Lessons from Ed on How to Make Your Time in Boston Count

In the end, CUNA decided not to let them eat cake.

Instead, when it hosts its America's Credit Union Conference in Boston this week to mark the U.S. movement's 100th anniversary, the heat will be from the "hot topics" it has hurried to add to the agenda and not from 100 candles ablaze in celebration.

Those flaming issues include "Corporate Credit Unions and Critical Issues," "Net Worth Management in The New Credit Union Environment," "Lending Best Practices During Tough Economic Times," and a "Legislative, Regulatory and TARP Update," among others.

All those issues dance around the edges of the topic you would think is sufficiently hot to merit a candle of its own: "Will We Be Around In Ten Years To Celebrate Our 110th Birthday?" And this pertinent afternoon discussion, "Heck, How 'bout Next Year?"

Unfortunately, the need to speak to this issue isn't new. I used this space to pose the same question for CUNA prior to its GAC earlier this year, when the problems outside the beltway posed far greater threat than any bill sitting in some subcommittee. Yet the focus remained primarily on politics, and six months later the (non-political) challenge to credit unions has only metastasized.

That's not to say that the emperor is fiddling while all those candles (and the CUs they represent) are burning. There's no doubt CUNA and NAFCU know of the problems credit unions face; CUNA has seen enough red ink of its own to recognize the same blood flowing at many of its member CUs. Rumor has it CUNA's CFO Council even mulled a name change to the Council of Demons & Despair.

What has been and is sorely missing at the national level is any leadership of the "We're all in this together; now let's work our way of this hole together" variety.

And that brings us back to Boston. The ACUC is the latest reincarnation of what was once CUNA's annual general meeting, for much of its life a sepia-toned, two-day affair generally attended by league presidents, CUNA staff and management, and full of less-than-riveting committee reports. It's no accident this year's event is being held in the city, for it was here that the fledgling (and frankly, dyslexically named) Credit Union National Association started operating out of a one-room office in the 1920s.

How fitting it must have seemed years ago when the hotel and meeting space contracts were being signed to envision credit unions coming together to "celebrate" the Diamond Anniversary and walking in the footsteps of credit union pioneer and Boston's own Ed Filene.

Oh, the best laid plans.

CUNA chose to mark the 100th anniversary of U.S. credit unions this year, because the first state law enabling credit unions was enacted in Massachusetts in 1909, rather than last year, the 100th anniversary of the first credit union in the U.S., St. Mary's Bank in New Hampshire.

But it isn't the charter that should be getting the focus this week from CUNA or credit unions. Ed Filene championed credit unions as a great social benefit during a time when the Roaring '20s weren't roaring for everyone, and a decade later as a lone lifeline for the working man when a Depression had gutted a man's work. Today, Filene's offspring have hit some bumps. Retailer Filene's Basement filed for bankruptcy, and America's credit unions, well...you've read the coverage in Credit Union Journal.

What Filene also knew was this: just as credit unions themselves were made up of individuals leveraging their strength as a collective, credit unions, too, were stronger when they banded together. It's what puts the "move" in the movement. Initially, credit unions had no choice, often managed by a single volunteer overseen by a volunteer board. But as some credit unions grew individually from the days the big boys once known as the "million-dollar club," some came to believe they didn't need other CUs or "leagues" or each other as they once did. Today, not even the billion-dollar club CUs can make that claim. The solution again lies in the collective potential of the 8,000 (7,999, 7,998, 7,997...) CUs in the country, as it always has.

Scrap the speeches and roll up the sleeves. Ideas and strategies are needed from all corners. Are all these mergers necessary, or is it just misery loving company? How can credit unions better work together to create efficiencies?

Some CUs have remained in the black, corporate assessment and all. What secrets can they share? What got credit unions to this point? What have they gotten away from?

How come membership hasn't managed even more growth when CUs could not have wished/paid/prayed for the kind of negative attention banks have gotten over the past year?

Credit Union Journal has listened to its readers and sought to provide answers and best practices on those issues and more. But CUs need even more.

One CEO told me recently that leading a credit union right now is "uncharted territory." Then chart it. When Filene was sending Roy Bergengren out into the world, it was uncharted, too. But through leadership and courage, a chart was created.

Those are the real lessons Boston has to offer. If followed, no competitor and no challenge can hold a candle to credit unions.

Frank J. Diekmann can be reached at fdiekmann@cujournal.com.