In 1971, inside what was then known as Cobo Hall in downtown Detroit, a group of credit union leaders representing "CUNA International" realized that its name was a bit of an oxymoron, and held a meeting to form a broader group to be called the World Council of Credit Unions (WOCCU).
Unknown to all was, at the same time, the group's future leader was a young man working just across town, unaware the meeting was occurring not far away, and just slightly more aware that there even was such a thing as CUNA International or a worldwide CU community. Indeed, it would be another 20 years before Pete Crear would have his first in-depth exposure to the world's CUs.
It was only recently that Crear even learned the meeting creating WOCCU had taken place, the details emerging as WOCCU has worked to assemble its history and gather the recollections of its founders, including R.C. Robertson of the U.S. and Paddy Bailey of Jamaica, who were there in Detroit.
Means It This Time
It's appropriate that Pete Crear, whose U.S. resume is as extensive and broad as anyone's in credit unions and who developed a familiarity with moving vans as a result, would eventually helm the World Council, where the Amazing Race isn't a TV show. Now, after six years at WOCCU, Crear is retiring, although having shared his home state of Wisconsin for a while with a certain Brett Favre, the "retirement" news may be met with some skepticism, as Crear retired once before from CUNA.
"The first time was just practice and training," laughed Crear, who began in credit unions in 1965 as a field auditor for the Michigan league. He would go on to hold leadership positions with the Indiana, Connecticut and Michigan leagues, before joining CUNA as its EVP/COO, and eventually becoming acting CEO before Dan Mica was hired in the late 1990s.
During all that time, Crear proved to be as effective as any CU leader, but perhaps even more difficult in the often serious-yet-silly world of intra-industry politics, always remained popular and well-regarded. Crear showed those two skill-sets plus his good humor transferred quite well to the world stage during a six-year term at WOCCU.
"This is a good time from my vantage point to make the transition," said Crear. "One, we're in pretty good shape right now, and even better than when I got here in 2005. Two, we're about to get a new chairman, which is what happened when I came aboard."
Today, WOCCU represents 44 regular members and affiliates, approximately double the number when he took over as CEO. (The number would be 45, Crear added, but the U.S. government has disallowed membership by Iraq's fledgling CU movement due to conflicts with the PATRIOT Act.)
When Crear joined World Council he had already served as CUNA's liaison to the group, so he was familiar with WOCCU. But he said he soon found much to learn.
"What was new to me wasn't related to credit unions, but to what the world is like. When the G-20 met, did I really care before? No. It didn't affect me. But now I know there are a lot of things that can happen in the world that do have an effect, such as the Basel meetings. I know the puzzle has a lot more pieces than I thought."
Those WOCCU pieces now include projects in countries such as Ethiopia, Haiti, Peru and Afghanistan. Other efforts launched during Crear's tenure include the first technical congresses to train CU managers in Africa, Latin America and the South Pacific, the European Network of CUs, the International CU Regulators' Network and the Global Women's Leadership Network
In the U.S., which long viewed the rest of the world's CUs as little more than great places to take a trip even though terribly innovative work has gone on in Canada, Australia, Brazil, Poland and other countries, Crear said he now sees much more interest from American CU leaders.
"I think professionals are really starting to get it now," Crear said. "We get a lot of questions about what is happening in Canada, for instance, where we're seeing a new federal system, and a squeezing out of the centrals and a business model that is moving toward that of the Desjardens credit unions" (which have a centralized back office and DP).
One Thing That Hasn't Changed
The rest of the world has offered leadership elsewhere, too. One thing that has not changed between Crear's first and second retirements is the embarrassing lack of diversity in CU leadership in the U.S., especially African-American representation. If Crear wants to see a diverse group of leaders, then maybe it's most fitting he concludes his career at a World Council event, where, ironically, he will have to go to Scotland for WOCCU's World CU Conference in July to see something that doesn't resemble an Osmond Family Reunion.
In the meantime, the World Council will have an Earth-sized challenge in attempting to find a successor. The job requires more than a passport and a PDA; it requires a zeal for what credit unions can do. That's an insight Crear recalls he saw first-hand 20 years after that Cobo Hall organizational meeting when WOCCU brought an international meeting to Madison, Wis., in 1991.
"That's when the light bulb went on and it has never gone off," Crear observed.
Frank J. Diekmann can be reached at email@example.com.