit, it is not clear what the obligation at the merger would be or who is responsible-Scott or South Division-if anyone.

Whatever the case, if this shortfall must be funded, certainly that requirement would seem to qualify as a merger related benefit requiring disclosure to members.  If not, then should the members have received some of the almost $4.0 million of net worth as a result of their patronage since 1935?

Enter Scott Credit Union

South Division has been in decline for years, even as the CEO garnered multiple awards and participated in numerous outside activities.

The credit union is a mess, according to its own leaders’ statement above.  Who cleans it up? How can the members be given what the cooperative promised to deliver?

Scott Credit Union would seem to be a very handsome and strong white knight riding to the rescue.  Its adherence to the cooperative model is presented on its website:

Our Cooperative Structure

Founded in 1943, Scott Credit Union is a full-service financial institution providing financial services for individuals and businesses, including free checking accounts with interest, ATMs, credit and debit cards.  .  .

Scott Credit Union, like all credit unions, is a not-for-profit financial cooperative that offers banking services. When someone opens an account with a credit union, they become a member and an owner.

Your experience with Scott Credit Union is about more than money, it’s about you getting the most value for your money and reaching your financial goals.

Our products and services and pricing are driven by our members, not by stock holders looking to increase their net worth.

So far so good; just two nagging questions.  Why was no Chicago area credit union approached to help where there would be local knowledge and an immediate network delivery expansion for members?

Scott is 240 miles and a four-to-five hour drive from South Division, so what is their game plan? So how will members benefit from a leadership team whose focus and experience is in a very different market and far away?

Was there any due diligence by Scott? How will Scott make things right for South Division members who have been “short-changed” for years?

The Other Shoe Drops

My earlier view was that Scott had drawn the “short straw” in its willingness to resuscitate South Division members’ credit union experience.  This was especially so since it is far removed from its own network and market reputation.

But then came the stunning announcement.  On August 20, 2021 Scott announced it had agreed to buy Sugar Creek Financial Corp and its Tempo Bank subsidiary with $93 million in assets. That was just ten days prior to the South Division members’ vote on merger-a done deal given Illinois’ use of proxies in mergers.

The stunning part was not the bank purchase.  Tempo Bank was in Scott’s home market and would “increase its total footprint to 22 locations across the Metro East and St. Louis area.”

No, the stunner was the juxtaposition of how Scott treated the bank’s owners versus the credit union owners of South Division.

Start with the bank’s CEO, Robert Stroh, who will retire after 45 years of service but will be “offered a consulting agreement with Scott for a period of time following consolidation.” No such agreement for South Division leaders.

The bank’s CEO observed: “We know our customers will benefit from all the additional resources that Scott Credit Union has to offer while knowing that their money is staying right here in the community.” Hmm, not the Chicago market?

But Scott’s true colors show in how they are treating the bank’s shareholders versus the credit union’s member-owners.

Scott is offering $14.2 million or a premium of approximately  $4.0 million, or 38%, over the bank’s book value at June 30, 2021.

The day before the purchase announcement, the bank’s stock closed at $11.41.  The Sugar Creek shareholders are projected to receive between $14.50-$16.50 in cash, subject to valuation adjustments when closing the P&A.  South Division members get $0.

South Division members were given words, the general promise of a better future, but no cash or even plans. Better to be a bank shareholder than a credit union owner!

But the situation is worse. Scott gets a lot more from South Division than four branches, 5,287 “underserved” members and $51 million in assets.   It receives approximately $4.0 million in South Division equity to be able to pay the premium to the owners of Sugar Creek Financial!

Scott appears to be no white knight for South Division members.  Rather, the combination seems to be birds of a feather finding each other.  Scott’s real heart is in Southern Illinois, where it is investing the $4.0 million, not suburban Chicago.

Of the three CEO’s, it is the bank executive who showed the greatest attention to their owners’ welfare.

“It Happens Every Day”

Credit union CEO’s  using mergers for self-advantage with members receiving only promises  has become  more common. The precedent of a retiring CEO  leaving with multiple industry honors, rather than honor, is not new.

Examples of CEO’s selling out the institution that provided them the platform on which they stood for much of their professional careers is an increasing pattern.

One of my former colleagues would counsel me, “it happens every day.”  I don’t accept that as a reason for “leaders” betraying their member-owner’s loyalty.

As the movement stays silent, we become complicit.  The lesson of South Division and Scott is that indifference is toxic, and it seeps into the soil upon which we all stand.

Credit unions have always asserted they have a higher role than profits and institutional growth.  Acting in the members’ best interest may be an open-ended standard, but this kind of member exploitation is a specific harm.

When some credit union leaders demonstrate they respect bank owners more than their own member-owners, the cooperative model is in trouble. They are doing things for which there is no excuse and if unchallenged, this behavior will metastasize.

The issue isn’t only the members’ welfare at South Division, Xceed, Post Office Employees, Sperry Associates or dozens of others abandoned by their “leadership.” Rather it is about the next generation of members who will not have a credit union option that seems to be anything other than just a banking choice.

That loss of uniqueness will end the valuable cooperative experiment unless current leaders have the courage to say enough is enough.

But the greater squandering is of an American economy, with deepening inequalities,  urgently in need of organizations willing to put consumers’ best interests first.

Why Latino Credit Union Matters Today

In2003, just three years after being chartered, Latino Credit Union won the Herb Wegner award for outstanding organization.

The credit union today is one of the most successful coop startups ever.  But the communities it serves and its ongoing financial performance are not its most important lesson.

Latino’s Example as a Coop

When banks are organized, it is the wealthy who put up the capital to secure the charter.   This has always been the practice and always will be.

At its founding the employees of Latino Credit Union spoke five languages and came from 16 countries. This paradigm of recent immigrants and low-income workers forming their own financial coop is a stark contrast to the for-profit banking model.

Credit unions demonstrate how individuals who are the most vulnerable and threatened in society can join together for opportunity.   Hope and trust replace fear and exploitation.

Credit unions are a different way, a unique self-help option in a capitalist system dominated by large financial firms and private wealth.

Presence-More than a Place, a Home

Latino and other credit unions offer more than branches, virtual delivery and personal service.

In America today, there are those who profit from individuals who have the least or know the least.

The coop model is about presence, a place to turn when a person is in need.  A financial home where people know their interests are paramount, like the family home.

It is about more than a place.  The credit union replaces uncertainty with freedom from fear, the fear of being vulnerable or afraid.

When the credit union option is at its finest, people can begin to realize who they want to be.  They have a rusted partner as they strive to live out their hopes and dreams.

Latino Credit Union shows why coops matter, a path for those without advantages but willing to work together for everyone’s sake.





A Much Needed Message for today—From 2003

John Herrera’s Wegner award acceptance speech as Chair of the Latino Community Credit Union is as moving and thoughtful today as it was that evening.

In 2003 Latino Community was only $11 million in assets, relying on credit union deposits and just ramping up its loan operations.   But its initial success and impact were already noteworthy.

Herrera’s speech touches a number of important themes:

  • The “family” of supporters-over 20 on stage with him;
  • The Movement has developed an “accent”-an accent on people and community;
  • His staff: they speak five languages, are from 16 countries and routinely work beyond closing hours until everyone is served.

But his two most vital messages, more relevant than ever, start at:

5:00- “Our story is your story”- a shared vision for all persons to have access to affordable financial services;

8:45- “Immigration and the treatment of immigrants”- There are “no illegal human beings.” Immigrants are a critical aspect of America’s democratic enterprise.  The first credit union was created by and for immigrants, who couldn’t speak English.

Here is the full speech, just over 10 minutes with the family of supporters on stage beside him.


Questions for Today

When was the last time you heard a credit union leader speak this movingly about their credit union’s addressing critical economic issues for its members?

When have you witnessed a more concrete example of the movement gathered around a common vision?

Which credit union leader has spoken recently or more eloquently about the role of the immigrant community for America?

Can you identify another time such as this evening, when you were proud to be a part of the credit union movement?

Hopefully this speech reminds us of who credit unions can be at their best;  and whether we are building on the legacy we have been given.

The Latino Community Credit Union-A Timeless Example of Cooperative Action

The 2003 Herb Wegner award for outstanding organization is perhaps even more significant today than when granted almost two decades ago.

Here is co-MC Annaloro’s description of the special nature of this award which had been given only 14 times before.


In 2003, Latino credit union was three years old, held $11 million in assets and had just 8,000 members.  Even then the credit unions was know for “punching far beyond its weight class.”

As Chair Chuck Purvis stated in his opening remarks, it is an example of the movement coming together to “effectively serve the needs” of the Hispanic market.  And those needs were clear and unmistakable as documented by the introductory 10 minute video from that evening. Why a credit union for the Hispanic community:


Latino Credit Union Today

This is a powerful example of credit union’s ability to respond to some of the most vulnerable persons in our society.  Few could foresee what the long-term results of this initial organizing effort would be.

Today Latino Community Credit Union has $663 million in assets and continues it focus on lending with a loan-to-share ratio of over 100%.  It has a below peer operating expense ratio even though it manages 13 branches with 157 employees serving in excess of 101,000 members.

Every aspect of its performance is exceptional with recent annual growth in shares (24%)  and loans (28%) at the very top of the industry.  It reported net worth of 11.2% at June 30 even with this high level of balance sheet growth.

Latino’s Meaning for Today

When passion and commitment meet human need, the opportunity for success is great.  This is the circumstances in which credit unions were begun in 1909.  Inequalities and vulnerable populations have not disappeared from American society.   The continued growth of payday lenders and check cashiers is an ongoing example of persons living paycheck to paycheck

Latino also shows the power  of new startups.  Some today disparage the efforts to form new credit unions.  They point out their small size forgetting that every credit union that exists today started small. Some point out the capacity of existing credit unions to serve more-and yet many parts of the their current FOM’s remained unserved or underserved.

Succeeding from scratch is not an easy thing to do.  Latino maximized its chances of success by getting inspiration from those who had already achieved what they want to accomplish.

We will learn in tomorrow’s acceptance speech, how these people became mentors-”family”-helping along the way.  Mentors increase the chance of success because they will have already confronted many of the questions that determine whether or not a start up will succeed.

We will see these people stand on stage with the Chair of Latino Community as he reminds us of a message-especially relevant today-why America needs more credit unions.


COOPS: Collectively Honoring Individual Achievement

There was a surprise “gift” presented to Ed Callahan at his San Francisco retirement celebration after serving 15 years as CEO of Patelco. During this October 2002 event, a number of his peers and friends honored him by establishing the “Ed fund”.  All investments would become a component of the Community Investment Fund (CIF) of the National Credit Union Foundation.

The Fund’s name was a play on words.  For it honored Ed as a credit union leader and also recognized his early career in education and belief in lifelong learning.

The intent was that the earnings from these investments, split 50/50 between the credit union and the CIF, would provide a reliable source of income to support the Foundation’s education and grant programs.

This tradition of recognizing individual accomplishment by furthering cooperative enterprise is as old as the Herb Wegner dinner itself.

At this 15th Herb Wegner ceremony in 2003, this special effort was singled out for recognition.  The initiative had led to a tripling of investment balances in the CIF to $155 million just five months following the October launch.  The nine CEO’s who committed $10 million or more were recognized personally in the segment below introduced by co-chair John Annaloro, CEO of the NWCUA.


Peers Reinvesting in the System that Gave Them Opportunities

The lead donors and 24 other credit union CIF supporters were a coordinated effort to provide seed funding for cu startups and programs to promote individual financial independence.

It demonstrated the willingness of all segments of the cooperative system to support collective, not just individual, responsibilities. Simply running your own shop well and supporting local communities, was not the end all for these leaders.  In the tradition of Ed Filene and many other system leaders, they believed in “paying forward” part of the success they had enjoyed.

At the pinnacle and critical to the CIF’s success was US Central.  It managed the funds, helped collect donations via the corporate network, kept the bookwork and provided the best return available given investment limits on credit unions.  In addition to making a $10 million investment, the corporate also contributed $700,00 in direct donations to the fund.

This special role is acknowledged by Annaloro in this brief clip:


Leaders Insuring a Legacy—for the Cooperative System

The unique advantage of credit unions is cooperation–the capacity of leaders to join with each other for system benefit.   CUSO’s are one example driven by economics and scale.   The Ed fund is another example of this talent to work for common purpose.

These initiatives require leaders who have the instincts and will to make change happen.  When there are leaders there will be followers. No matter a credit union’s size or status, all members current and future, benefit when cooperatives share their success beyond their own firm’s boundaries.

(editor’s note)

These glimpses of past credit union events are done in the spirit of historian Will Durant who wrote:

we of this generation give too much time to news about the transient present, too little to the living past. We are choked with news, and starved of history. We know a thousand items about the day or yesterday, we learn the events and troubles and heartbreaks of a hundred peoples, the policies and pretensions of a dozen capitals, the victories and defeats of causes, armies, athletic teams. But how, without history, can we understand these events, discriminate their significance, sift out the large from the small, see the basic currents underlying surface movements and changes, and foresee the result sufficiently to guard against fatal error or the souring of unreasonable hopes?

Coop Design’s Two Unmatchable Advantages

Living in a forest sometimes keeps participants from seeing the factors that create its growth.  For the credit union system, there are two areas where they should have the upper hand in the ever-changing world of financial options.

Ownership Matters

We live in a commercial, social and political world in which success is often attained by accentuating differences–through branding, sloganeering or pandering to individual fears.

Cooperatives are built on peoples’ need for community. Instead of fueling division, credit unions rely on shared effort. When people feel included, these efforts build ownership. Ownership is more than “I am a member of.” It is being a part of something bigger than oneself.

Members are choosing a financial option that promotes individual and local opportunity, trust and prosperity.  The inclusive spirit of owning integrates diverse needs and persons in mutual efforts for a better community.

The Power of Relationships

In a brief article on managment strategy author Greg Satell references a McKinsey study that points out the change in the asset composition of leading American firms and why this requires a different approach to leadership:

“In 1983, McKinsey consultant Julien Phillips published a paper in the journal, Human Resource Management, that described an “adoption penalty” for firms that didn’t adapt to changes in the marketplace quickly enough.

. . .research shows that in 1975, during the period Phillips studied, 83% of the average US corporation’s assets were tangible assets, such as plant, machinery and buildings, while by 2015, 84% of corporate assets were intangible, such as licenses, patents and research.”

By NCUA rule, credit unions’ “tangible” assets-buildings, equipment and fixed- are limited to 5% of assets or less.  The structure of loan and investment assets is self-liquidating.  As with other corporations, the most vital cooperative “assets” today are intangible, but not patents or research. It’s about people.

One of these is employee culture especially when credit unions define their competitive advantage as service.  But the most valuable and hardest to quantify is the member-owner relationship.  This is more than the total of product balances, length of membership or volume of transactions. Relationship is members’ ongoing belief that a credit union’s decisions are in their best interest.

When a credit union’s most precious advantages are intangible, effectiveness is directly connected to people — what they believe, how they think and how they act.

This strategic imperative is counter to prevailing themes that coop competitiveness is finding the best technology, skill with data analytics or AI applications, or the dominate theory that size is essential for success.  All may help to some degree, but are not unique coop advantages.

Ownership and relationship are two sides of the same coin.  Without either, the member becomes just a customer, and the credit union one option of many in the financial forest.

The Network Advantage

Satell’s article highlights another credit union system advantage, albeit not unique to coops:

“Yet there is significant evidence that suggests that networks outperform hierarchies.

Wherever we see significant change today, it tends to happen side-to-side in networks rather than top-down in hierarchies. Studies have found similar patterns in the German auto industryamong currency traders and even in Broadway plays

The truth is that today we can’t transform organizations unless we transform the people in them. . .It is no longer enough to simply communicate decisions made at the top. Rather, we need to put people at the center and empower them to succeed.

Later this week I will present the story of a CEO and credit union where these cooperative ideas are the center of every effort.  The results speak for themselves, even if the model appears traditional.



Are App Platforms the Future of Financial Services?

COVID  accelerated the online movement  for all aspects of social and economic life.  In credit unions, some assert the transition away from the branch-based model of financial services to an all virtual one is now inevitable.

One example of this total virtual embrace is the former United Airlines, now Alliant CU with $14 billion in assets. It has no branches and is the ninth largest credit union in the country.  In contrast the $8 billion Wings Financial whose initial sponsors were also airlines, still has 30 branch operations in airports as well as in the communities surrounding its home office of Minneapolis-St Paul.

The Startups

Multiple startup financial providers, relying solely on virtual platform services, are attracting venture capital and IPO attention.   As described by Ron Lieber of the New York Times, What’s in a First Name for the New Money Apps:

The start-ups’ interfaces are indeed generally slicker and simpler, very much a welcome change.

And if you resent all of the overdraft and other fees the big brother banks so often charge — and you do, there’s little doubt — Dave and friends look even better. They tack away from old-fashioned bankery, with a suite of offerings like advance access to your paycheck, overdraft fee avoidance and assistance building credit.

Their brand’s “personalization” is communicated with  first names like Dave, Marcus, Albert or Bella.  Or sometimes with a disruptive promise like Aspiration and Revolut.   One online offering called Simple was just that, and has already closed.

The Enduring Advantage

While distribution options and transaction volumes migrate to virtual self-service, that does not mean branches will go away.  They may decline in traditional teller transactions but become more vital for other service interactions

Credit unions are organized around a “community” of people versus organizations built with venture capital.  Their cooperative advantage is relationships which are also the core of their organization’s purpose.

The value of human touch is often lost in AI automated interfaces, text messages, self- service applications and video demonstrations.   “People seeking financial service” as one consultant expressed, “do not visit branches, they visit bankers.”

Moments of Impact

Times’ writer Ron Lieber ends his review of virtual financial apps with the following story:

Davy Stevenson, the vice president of engineering at Hasura, which helps software developers more easily build applications using data, was an early neobank adopter herself. She experimented with the first versions of Simple, which no longer exists.

Today, she banks with her humble credit union. Though she pines a bit for the technical wizardry that her software developer brain knows the institution could deploy, she’s also happy with the way the people there treat her.

One CEO in his monthly staff updates includes examples of this member service advantage.  Here is a member comment from the July newsletter:

Dear (CEO’s name:)  (employees and cu name omitted)

Customers probably contact you when you when something goes wrong. Not this time. I wanted to let you know when your customers are given the best customer service, which is just what I received from the CU recently.

Two ladies I dealt with recently are the epitome of the great people on your staff. The first was J., and I apologize that I didn’t get her full name. J. was extremely knowledgeable in helping us transfer money to a friend living in England. She insisted on staying on the phone as I processed the transfer. She was so polite, helpful, and extremely efficient and I wanted you to know that!

Then, around the same time we were also processing a loan for an RV we were buying. M. B.  processed our loan so professionally and politely that I felt you needed to hear about her also. She instantly took care of everything and two old people are now ready to hit the road! Another great CU employee!

The Humble Credit Union

As long as members remain the mission, the future is secure.  Even when that future is increasingly enabled with Internet Retailing.