I've sat through many a small credit union roundtable, yet there was something noticeable in its absence at the most recent I attended: a portrait of Jack Kervorkian.
What was really needed? That "Little Man" image CUs champion, but this time not as a reference to Average Joe consumers.
The leaders of America's small credit unions, and that is by far the majority of the country's co-ops, have always been a pretty stoic lot. They are often like small business owners, feeling at times overwhelmed by the Walmarts of the world, but proud and determined to make a success of it nonetheless. Beneath their worries and concerns you would always hear a determined optimism that in spite of what feels an entire casino's inventory of card decks stacked against them, they would persevere and find a way to live this idea of people helping people and to continue growing.
Pooh or Poo?
And then I spent an hour and 15 minutes at a roundtable discussion during NAFCU's annual meeting in San Francisco. Attitudes that had always been so Winnie the Pooh-like in finding the positive have, I'm afraid, become much more like those of Eeyore. Or, just plain poo.
Consider this, from A.A. Milne's "The House at Pooh Corner":
"I thought," said Piglet earnestly, "that if Eeyore stood at the bottom of the tree, and if Pooh stood on Eeyore's back, and if I stood on Pooh's shoulders..."
"And if Eeyore's back snapped suddenly, then we could all laugh. Ha Ha! Amusing in a quiet way," said Eeyore, "but not really helpful."
"Well," said Piglet meekly, "I thought -"
"Would it break your back, Eeyore?" asked Pooh, very much surprised.
"That's what would be so interesting, Pooh. Not being quite sure till afterwards."
And there, from a children's book from 1928 that really isn't a children's book at all, is summed up the mindset of CEOs and managers of credit unions across the country: no one will really know which new laws or regulation will break the backs of the small CU; they just know that eventually one will, but it won't be discussed until the autopsy.
One manager at last week's session lamented that he feels like he's a part of the tragic World War II sinking of the USS Indianapolis, and that the "sharks are circling." In this case, those sharks are larger credit unions, who were repeatedly referred to as "predators" during the roundtable. Another person observed, "I get calls from (CEOs of larger CUs) saying, 'I want to be your friend.' And I wonder, 'Why do you want to be my friend?' The underlying tone was, 'I want to get my foot in your door.'"
This wasn't a group of managers and board members who operate four floors above the members and who never have to interact with the folks in line. These are managers and even the occasional volunteer who are answering phones and processing loans and pitching in on the teller line on payday Fridays and for whom a trip to a conference is as much inconvenience as it is a break from the office. That old saw about "I don't know whether to laugh or cry," is uttered just about every time they open up their e-mail inbox.
One difference from Eeyore's predicament above: the leaders of the country's smaller CUs (defined at the NAFCU roundtable as $75 million or less) have a pretty good idea what the final back-breaker will be for them: compliance. The group talked about strategies to help lighten the load at least a bit, but several also admitted they are so pressed for time that they pick and choose which regs to comply with, and "if I get written up, I get written up."
What was too bad was that this critical discussion of small CUs and their survival came to life and then died within its allotted 75 minutes inside the Mascone Convention Center. Eeyore wasn't there to mention it, so I will: This subject deserves much more than a "breakout" discussion. But the frank discussion that's needed may not be what those small CUs want to hear.
The fact is any solution isn't going to come from the top down. To turn a phrase, this is going to have to be about Small CUs Helping Small CUs. The trade groups are there, but for all the good work they do their attention seems primarily to be on Washington, and when it does turn to their CU members, it's on the big-asset operations that pay the dues and the six-figure-plus salaries.
True or not, it was sad to hear one person say during the NAFCU session, "The cooperative spirit just seems to be disappearing." To survive, it will need to reappear. Smaller CUs have always embodied that spirit, so it's time to break out the Ouija board and call upon Ed and Roy and Louise and all the other pioneers if necessary. The Little Man is all about consumers coming together to cooperate and create a big solution. The credit unions they fomed will have to do the same.
Ironic, But True
Ironically, the group that has the least amount of time to band together-especially to tackle the compliance and operational challenges-is going to have to find the time. Frankly, there isn't a reason in the world why every small CU's back office shouldn't be handled by a CUSO, with managers left to focus on the member-facing functions.
After all, there's a reason Eeyore remains a minor character, and isn't the one the books are named after.
Frank J. Diekmann can be reached at email@example.com.