White House On Line 1, History On Line 2, Future On The Line?

It isn't often a credit union CEO gets a call that "takes your breath away." Then again, it isn't every day you pick up the phone and hear, "This is the White House and we'd like for you to come and meet with the President."

Yet that's precisely what happened to Harriet May, president of the $1.2-billion GECU in El Paso, Texas, who met with President Bush to talk about financial literacy earlier this month (I'm going to bypass the obvious irony here about anyone with the federal government urging others to be more financially literate). For May, the meeting, part of National Financial Literacy Month, came on short notice. The White House called on a Thursday, then called back on Saturday to confirm May had passed the background check and was not one of those radical CU leaders, and officially asked her to come to Washington on the upcoming Wednesday. May said CUNA, which is just down the block from the White House, didn't even know she had been invited until she shared the news.

"The anticipation was huge," said May when asked how she felt as the meeting approached. She noted the somewhat surreal feeling there is to be had in getting through security at the White House appointments gate and suddenly finding yourself unescorted and alone on the driveway leading up to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. "They just told me to go down to the door with the seal on it," May recalled. "I was kind of blown away at how easy it was to walk around."

May was among seven people who spent an hour with the president. "He talked to us and got our views. We were each told we would have two minutes to speak. His mother-in-law is from El Paso, so he mentioned that when speaking to me. It was exciting to see this particular issue elevated to the level of the presidency. The President has a genuine interest in this issue. He asked me if credit unions were doing (financial education), and I was able to say 'yes.'"

May said she left some materials provided by CUNA with other officials at the meeting, which included Secretary of Education Margaret Spelings, HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson, and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson.

And then just as quickly as it all started, the meeting was over. "I could have wandered around when we were done, but I had a plane to catch," said May. "So I let myself out of the West Wing."

* Many credit unions have abandoned decades-old names with geographic or sponsor ties in favor of generic, made-up names specifically designed to evoke neither of those two attributes, so it's always interesting when a little glimpse into the fascinating history of credit unions (and U.S. pop culture) arises. Case in point: Call FCU in Richmond, Va. As attendees at the CU Journal's Business Development Conference learned, unless you are of a certain age or have a keen awareness of advertising lore, few would guess how the name came about.

The credit union is sponsored by Philip Morris, a company with such deep roots in the tobacco industry that until recently employees, including those at the credit union, received a carton of cigarettes with every paycheck.

In 1933, advertising man Milton Biow was looking for a clever way to promote the brand, and hit upon the idea that since Philip Morris was a man's name, it would be clever to have a hotel bellboy "calling" out for Philip Morris. Biow in turn hired New York's Commodore Hotel's Johnny Roventini, a 22-year-old who, due to a pituitary problem, was just four-feet tall and looked considerably younger than age.

Biow had Roventini page Philip Morris, and eventually hired him for $100 to do a radio ad. The phrase, "Call for Philip Morris" became such a nationally known and powerful ad message that it was chosen as the credit union's name when it was formed in 1952.

* This issue of CU Journal has extended coverage of facilities and branches, so the following is in order. Mark Riddle of Raddon Financial Group recently shared this story of something he has encountered in his own life. "A credit union built a beautiful branch near my house. In fact, it's more beautiful than any branch I have ever seen. I drive by it at least one time per day. I've never seen a billboard or an ad or received an e-mail that tells me if I can join that credit union. Most community banks in my town have sent me three pieces of mail. We're not spending the dollars to tell our story."

Riddle added that he has observed another consumer behavior about willingness to borrow from online lenders while also wanting to have a branch of their PFI nearby. "People want to be close to their deposits. They like to be further away from their loans," he said.

Frank Diekmann can be reached at fdiekmann<at>cujournal.com.