Mistakes and the Beauty of Music

One of my hobbies is choral singing. Both in church choirs and at adult singing vacations in summer.

A choir director whom I follow tells the following about how professional muscians handle mistakes.

“The Baroque trumpet is really just a piece of bent tubing with a bell on one end and a mouthpiece on the other.

On a modern trumpet there are valves to change the effective length of the instrument, and thus to make notes more playable.

On the Baroque trumpet it’s all done with tiny and precise pressure adjustments of the lips with the difference between the notes shrinking as the range rises.

It makes the instrument famously difficult to play.

Historically, trumpet players have had big, bold personalities, something akin to fighter pilots. He or she must be confident in their abilities with even a touch of well-earned swagger.

A player hits a lot of notes, and makes them sound beautiful, but sometimes, a note will just fail to sound, or worse, come out in a loud and rather atonal squeak.

“What do you do when that happens in public?” I asked of a player who is a frequent soloist in the Messiah movement, The Trumpet Shall Sound, “like when you’re standing at the high pulpit playing out over the cathedral packed with 3,000 people?”

“How do you keep from having your confidence shaken for the notes that are yet to come after something goes wrong?”

I was speaking from experience. As an organist with many notes to play, some of them quite obvious if they go wrong, I’ve felt my confidence shaken after a mistake. Voices within berating me for many measures that follow. A wry smile came across his highly trained lips.

“I don’t even think about my mistakes,” he said. “I’m focused on the beauty of the musical line I’m playing.””

Investing in a 10 Year Rising Stock Market

It is hard not to feel very smart or lucky if you have made investments in the stock market during its 10 year bull run. Virtually all asset classes in 2019 increased in the high teens to more than 20% for broad market indexes. These are great returns especially when compared to risk-free CDs, which have earned 2% or less annually during the same period.

Most forecasts for 2020 support continuation of the current 2% GDP growth trends and a rising stock market. No recession or market retreat is foreseen. What could possibly go wrong?

Looking at Some Details

To the extent stock prices reflect the present value of anticipated future earnings, there seems to be a growing disconnect between stock prices and projected earnings. Especially for smaller companies. A cautionary analysis of 2019’s soaring market was written by James Mackintosh in the WSJ last Friday. He points out that the percentage of all listed companies reporting losses in the last 12 months is close to 40%. The highest level since the late 1990’s, outside recessionary periods.

Moreover, he cites another analyst who calculates that the proportion of US-listed companies losing money for three years also reached its highest point last year. The caveat in this second observation is that these are small companies which in total represent less than 5% of the market’s overall value.

Two thoughts. Almost all credit union member business lending is to small companies. And secondly, one of the eternal verities about market returns is “reversion to the mean.” That is average returns will revert to long term “normalized”values over time. Could 2020 be such a year?

Maya Angelou-Reflects on Why We Collaborate

This is a poem that deals with togetherness. It was published in 1975 in her book Oh Pray My Wings Are Gonna Fit Me Well.

Alone

Lying, thinking
Last night
How to find my soul a home
Where water is not thirsty
And bread loaf is not stone
I came up with one thing
And I don’t believe I’m wrong
That nobody,
But nobody
Can make it out here alone.

Alone, all alone
Nobody, but nobody
Can make it out here alone.

There are some millionaires
With money they can’t use
Their wives run round like banshees
Their children sing the blues
They’ve got expensive doctors
To cure their hearts of stone.
But nobody
No, nobody
Can make it out here alone.

Alone, all alone
Nobody, but nobody
Can make it out here alone.

Now if you listen closely
I’ll tell you what I know
Storm clouds are gathering
The wind is gonna blow
The race of man is suffering
And I can hear the moan,
‘Cause nobody,
But nobody
Can make it out here alone.

Alone, all alone
Nobody, but nobody
Can make it out here alone.

From the Field: Words of Gratitude

“I noticed our profit sharing hit my 401K last Friday, thank  you so much for this wonderful benefit! I know you go to bat for us with the board and I appreciate them reciprocating in kind. During this holiday season I reflect on the year gone by and the year to come,  and feel very humbled and blessed. Appreciate it!”

A New Year’s Resolution for Credit Unions

President Franklin D. Roosevelt once stated:

“We cannot always build the future for our youth, but we can build our youth for the future.”

September 28, 1940, University of Pennsylvania

Might  credit unions consider a commitment such as:

While we  cannot guarantee members’ future economic circumstances, we can promise to be here for whatever members may ask of us.

Peter Pan and Captain Hook in Credit Union Land

James Barrie’s children’s play Peter Pan has become a staple of holiday presentations since it was first staged in 1904 in London. It just opened in Washington. Wendy, Tinker Bell, Peter, Captain Hook, Tiger Lily and the Lost Boys’ feats in Neverland are alive for those who have only seen the TV or movie versions.

The conflict between Captain Hook’s pirate band with Peter and the Lost Boys seems at times too real (walking the plank, if captured) and at other moments simply fantasy.

Peter Pan is the boy who doesn’t want to grow old. Tinker Bell’s pixie dust powers ordinary children to fly to the stars. And Captain Hook while trying to capture the Lost Boys, is always listening for the tick-tock of the alarm clock swallowed by the man-eating crocodile that bit off his hand.

Audiences both young and old are asked to imagine. Moreover, the play’s tension derives from the threats of mortality should the boys be captured, or what would happen if the crocodile sneaks up on Hook unawares.

Plays endure because they embody truths transcending the theatrical story. Who really wants to grow old? Has not a shadow of death crossed every person’s mind at some point? Does the lure of adventure, the dream of flying into the sky, ever end?

Do these theatrical insights have parallels with characters in credit union land?

Captain Hooks Abound

I confess to seeing many Captain Hook figures in credit union land. They hear ticking clocks and spend their lives running from a vicious crocodile. They warn others to flee also. For it is their desire, similar to Hook’s, to subdue the optimism of Peter Pans, and to assert control over their part of credit union land. Here are some recent tick-tock warnings:

A CEO:

“In our industry there is such a short runway—we’re all going to face challenges. . . You have to be aggressive because there’s big changes in banking coming. You have got to get bigger and do it at a decent pace, and you have to look beyond your borders. If a credit union is anti-merger, they’re probably burying their head in the sand. The financial services industry is going to be facing some headwinds in the future and you have to be ready.”

A Board to its Membership:

Your FCU Board of Directors . . .has approved and is seeking a merger . . .It is the role of the board to look ahead and make decisions that we believe place our credit union in the best position to serve you. As we look to the future, we recognize the potential for economic challenges ahead. The last recession was very difficult for our credit union and we are not confident that we could remain well-capitalized through another economic downturn. We believe the time to take this step is now while our credit union remains financially strong.

Two NCUA Board Members:

“To me it’s always interesting to note the credit union community is now approaching $1.5 trillion in assets and we have an insurance fund with $16 billion, $17 billion in it. This is razor thin. There is not a lot of leeway here. (McWatters)

Or,

Harper called out the NCUA for tolerating “an uneven regulatory field. After the Great Recession, the FDIC and other banking regulators moved promptly to update and implement their risk-based capital standards, yet the NCUA wants to delay implementation for a second time. . . We know that a recession is coming. We just don’t know when and how severe it will be. That’s why we should fix the roof before it rains by implementing this (RBC) rule at the start of 2020.”

For Captain Hooks the end is around every corner. They preach negativity. It sounds expert, especially when facts don’t support their claims of future insight.

The Peter Pan World View

Like Peter Pan, credit union leaders have a different vision from the Captain Hooks of their responsibility. This is not a world where worries don’t exist; but rather one that believes in the radical, disruptive capabilities of cooperatives. Especially its focus on member well-being.

They know that the work of helping members is never ending and that hardships sooner or later come to one or all. But rather than looking for ways out of credit union land by giving up their charter, or outracing market growth, or emulating competitor’s models, or even hoarding more for future uncertainties, these leaders instead rely on one premise: how credit unions serve members will be the difference that sustains, whatever the economic or competitive climate.

As year-end nears, look for the many stories celebrating the sharing of credit union successes with members, communities and those in need. As the Hooks of the world continue predicting crises if one does not heed their ticking clock, recall the most dramatic moment in the play.

Tinker Bell appears to have succumbed in a fight with Hook and her spirit ended. Whereupon Peter appeals to the audience, breaking the theater’s fourth wall and asking “Do you believe in magic? Let me hear you.” And every time the audience shouts and claps, Tinker Bell recovers and the Lost Boys and Wendy make it home safely.

A lot of hard work goes into the cooperative model, but in the end, success depends on what you believe. The Captain Hooks? Or the many Peter Pans going about their work joyfully, knowing good works are never finished?

P.s. If you want to read about one leader whose tenure embodied the ageless power of Peter Pan’s optimism, read my article on Olan Jones.

A Voice-over Message from a Credit Union Video

“Over the past hundred years, and many generations, credit union owners have built credit union value. Each owner through contribution, volunteering and stewardship has helped create credit unions worth over $120 billion and a credit union industry worth over $1 trillion. Every day new generations join these credit unions. And every day, the value of each credit is passed freely from one generation to the next. One owner to another.”

The close:When you join a credit union, this value is given to you. You are not only a member, you are part of a community of credit union owners who share this value.”

A timeless message. Makes one want to see the video. Or to join and own a credit union today!

A Thought from Paul Volker for the Season, or Anytime

On December 8th Paul Volker, the former Chairman of the Federal Reserve under Presidents Carter and Reagan, died.

The economist and regulator was a person of strong character.

The story is told of a friend who dropped by his New York office. The colleague began to brag to Volker about his son who worked for a hedge fund, was making a lot of money and living the good life.

Volker commented, “I have one thing he doesn’t have.”

The friend, curious, asked what that was.

Volker’s one word reply, “Enough.”

Olan Jones: Born, Educated and Locally Grounded

Each year end brings the retirement of credit union leaders who have served a generation or more expanding the cooperative legacy. One such exit at Eastman Credit Union in Kingsport, TN is especially noteworthy.

Olan Jones is leaving an institution he guided for over 20 years. Today it is $5 billion in assets versus $600 million when he arrived. Its 820 employees serve 230,000 members at 30 employer and branch locations throughout the country.

 A Person of Purpose

The first two decades of Olan’s professional career were with Eastman Kodak and Eastman Chemical in corporate finance and human relations. Then came the switch to cooperatives.

While it would be important to single out the over 20 years of Eastman Credit Union’s sustained financial performance as CEO, what makes Olan’s contribution so special is his leadership qualities.

Even with 20 years in the corporate for-profit world, Olan believed in the unique contribution of the cooperative model. In our conversations he was curious about all things credit union. His final question in a call to me would be, who else might he ask about a topic such as “Are any credit unions actually utilizing big data analytics to improve their core understanding of their firm and make better decisions”?

“To Thine Own Self Be True”

In all my interactions, Olan’s “southern gentleman’s” personality was prominent. He was always courteous, calm and thoughtful. He welcomed all comers and made people feel at ease. No air of authority, but rather someone you want to have lunch with.

Olan calls it a “Southern Appalachian” manner. Born in Kingsport, TN, he is a life-long, all-in participant in numerous community educational institutions, economic development efforts, theatrical groups, and church and professional organizations in the east Tennessee and southwest Virginia regions of his FOM.

He always saw his responsibilities as much more encompassing than leading the credit union. One initiative he undertook was to deploy a community WiFi network in downtown Kingsport in the early era of the Internet revolution. Ultimately this community effort was ended when WiFi became ubiquitous.

He was active in many Tri-Cities community leadership roles and in financing public development projects. In the credit unions system, he served in volunteer roles with Filene, CUNA, NASCUS and the Tennessee League, to name a few. He also served on the Thrift Institution Advisory Council of the Federal Reserve Board.

A Manager’s Manager: A Service Culture

His combination of human resource and financial background propelled a multifaceted approach to organizational change that resulted in an 800% asset growth during his two-decade tenure.

He was an advocate for quality improvement processes (Deming) and project management. He sought 5-10% annual growth in the field of membership (FOM) as the area’s population was declining at 0.5% per year and the economy growing at only 1%. The company sponsor since 1936, was downsizing employment. By adding groups and counties to its field and becoming a one-stop shop, the credit union enjoyed strong annual earnings with double digit balance sheet growth during his stewardship.

He believed that empathy was key to effective customer service, not just great products. Creating a service culture, he realized, takes time and continual measurement. Once implemented, the credit union has achieved a net promoter score of 81-87% for over ten years. Better service creates better financial results was his operating logic.

He believed so strongly that lending was the critical credit union role that he once appeared at a staff meeting in a “Hair on Fire” wig to stress this urgency. Since the 1990s, the credit union was a pioneer in a non-government guaranteed, private student loans. He refocused lending on middle-class blue-collar members, not just higher paid senior executives. He introduced business lending and financing municipal development projects resulting in a $350 million portfolio.

The credit union shared its success with its member-borrowers by paying out $130M rebates over a 20-year period. Some business clients were so surprised with annual interest checks in the tens of thousands of dollars that they sent them back thinking there had been an error.

His Credit Union Spirit

Having lived in the corporate world of quarterly earnings-per-share expectations, Olan believes that serving members, not maximizing profits, is what undergirds credit union success. ECU found that the higher the annual member service rating, the stronger the financial performance. To everyone’s surprise, almost everything else that matters to financial performance got better as well.

He preached that ECU’s strategy of “maximizing service to members” both differentiates and gives the credit union a huge competitive advantage.

The smartest investment he made was in the credit union’s hiring and training program to maximize this service quality focus. He wanted to keep goals clear, simple and understandable. An employee bonus program of up to 20% of salary, is based 50% on loan performance and 50% annual member satisfaction rating.

Service quality excellence was recognized in the staff bonus combined to create the organization’s decades-long superior outcomes.

The yearly bonus dividend paid out more to members than the credit union would have paid should it have been subject to federal and state taxes. Instead these funds were reinvested immediately to enhance member’s lives and their communities.

Not Changing of the Guard, but Drawing from a Pipeline

Credit unions are unique in their ability to capitalize on local relationships. Olan’s leadership accomplishments stem from his deep, caring loyalty for his people, his community and his region.

His successor, Kelly Price, is from the credit union’s executive ranks. Just as Olan himself sprang from the local environment.

On October 14, 2019, Olan’s singular contributions to east Tennessee were recognized by the Speaker of the Tennessee House of Representatives in a formal proclamation reciting his lifetime of service to his home region.

For those who have not had the experience of meeting Olan, this video for his work with Junior Achievement will give you a first-hand picture of his personality.

From the Field: A Sentiment Binding Cooperatives

Email from a member: “Thank you so much for the Patronage Dividend Bonus. We appreciate all the hard work from you and your team. Have a great holiday season.

CEO reply: Thanks for the message. It takes the mutual appreciation of the players involved in a cooperative to generate dividends. And I am proud to work in a cooperative that highlights the sense of appreciation as one of its main drivers for success. Enjoy the holidays.