U-Turn In Las Vegas: What The World Has To Offer

It doesn't matter which mode of transportation you use to get there, a journey to Las Vegas is generally a one-way trip. Oh, you may catch a flight back out, but your money and plastic cards and maybe even your credit always remain behind.

With apologies to Mr. Churchill, never have so many been so persuaded to lose so much by so few words: "What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas." Give it some thought and you realize the reference isn't to a crazy night on the town.

Perhaps the town and its millions of visitors have a tacit agreement that, indeed, what happens in Vegas stays there, but as the housing meltdown has proven, there's a loophole or two in the rule. So here's hoping it's a loophole or three when the World Council of Credit Unions (WOCCU) and CUNA host their joint "1 Credit Union Conference" this week.

These international meetings among credit unions have also long been something of a one-way trip themselves for U.S. CUs, and much like the ad slogan, few have given it much thought. Like the deep-pocketed visitors to Las Vegas who are known as "whales" and who tend to view themselves as bigger and better than all the other fish in the sea, America's credit unions have always had something of a similar world view when it comes to meetings with their counterparts from around the globe.

The 'Smuglies'
It's not so much been Ugly Americanism as it's been Smug Americanism-we'll call it "smugly." At World Council-sponsored conferences it has always been that the American contingent is gracious with leaders of foreign CUs, happy to share their knowledge with the developing CU movements of other countries, but generally perceiving it as that one-way street. American CUs have always been substantially larger-indeed, many individual U.S. credit unions have assets that exceed the total CU assets in some countries-with deeper resources and experience competing in a far more sophisticated financial services marketplace.

Frankly, the only thing many American CUs took home from most international meetings were memories, photos of new friends, and an item or two from the silent auction. The idea that any foreign credit union could teach an American CU a thing or two about strategy, product offerings or technology was as laughable as the inevitable American exec or two who raises one pint too many in the pub and returns to his hotel wearing an Irish CU rep's kilt.

That is-and must be-no longer true.

The world has changed, and with it, the world's credit unions. For many decades the U.S. exposition at the World's Fair was a must-see for citizens of countries less advanced than America. The U.S. exhibition had the latest gadgets and gizmos that were all part of that distant American dream. There is another World's Fair taking place right now in Shanghai, and the U.S. exhibition is not the coolest or the most popular. It isn't that the U.S. has fallen so much behind as it is that much of the rest of the world has caught up.

A World of Innovation
And so it is with credit unions. WOCCU Is projecting more than 2,000 people will attend the 1 Conference, including representatives from nearly 60 countries. This would be a very good time for the host country to do a little less speaking and a lot more listening, as CU communities from other parts of the world are doing some innovative things.

• Canada's credit unions have continued to prosper and have developed several collaborative models worth emulating. Certainly the way the Canadians have structured their corporate centrals will be of interest to a CU community south of that border eager for some new ideas.

• Kenya's CUs have created what is informally known as "branch in a backpack." Using a Dell laptop, an inexpensive computer-mounted camera, a portable scanner and POS device with biometric capabilities, CU reps are able to take the CU to the members. Each "branch" costs about $1,300, and also interacts with members' existing cellphone banking capabilities.

• Poland's CUs are a lesson in quickly putting the move in movement and taking a provocative stance against the country's banks (I guess when some of your founders did prison time for participating in Poland's Solidarity movement, banks don't seem so intimidating).

• In Brazil, credit unions (known as SICREDI) have created a correspondent banking system, wherein retail (non credit union) agents utilize POS technology to provide access to CU services in locations outside of the CU branches. The result has been significant increases in savings deposits and assets.

• Down under, Australia and New Zealand's CUs have some unique experiences when it comes to mergers (and the former offers some lessons that should not be forgotten on the repercussions of losing the tax exemption).

Ninety-nine point nine percent of visitors to Glitter Gulch this week will stumble from the airport to a casino to the buffet to a casino and back to the airport again, without ever putting down the comp'd rum-n-Coke and giving a thought to how for much of the world, life is a gamble everyday. But one little group of visitors will do so. As WOCCU CEO Pete Crear observed, "We will think there are places we can go and make a real difference."

Here's to hoping the American contingent notices that Las Vegas Boulevard is actually a two way street, and that in this case what happens in Vegas doesn't stay in Vegas.

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