Growing As A CU Leader The Old-Fashioned Way

With U.S. credit unions at more than $1-trillion in total assets, and with billion-dolllar CUs almost as common as a missing lobby pen, it's easy to forget sometimes there remain leaders at credit unions who didn't enter the industry as a freshly minted MBA pursuing a careful "career path."

There remain lots of folks with "roots," if you will, who began at the bottom and who had no map for whatever path was ahead.

Teri McEwan is one of those people. McEwan, CEO of Members "First" Community CU in Quincy, Ill., was working several part-time jobs when she was hired by something she had never heard of: a credit union. She started where everyone started: as a teller.

"I was trained by a wonderful manager who was one of the (original charterers of) the credit union," recalled McEwan. "She truly believed in credit unions and hard work. I had only been at the credit union a few months when they reached assets of $1 million. That was a very big deal."

Tensions & Turnover

McEwan flourished, and it wasn't long before she was witnessing another common occurrence within credit unions: tension between the board and the manager.

"The manager that I was hired under had been forced out by the board and one of the board members was hired as the CEO," said McEwan. "After six years he was released from his position suddenly and they needed someone to 'manage.' I was still a teller with no management capacity. I had been attending college for a degree in accounting/business. I didn't really think of it as transitioning from teller to interim manager at the time, I was just doing whatever was needed to keep the credit union in business. The support of the board was mixed; the majority of them still really liked the prior manager and would not have let him go. The chairperson was very supportive. I never really felt that the board was impressed; it was more they didn't want to be embarrassed by hiring anyone else from the outside."

McEwan said she spent the next two years working with regulators, its bonding company and CPA firm. A retired manager from another CU stepped in to mentor. The help was needed, as the CU was CAMEL 5 at the time and NCUA had given it three choices: merge, liquidate or apply for a Letter of Understanding and Agreement. It "surprised NCUA by taking Door #3, but within a few years had worked its way to a CAMEL 2.

The Days of SEGs

At the time McEwan began managing the credit union it had $3.5 million in assets and an associational charter that allowed it to serve anyone in a mostly rural four-county area. Half the members came from the SEGs it served. This was at a time when rules around SEGs were fairly heavily regulated. "We had been restricted to add any new employer groups during this two-year period, in fact we were in the middle of signing on a local hospital and we had to terminate the process." Another CU snapped up the hospital and now it's one of their largest SEGs.

It's been 20 years of leading MFCCU now for McEwan. The town remains small and isolated ("You never go through Quincy, you go to Quincy," she observed), but McEwan has worked to expand her horizons. She attended CUNA Management School from 1998-2000, which "changed" her thinking.

"Even if your credit union is small, you have to think big," McEwan said. "Members that have financial needs and wants don't care about your asset size, they just care if you can provide it to them. We know we cannot be all things to all members, but we try to evaluate what services the members need and want most and what services create the long-term relationship with the credit union."

During her career McEwan has seen 10-fold growth to $39 million in assets. She said employees, who come from the same sorts of families as members, take time to "help our members use the products. We try to not focus on the competition as much as just taking care of our members and staff."

Members "First" Community began its life as Quincy Chapter CU, which McEwan said only led to confusion, as that was also the name of the local chapter of the league. The previous manager changed the name, putting the quotes around "First" to add emphasis, but McEwan said has also been "confusing." It added "Community" when it converted its charter, and although it has mulled another name change it has not done so, in part due to not wanting to give the wrong impression in a market where many banks have merged or been sold.

Exhausting, But...

McEwan summed up what many in her position feel. "It is exciting but exhausting to manage a small credit union," she said, citing the challenges of keeping up on compliance and technology. Perhaps because there are no large CUs in the market, McEwan said she has not been approached about a merger. Quincy remains small enough that word-of-mouth is still the best marketing.

"We want to be known as a place of trust and help, not just sell any and all products to as many 'customers' as you can."

As for advice to anyone who might be following in her footsteps, McEwan urged being "flexible" and realizing it's not a "9-to-5 job." "Encourage challenges within yourself and your staff," advised McEwan. "Have a good support staff and board if possible. Reach out to other credit union CEOs, trade associations and educational sources."

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