A Cab Ride To The Past And Then Back Again

A couple of weeks ago I caught a cab at the New Orleans airport and gave the driver the name of the hotel where I was headed for the CUNA CFO Council annual meeting. A series of storms had just dumped inches of rain on the Crescent City, and as we drove past already flooded neighborhoods in the city that never gets a break, the driver asked me why I was in town.

Uh-oh. All road warriors recognize this is Taxi Terror Time. The driver might be a "talker," meaning those plans to check the Blackberry or make a phone call are about to be as squeezed as that airline seat you just pried yourself out of. Or he might be talking because he's on the downside of a week's worth of overnight double-shifts and that gallon of Circle K turpentine-blend coffee isn't keeping him awake any longer and now he's counting on you. Or worst of all, English is his third language (and his first two are about as firm as the cab's suspension), and you'll be left trying to discern what he's saying over the whine of the bald tires and the wind whistling around that window that hasn't closed all the way since about 3,000 fares back, and you nod in agreement even though he may be telling you he needs you to be ready to grab the wheel.

Taking A Chance

I took my chances and shared that I was in town for a credit union conference. And then, in one of those moments that never actually happen in life and only appear in some corny, league-produced video, he asked quite sincerely, "I was wondering if you could tell me the difference between a bank and a credit union?"

My immediate reaction was "Why can't I get this question in the Cash Cab?" The temptation, of course, is to tell the cab driver it's a good thing he's sitting and then share all one knows about the topic. Yet that's the mistake that is so often made in credit union marketing (when any attempt is made at all to share that difference).

I laid it out simply: like a bank, but owned by its customers, etc. The driver was a Haitian immigrant who had moved to New Orleans from Miami a dozen years earlier. Now he had a 15-year old daughter and a 12-year-old son and he wanted to know how to save for their college educations and whether a credit union could help him. I told him to tell the credit union exactly what he told me, and they would help.

"And how do I find a credit union?" he asked.

And there, in that one short conversation with a stranger, was the challenge that vexes credit unions a century after they were founded. What are they? Can I join? Where do I find one? I've used plenty of space in this column to urge credit unions to better tell their story. Few do, although as the Frankie Awards show each year, some do it well. The irony of it all is that in an enormous market where players spend billions on "niche differentiation" even though most offer no differences at all beyond their advertising, credit unions seem poised to discard a tangible "credit union difference" to the 20th century's junkheap.

Is there a difference? Can you describe it? Do you? Are the words "credit union difference" old-fashioned or, dare we say it, "obsolete?" Does anyone care?

All this comes as we mark the death of someone who would have gotten defensive and even upset that those questions have to be asked. Chuck Eikel died last week at 70. The son of CUNA Mutual's first president, and a long-time employee of the company himself, Mr. Eikel was a living connection to credit union history. As a kid he had ridden along with his father, who began as a credit union organizer, through the American South chartering CUs at a time when the words "organizer" and "union" weren't welcome in every town. Chuck shared stories of the times they were escorted to the county line by the sheriff with anything but an encouraging "Come back and see us sometime, y'hear." He recalled being in one Mississippi hamlet when a group of white men with baseball bats made it clear Charley Eikel would not be helping a black church form a CU.

Why Are You There?

In 2002 when Chuck Eikel retired from CUNA Mutual, he told me, "I have a feeling there are some large credit unions that are more concerned with the bottom line than with explaining to members their reason for being. Credit unions were organized out of a need, a need to be there. I think every credit union, large and small, should go back to their archives and lay out for members why they're there."

If you want to read more about what Mr. Eikel had to say about his life and that of his father, go to cujournal.com, narrow the search to 2002, and search his name. That 2002 column was headlined, "Who will carry the torch now?" It remains a darn good question.

And if you don't think anyone still cares, ask a cab driver, because you can never tell the story often enough. The Eikel family, after all, spent all those early years in New Orleans.

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