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From hip replacements to hipsters: how CUs got younger and cooler

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Not all that long ago it wouldn’t have been impossible to confuse a credit union conference for an AARP convention: ballrooms full of salt-and-pepper- and silver-haired managers and executives in the middle and late stages of their careers discussing an industry where the average member’s age is close to 50.

But in the span of less than a decade the movement has seen an infusion of youthful energy as a result of the group known as the Cooperative Trust, which has been named a 2017 Herb Wegner Memorial Award winner for Outstanding Program by the National Credit Union Foundation.

“It started in 2010 with the realization that there were a lot of extremely brilliant, high-potential young people in the credit union system who didn’t necessarily have access to the same kinds of opportunities for development and industry impact as the C-suite or the board,” explained Brent Dixon, the former Filene Research Institute advisor who launched what is now known as the Cooperative Trust. “There were many young people who didn’t necessarily have a large peer group working with them at their credit union, and a lot of them felt like an island. They had big ideas to push through, but they didn’t have the support system to help them do that.”

With that in mind, Dixon helped launch an effort to “crash” the GAC – a move that, at least initially, didn’t generate much excitement from the trade group, said Dixon.

“CUNA just saw some website from a dude they didn’t know saying ‘Let’s crash the GAC!’” he recalled. “It probably didn’t feel like it was going to be a great thing – I could just see visions of punk kids running through and burning the place to the ground.”

But after CUNA representatives discussed the project with him and had a better understanding of his intentions, said Dixon, the association quickly got on board, even opening up scholarships to help get it off the ground.

Bigger, better, expanded reach
The group’s size and reputation grew in the coming years, and Dixon eventually left his post at Filene for other opportunities, with James Marshall taking over as manager of the Cooperative Trust in 2013, running it from his home in England the first year, before relocating to Madison, Wis.

“Brent and I had two very different approaches – his approach was ‘Something needs doing, here’s big action and crazy ideas that have never been done before; let’s do this!’” said Marshall. “One reason Filene brought me in was that Brent had this idea, but where do we go next? I came in and said ‘Here’s this really cool thing where the groundwork has already been laid, give me the keys and let me drive as fast as I can.’”

Under Marshall’s leadership the Trust has grown and broadened its reach, expanding from an online community of about 270 members at the start of 2013 to more than 1,400 at the start of 2017. Whereas the group initially “crashed” mostly national conferences, it has expanded its reach to the point where it now takes part in conferences across the country hosted by a variety of CU groups, including trade associations, state leagues, CUSOs and more. Through its position within Filene, the Trust has also helped produce research about young adults. In the year ahead, using its network of young professionals as a knowledge base, the group also hopes to act as an advisor to CUs looking to target young consumers directly.

“The biggest success for me is that we inspire action,” he said, pointing to young professionals groups that have sprung up across the country partly as a result of participation in the Trust.

The next generation of leaders
One of the biggest success stories to come out of the Cooperative Trust is the growth in Louisiana’s Young Professionals Network, which boasts nearly 500 members. The YPN was the brainchild of the now-33-year-old Ronaldo Hardy, a GAC Crasher in 2011 who now is CEO at Southwest Louisiana CU.

Hardy said his experience as a Crasher put him in the room with “a lot of movers and shakers … and for me it was one of the first times being in a room with people from all around the country who had all the energy and passion I had, which was very inspiring.”

That led to the creation of the YPN, but it also helped Hardy in his own career. “I don’t think I’d be where I am now without Crash and the Cooperative Trust,” he said, adding that that experience and the Next Top CU Executive competition “created exposure and meaningful growth opportunities” that helped put him where he is today.

Brandon Michaels, the now-36-year-old CEO at Mazuma CU near Kansas City, was another early Crasher – he and Hardy were part of the same Crash cohort and even got their first CEO positions within a week of one another. “As one of the first crashers and looking at what it is today, I’m like a proud papa,” said Michaels. “I couldn’t be more proud of the work of Filene and all the support they’ve been able to garner for it. The industry could’ve shut it down. I’m proud of the industry that, despite how stuck in our ways we tend to be from time to time, they really embraced this idea that we need to get younger people involved.”

One thing that shouldn’t be understated, sources agreed, is the impact that Dixon and Marshall’s personalities have had. Both are affable and gregarious, and many say that goes a long way toward attracting and keeping members.

According to Stephanie Sievers, CEO at Shreveport, La.-based ANECA FCU and a 2013 Crasher, having people like Dixon and Marshall running the show helps the group better connect.

“If you’re not resonating and connecting with people, it makes what you’re providing less valuable, because you feel like the main experience out of this is a networking piece, and if I don’t like the main people involved, why would I network with them?” she said.

As a result of Sievers’ positive experiences with the Trust, someone from her credit union applies to attend nearly every Trust event.

“Everybody I send comes back more empowered, and they come back and say ‘I want to do more – not just at the credit union, but also in advocacy and within the community,’” she said. “It just gave them that hope and empowerment and let them feel important.”

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