SOPOT, Poland-It's unlikely any credit union community has gone from non-existent to progressive market-leaders as quickly as have credit unions in this country.

Just two decades after having been launched in the wake of the fall of communism in Poland and Eastern Europe, including by people who fought in the underground against the former Soviet Union, there are there are more than 2,000 credit union branches here serving 2.2-million members.

And in at least one respect, Poland's credit unions, known as SKOKs, an abbreviation for Spoldzielcze kasy oszczednosciowo-kredytowe, have surpassed their U.S. brethren with a unique operating model that uses a common back office and signage. Under that model, the largest CU in Poland, SKOK Stefczyka, provides back-office support, marketing, branding and much more to numerous other, smaller CUs that in turn spend their resources on serving members.

In 2012 Poland's credit unions are marketing their 20th anniversary, which will be celebrated when the World Council of Credit Unions (WOCCU) holds its annual World CU Conference in Gdansk, Poland later this month.

From Prison To Parliament

It's been a short road to success, but by no means an easy one. One of its key founders, Grzegorz Bierecki, who is familiar to many in the U.S. as the face of Poland's credit unions, had to survive a term in jail under the communists for his efforts opposing many of the dictates from the government, which in this case meant the then-Soviet Union.

Released from prison, Bierecki would continue the fight despite the risk, joining with those who helped form Poland's revolutionary Solidarity movement.

Prior to communism, Poland had had a vibrant credit union community, and it wasn't long after democracy took root again that credit unions followed. But it was by no means easy. The first CU registered was founded to serve workers at a Gdansk heating plant in 1992, but just three weeks later Polish tax authorities seized the assets. Finding the new CU had everything in order, the tax authority not only released the assets, it went on to found its own credit union.

Enormous ROI

The World Council of Credit Unions and USAID were early advocates for CUs in Poland, with the latter providing $3 million in assistance over five years. According to WOCCU, that $3 million has led to a return reflected in the more than $4 billion in total assets today among Poland's credit unions.

Today, Bierecki is president and CEO of the National Association of Cooperative Savings & Credit Unions (NACSCU), the country's trade association. In addition, he has been named to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), was elected in 2011 to Poland's parliament, and is also World Council's first vice chair.development.

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