FARMERS BRANCH, Texas-With state leagues in Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas having merged to become the Cornerstone CU League on July 1, one of the most significant changes will be the expansion of services to assist small CUs.

"For us here in Oklahoma, we're going to see a more robust service," said Gary Jones, CEO of the CU Association of Oklahoma. "It's going to be much more hands-on, we're going to have greater, more comprehensive communications, and we're going to be able to respond to things in a way that's much more beneficial to each of the credit unions. We're not going to replicate anything that's already in place; we're going to integrate everything so that we have one organization that's got the depth and breadth to serve all the credit unions in all three states."

It should be noted that job titles in this story are from prior to the July 1 opening of the Cornerstone League. At the time this story was reported, many job titles for the new combined league had not yet been finalized.

One week before the league was formally set to launch, exactly how those CUs would be served was still somewhat up in the air. The first priority, organizers say, will be merging the three leagues' existing services. Mike Delker, SVP for the Texas CU League, noted that of the 646 CUs to be served by the Cornerstone League, almost 440 (about 68%) have assets of $50 million or less. He stressed that the new joint league will work to engage small CUs throughout the region "and dialogue to determine precisely what needs they may identify."


Stronger Positions, But...

The survival of small CUs is particularly relevant these days, as NCUA Chairman Debbie Matz recently said that one-third of all small CUs ($50 million or below in assets) are unprofitable. However representatives for the Cornerstone League disputed that, noting that small CUs in that region are in a better fiscal position than their counterparts in other parts of the country. According to Linda Webb-Manon, VP of public relations for the Texas league, that's in large part because CUs in those three states weren't as strongly affected by the real estate bubble as other parts of the country, and Texas, in particular, continues to have a solid economy.

Still, the Texas CU League had a small credit union development department for about 15 years that focused on assisting CUs with assets of $50 million or less. Among the services the league offered were free workshops throughout the state each year that focused on different topics, an online forum for small CUs, a small credit union committee comprised of small CU leaders and board directors to provide the league with insight into those CUs, and more.

In Oklahoma and Arkansas, similar programs are done on a smaller scale. Arkansas league CEO Reta Kahley noted that about 80% of credit unions in her state have assets below the $50 million threshold. While much of her work involves hands-on assistance such as helping small CUs write grants for operational needs such as new computer systems or signage, the league also offers more informal aid, such as fielding calls about BSA training, internal policies and more.

Kahley said that one of the biggest appeals to the merger for her league is to be able to expand the opportunities available to small CUs by making Texas's programming available to the entire region.

Prior to the merger, participation rates in programs aimed at small CUs varied in all three states, and it remains to be seen how integration will affect that.

"I would liken it to church," said Oklahoma's Jones. "You've got a lot of folks that are there doing everything, folks that show up sporadically, and those that don't come at all."

Jones added that even for those CUs that don't participate, the network of small CUs in the state is engaged with one another and communicates its needs well, which then filters back up to the league, which is able to adapt programming to meet those needs.

The new league will cover a significantly larger geographical area, but both Oklahoma's Jones and Texas's Delker said that distance and travel are not expected to be a problem.

Delker noted that technology will be a large part of the league's outreach strategy, but there will still be plenty of in-person meetings.

"There's many credit unions in Oklahoma City that are closer to Dallas than other credit unions in Texas," said Delker. "We're not going to look at it from a geographical standpoint; our goal is to conduct meetings with credit unions throughout the region, and to take the meetings wherever we have concentrations of credit unions that have a need. We won't think along state lines; we'll have workshops in cities all over the league."

Additionally, league offices will remain open in all three states, so CUs in each state will still be close to representatives form their state and will still be able to call on them.

"We'll have staff in Texas, Arkansas and Oklahoma that have relationships with small credit unions and credit unions of all sizes," said Delker. "But we're not going to be limited to serving just the credit unions within the state in which the staff reside. As an example, we may have credit unions in Arkansas and Oklahoma that engage with staff located here in Dallas."

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