PEWAUKEE, Wis.-Jim Drogue is retiring after a 37-year career in credit unions. Drogue spent 25 of those years at Commonwealth CU (now Summit) CU and the past 12 at the Wisconsin league, where he initially consulted with CUs statewide before becoming the Wisconsin league's VP-credit union development, where he focused on the REAL Solutions program. Below Drogue shares his thoughts and lessons learned on leaving a CU for a trade association, why Wisconsin is so progressive with the REAL Solutions program, and what might lie ahead.
CUJ: How did you come to be involved in credit unions?
Drogue: When I graduated from college I was not sure what I really wanted to do with my life as it related to a career. I worked in sales for a couple of years but did not want to move out of the Madison area. I changed jobs and went to work for a finance company in Madison and that was the beginning of my chosen path. I moved on after about two years to my first job at a credit union, and I stayed for 25 years! I started as a loan officer and progressed into management and became VP-lending.
As a result of a merger I decided it would be a good time to look at other opportunities and had two offers on the table. One with a credit union and the other with the Wisconsin Credit Union League. I made the decision to come to the League and have never regretted it. I have had many opportunities with the league and was able to grow and expand my role.
CUJ: What was it like making the transition from a CU to a trade association?
Drogue: The transition from the credit union to the League was not that difficult. I had been involved with the League over the years and had served on a number of different committees. I was familiar with most of the staff and had a good working knowledge of the role the League serves. My responsibilities have morphed over the past 12 years; I started with the League as a senior consultant to credit unions and worked with credit unions all over the state assisting with operational issues. It was during that time that the Wisconsin League became involved with Filene Research Institute and a new program they called REAL Solutions. We worked with Lois Kitsch from Filene to engage Wisconsin credit unions in the new program and it took off from there.
CUJ: While working in CU development, what was the biggest challenges you encountered, and what strategies did you find most successful?
Drogue: Our work with credit union development was enhanced through our involvement in REAL Solutions. The most successful strategy to engage credit unions was to take to the road and Lois and I attended many chapter meetings and credit union group lunch meetings to explain the REAL Solutions concept and encourage participation. We started with a Memo of Understanding and enlisted 14 credit unions in the first go around. As the number of credit unions signed on grew, so did the REAL Solutions program. We expanded REAL Solutions beyond alternatives to commercial check cashers and payday lenders and raised the level of awareness in Wisconsin and created a strategy that could be focused and connected to our advocacy efforts. We promoted, "the credit union difference."
As time went on we kept adding credit unions and programs that would feed our advocacy efforts and help credit unions reach out to low wealth and modest income members and potential members.
CUJ: Wisconsin has been progressive in the REAL Solutions program; why?
Drogue: We saw the potential that REAL Solutions had to raise awareness and help connect the dots to credit unions ability to serve all members and showcase the meaning of "the credit union difference."
REAL Solutions became a key strategy for us at the League and we continue today to grow the program through innovation and focus on the value the strategy brings. We have had success in developing alternatives to payday lenders, we have helped credit unions raise the level of awareness to the communities they serve, we have participated and helped to lead an online investor education program, IEiYW (Investor Education in Your Work Place) with the help of the Wisconsin DFI, Investor Education Trust, the University of Wisconsin and the online education company Precision Information. Over 4,000 Wisconsin CU employees and some additional businesses have taken the online courses, which equates to more than 60,000 hours of online education. The program has expanded and is now being replicated in an additional 13 or 14 states. Our newest effort is to engage young professionals in the credit union movement. We have almost two hundred active young professionals involved with the program and that grows almost daily.
CUJ: What does it take to make that program work, and what lessons have been learned?
Drogue: To make this program work there has to be commitment from the top. Our CEO Brett Thompson has been a real supporter of this strategy. Our management team and government affairs staff have all engaged and helped to keep this program visible and active. Sharing successes with the credit unions and our legislators help to bring awareness of the good things credit unions do for the communities they serve and shouts out the credit union difference. We have learned that there is more work to be done but we are on the right track and will continue to pursue the REAL Solutions strategy and look for ways to help it grow. Seeking organizations to partner with helps expand the ability to reach others.
We now have well more than 140 credit unions that are officially engaged with the REAL Solutions Program and many more that support the program in their credit unions without the formality of "signing up."
CUJ: What is your view on the future of credit unions if there is to be one?
Drogue: Credit unions will continue to provide financial services to their members. Change will continue and the number of credit unions will continue to decline while others will grow and serve more members. Our tax status will continue to be challenged and credit unions will have to be prepared to respond when needed to repeal attempts to end our tax-exempt status.
Credit unions provide a real and important alternative to consumers and they also help keep banks fees in check somewhat. The cooperative business model is important to preserve and protect. Credit unions and other cooperative business must be vigilant and vocal to continue providing the important services they offer to their member owners. I am a strong believer in credit unions and think the world is a better place with them as opposed to without them!