The Road To Washington For CUNA's New President

If you had strolled last week into an office of Ladbroke's, the British betting service, you could have placed a wager on the Iberdrola Open, the World Twenty20 match, or who might be the next leader of the Tory Party.

Indeed, Ladbroke's is famous for offering opportunities to wager on just about anything. Yet you wouldn't have found the company allowing you to gamble on who would be the next CEO in the corner office at 601 Pennsylvania Avenue Northwest in Washington, in short, the new CUNA president.

Good thing, because you likely would've lost the bet. Conventional knowledge was that while the trade group might interview some candidates from inside CUs, they were long shots, as CUNA has become enamored with the kind of access and insights ex-congressman Dan Mica has brought to the position.

The long shot just came in. Just a day after the country marks its 234th birthday in July, Bill Cheney, a long-time credit union veteran, will fill the position Mica has held for the past 13 years as Mica is retiring.

The pendulum always swings back, it seems, as Mica, who came from an insurance industry trade group, was the first "outsider" to hold the post. "I threw my hat in the ring early on in the process," said Cheney, who is currently president of the California/Nevada leagues, noting that the search committee indicated it would not be reaching out to candidates and would expect those who wanted the job to step up.

The CUNA CEO job has always been about politics, and not that found on C-SPAN. Former President Ralph Swoboda once told me seven years was about as long as anyone could last in the job (until Mica came along), thanks to the internal politicking of CUs.

One gripe has always been that CUNA's leader doesn't know anything about managing a credit union. CUs will have to find something else to moan about (and they will). "I have been in credit unions, beginning as an employee, since 1987 and I worked with credit unions when I was with Accenture beginning in 1985," said Cheney, 49. "I have worked inside credit unions in IT, as a COO and as CEO (of Xerox FCU-now Xceed Financial). This time it was just too great an opportunity to pass up."

Cheney acknowledged that when he entered the "movement" he gave little thought to association leadership, which is a completely different beast from running a CU. "My first experience in association management was when I was on the executive committee of the NAFCU board and I worked with (NAFCU President) Fred Becker," he recalled. "Of course, I had also been involved with the Texas league and then the California league. My first experience with an association was with the Alamo Chapter. (Associations are) not for everyone. They are very different businesses. But I have always enjoyed advocacy."

The New Job Description

Ah, advocacy. It's essentially become the job description. Thanks to the late 1990s threat that led to the hiring of Mica and the CU Membership Access Act, CUNA has gone from being a Midwestern-based trade group with a Washington office to a smooth Washington operation with a big building back in Madison.

When CU Journal suggested in one story that Cheney's hiring might mark a turn away from advocacy, CUNA was quick to respond (see Harriett May's letter). "Advocacy has always been the No. 1 priority of the California and Nevada leagues," said Cheney, "and it's CUNA's priority. I can see where people would think that (his hiring marked a turn away from advocacy). Dan had been a member of Congress. But I also have years of experience in working with members of Congress." He pointed to the 60-plus members of Congress representing California and Nevada, including the Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

But before Cheney can hit the Hill, he'll have other jobs, including relocating his wife and two children to Washington. He said the "first order of business is a smooth transition between Dan and myself," and a similarly smooth hand-off to whomever succeeds him at the league.

He'll have to pick up whatever is left on a full plate of legislative agendas, including member business lending, capital reform, and interchange and overdraft laws. Cheney praised Mica for being 'extremely supportive," noting Mica has already made calls to key leaders in Congress regarding the transition.

Mica has told the story of his first week at CUNA, when he thought the primary challenge was responding to an adverse Supreme Court ruling-right up until someone said, "Oh, and we can't make payroll this week."

Cheney noted all trade associations have been hit hard by the recession, including his own league where he had to oversee layoffs in 2009, as did CUNA, but "I think CUNA's finances are stable and improving and I look forward to continuing to build reserves."

Cheney will also need to hit the road to visit the Madison operation, plus deal with the other organizations that he will also oversee, including Credit Union House, CUNA Strategic Services, and the National Credit Union Foundation. He added it's way too early to give any thought to the kind of legacy he hopes his tenure at CUNA will leave.

"I think what I bring that is different is my hands-on involvement in credit unions," Cheney said. "That's what I hope will work to the benefit of CUNA and credit unions. I love credit unions and am passionate about credit unions."

Frank J. Diekmann is publisher of Credit Union Journal and can be reached at fdiekmann@cujournal.com.