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The Risks From Things That 'Work' And Are 'Jolly'

Credit Union Journal's in-depth piece on the Life & Death of WesCorp offered any number of observations into how such a once-proud institution with hundreds of employees and a national reputation came to be nothing more than an empty office building available for lease.

I recently came across an insight that wasn't offered as an analysis of WesCorp, but it certainly could have been. This from Terry Connelly, former dean of the Ageno School of Business at Golden Gate University in San Francisco: "There is a tendency when you are making money to think you will always make money. How does something get away from you? Because it's working."

That's not just true of WesCorp, but other corporates that failed, as well. But more importantly it doesn't just apply to corporate CUs but your CU; there are few greater challenges than success, and great leaders must always ask themselves humbling questions every day. This issue of CU Journal has a special report on Strategic Planning for 2013; it might be a good idea to ask yourself during your own planning session, 'What's working now that might not work in the future?"

A couple of other notes related to Wes-corp:

• During its glory days I was being given a tour of WesCorp's headquarters, including a just-finished, state-of-the-art boardroom I was told had cost seven figures. The person giving me the tour asked me to keep the cost off the record. Perhaps I should have known something was up.

• I'd like to thank everyone who has called, e-mailed or, during the recent NAFCU Conference in Nashville, said something to me personally, offering positive feedback on that WesCorp story. It took more than six months to pull all that reporting together.

As always, we welcome your thoughts at any time.

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There's a reason some people say they try to keep their names out of the newspapers. Just prior to NAFCU's meeting, the World Council of Credit Unions held its annual World CU Conference in Gdansk, Poland. The trip is a big expense for many, and that didn't escape the critical eye of one country's media.

Ireland's credit unions, which are woven deeply into the social fabric of the Emerald Isle, have been suffering losses, closures and other troubles for a number of years now. News that a delegation was headed to Poland for the WOCCU meeting got this headline from the country's Independent newspaper: "League of Credit Unions spends 24,000 Euros On Gdansk Jolly."

The story made clear "jolly" has a wee different meaning in Ireland. "Hundreds of credit unions have had to cut back on lending over the last year-but that hasn't prompted the Irish League of Credit Unions (ILCU) to rein in its spending on the annual world credit union conference," read the lead.

The report went on to note 11 Irish reps were traveling to Gdansk, alluded to previous meetings in Scotland, Las Vegas and Barcelona, pointed out there were side-trip tours available to St. Petersburg in Russia, not to mention a golf tournament.

"The world conference includes credit card company MasterCard among its sponsors," the story added. "Given the rising rate of credit card debt in Ireland, and among the CUs' hard-pressed members, the giant credit card firm is an odd choice of sponsor."

The story did quote a spokesperson for the Irish league who shared that the delegation was flying on discount airline Ryanair and staying in "modest" hotel accommodations.

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Speaking of that World Council meeting, one person divined a few observations into the process that is so often referred to by the generic and over-used "leveraging opportunity." Harvard Professor Youngme Moon reminded CUs that winning the marketshare battle isn't about being "better," it's actually about creating something "different."

And Moon believes financial cooperatives don't fully realize just how much they can stand apart from the crowd.

"Right now there is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to grow your membership," Moon told the world's CUs. "There is disarray in the financial services industry, dissatisfaction among consumers, and the biggest financial institutions generate the most distrust. But are you different from your competitors in a way that's easily understood by consumers?"

Moon was likely unaware just how much her audience, at least the Americans in the crowd, tend to be indifferent to, if not outright run from, the idea they are financial co-ops even though the charter is the glaring, blaring key differentiator. Moon might not have realized it because all CU meetings are love-fests, with credit unions cooing over credit unions to credit unions. But outside credit unions? Not so much.

Too often credit unions seem to lose their self-confidence and retreat into talk of "banking" services. Is there a more generic or meaningless word (or one that brings more baggage) than "banking?" Credit unions need to take that great passion that's on display inside their own community and emblazon it on a banner outside their own comfort zones. Just ask Moon.

"You can't build a brand that's different without passion," Moon said. "For credit unions, differentiation comes from a sense of irreplaceability, and that will create a strong sense of loyalty."

Frank J. Diekmann can be reached at fdiekmann@cujournal.com.

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