A CEO Retires After What May Be The Earliest Start In CUs, Ever

Today, just about every credit union offers some kind of kids club, complete with coloring books and a mascot of some kind. Whether those clubs translate into a life-long affinity for credit unions remains open to debate.

Frank Matous, who is now in his second week of retirement after some 50 years in credit unions, is living testimony, however, that sometimes exposing a kid to CUs can have long-lasting results; in his case, the credit union operated right next to his baby crib and then his bed for the first nine years of his life, before finally relocating — to his family's basement.

As credit unions come to the close of their 100th anniversary in the U.S., there are often references made to those "roots" that are unseen and below ground. What's often overlooked is another little piece of CU uniqueness: the trees that have grown from them that are still standing and dropping seeds for new generations.

The Family Affair
You don't see it as often as you used to, but credit unions were often a family affair. In Matous' case, his father, also named Frank, was working as an usher during the 1930s at the now defunct St. Edwards Catholic Church in Detroit when a parish priest (sound familiar?) told him he had been hearing a lot about a cooperative financial movement, and the good padre urged Frank Sr. to look into it. Educated only through the eighth grade, Frank Sr. had worked hard to make something of himself during difficult times, and in 1941 he and five others from the Chrysler Truck Plant in Warren formed Dodge Truck Forge and Amplex FCU with $10 each (today it's Tandem CU).

Long tenures in credit unions seem to run in the Matous family, and Frank Sr. would go on to serve for 45 years. Today, Frank, Jr. recalls board meetings in his parents' apartment, with meals cooked by his mother. Sometimes a member would knock on a first-floor window at night looking to make a withdrawal from the CU's safe, which was kept in a closet. During the day Frank Sr. would carry the CU's records with him in the plant to conduct business. It eventually built a branch near the plant.

Frank Jr., and the brothers who followed him would all work at the CU at one time or another (and still do). Frank's brother, Phil, who helped with much of the history you're reading here, has spent 41 years in credit unions, and is currently CEO of Total Community CU in Taylor, Mich. Another brother, Steve, was for many years a salesman for UltraData, while another, John, is now with Chase Bank (there's always one in every family).

After graduation from Michigan State, Frank eventually took over as CEO at Teachers Credit Union in Pontiac. So it's not hard to figure out the subject of discussion at family dinners.

"Credit unions used to dominate the discussion," said Frank. "Now, with just one brother managing a credit union, there is a little talk and exchange of notes, but it's not as dominant." The talk in those days was of matters considerably simpler, but just as important. "When I started at 16 I was working in collections. I was reviewing $50 loans when the security we had on them would be something like a pair of shoes. Early on we couldn't lend more than $25 on unsecured loans."

There have been other changes, too. Not necessarily bad changes, but it's hard for anyone who's been in credit unions for any length of time not to miss an era when "co-opetition" would have been considered a misspelling and "overlap" was where you put your napkin.

"It's not that competition is bad, and there was a little competition, but total cooperation," noted Matous. "We tried to help one another. Up until the mid-1970s or so, we even had cooperation with the banks who helped supply us with cash."

Active in the local chapter and one of the first chairman of a nascent CUES, Frank eventually found himself a bachelor raising boys of his own. Then he met a single woman who just happened, of course, to be managing a California CU who was also raising children, and pretty soon it was the "Brady Bunch," CU Style. "I asked my children, 'Where would you rather be, here in Michigan or California?' It took them about three seconds to say California."

Frank and Maggie were soon married, with Maggie Matous serving 39 years in credit unions before retiring as CEO of Marin County CU in 2000. Before long, Frank was hired on to lead Sea West Coast Guard CU, which he attributes to a conservative management philosophy that appealed to the board of what is now a $304-million operation. "We're still at 20% capital even after the (corporate) writedown," he said, stressing the need for reserves.

Long-Term Insights
It's always insightful to hear the perspective that time can bring. After 50 years in credit unions serving two states accustomed to strong ups and down, Frank refers to the current recession and its predecessors as the "bumps through the years." When asked what advice he might have for other CU leaders, he responded, "The whole idea is this is a people business. A credit union is the people. The main thing is to hire people with the capability of doing a good job of helping others to grow."

As for the future of credit unions, Matous offered, "I have high hopes, let's put it that way, that credit unions can weather this storm. Many credit unions branched out and made loans to people who can't afford to repay them. I think credit unions are likely to continue to get larger and more diverse, and will be similar to credit unions in Canada, which can serve a province or multiple provinces."

As for his own little piece of CU history, Matous said that other than summer jobs, his own children have moved into other fields. "I'm the last of the line," he said.

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