Credit union renaissance stories
The year 2023 unfolded with a triple challenge of inflation, rate hikes, and the looming specter of a recession. This combination left many feeling fatigued, especially considering the brief respite and semblance of normalcy that followed the pandemic.
As we kick off 2024, the allure of adopting a "wait and see" attitude may be strong. However, those who confront challenges directly, persistently seek innovative solutions, foster collaboration, and appreciate the distinctive qualities of the credit union movement are the ones poised to take the lead.
Here are four stories of inspiration that highlight the people who don't shy away from obstacles but rather see them as opportunities to work together, innovate, and celebrate.
Unlocking success: exclusivity as a powerful marketing tool
Teri Robinson became CEO of Ironworkers USA Federal Credit Union in 2010 and grew the Portland-based financial cooperative from $7.5 million to $93 million in assets. In 2018, she expanded the field of membership from Ironworkers in the Pacific Northwest to an associational common bond charter which allowed her to serve Ironworkers throughout the country.
We are proud to continue our growth with new memberships from all across the country. We have recently welcomed new members from Massachusetts, Tennessee, California, Florida, and many others. Our story is truly making its way across the nation about how Ironworkers USA FCU can make an impact on Ironworker's lives.
Our members have told us that they are looking forward to being part of a community that understands and addresses their unique needs. With a near 30 percent growth in membership, we are helping more Ironworkers now than ever, when historically, they could only turn to predatory lenders when they needed help. We are happy to extend our reach and provide valuable services to Ironworkers in new areas.
Synergies unleashed: the transformative power of collaboration
Connection Credit Union has $39M in assets, serving 3,480 members who live in Kitsap County, Washington.
CUs Unite is an idea that got started eight plus years ago when a group of ten plus Washington CEOs got together at some industry gatherings to push back on the "Hey! Let's merge our smaller credit unions to meet our growth goals" narrative that was gaining steam. It did not sit very well with a lot of us that work our butts off for our members and our credit unions.
That group has grown substantially, and this year, we started a "Smaller CU CEOs of Washington" group. We have met in person on a few occasions and initiated a weekly conference, all specifically for small credit union CEOs. There's no agenda. We will just go around the table and share what is happening at our shops. It has been very helpful, especially with the newer CEOs, and there are quite a few in Washington state. There is no playbook or training manual for the job of CEO, and it can be overwhelming with the sheer amount of knowledge that is required. Bouncing things off of peers that have been there before can be quite helpful.
That led to our first CUs Unite conference in September of 2023. We decided to have our own conference in an effort to provide better networking opportunities for our credit unions, particularly for our volunteers and emerging leaders. At the inaugural event, we had approximately 50 people, including 20+ CEOs, volunteers, and new leaders from our credit unions. We recognized that with a smaller group, it's easier to have more in-depth conversations.
The CUs Unite group will form its own CUSO in 2024, focusing on 'getting back to our cooperative roots.' One of our main efforts will be joining together as groups of credit unions to rid our industry of 80s technology. There is still far, far too much of that in play at too many smaller credit unions, and frankly, our members (and our credit unions) deserve better. Joining together and engaging more to fight the battle gives us more leverage and power.
Enduring partnerships: a tale of time-tested collaboration
Jon also served on the board of the California and Nevada Credit Union League for nine years and is the founder and chairman of the Southern California Credit Union Alliance.
Southern California CU Alliance (SCCUA) commemorated its 15th anniversary in 2023. Its inception was fueled by concerns stemming from the mortgage crisis, which created a need to reduce operating costs and leverage buying power for the viability of credit unions. It shows the power of coming together and asking for help when needed. Today SCCUA serves 45 credit unions in five counties in Southern California (LA, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, and Ventura).
SCCUA holds six events annually to meet its mission, which is "to provide a forum for collaboration and cooperation," and involves credit union executives, staff, volunteers, and business partners.
In 2012, 24 SCCUA credit unions combined forces to search for a new core processor with the common goal of reducing operating costs and leveraging buying power. At the end of the RFP and onsite demo process, ten SCCUA credit unions converted to the same core processor. This opened the door for future collaboration that helps smaller credit unions thrive.
Decentralized finance: pioneering the future of financial cooperatives
Becky Reed is a credit union industry veteran and thought leader with over two decades of leadership experience in credit unions and CUSOs. She is the Board Chairman of NACUSO and President of BlockAdvocates, a nonprofit organization dedicated to crypto education. Becky and John Wingate, CEO of BankSocial, are making history with a new decentralized credit union model.
Following the Great Recession, there has been a groundswell of disenchantment with traditional financial systems, which has resulted in a deep distrust of centralized structures. The advent of Bitcoin ushered in a new way of thinking about how people interact with money. The DeFi movement, where centralized authoritarian structures are rejected, has gained momentum. And, once again, there are certain groups of people being left out — even kicked out — of the financial system. Those disenfranchised groups deserve a financial cooperative that focuses specifically on their needs, just like the ones did in the early 1900s. The proposed Defy Federal Credit Union will fulfill that need and serve as a template for other disenfranchised groups to form a financial cooperative of their own.
The decentralized cooperative ethos of both credit unions and the DeFi movement are aligned. Although one movement can be seen as legacy or 'analog' and the other as contemporary or 'digital,' the foundational alignment between the two is clear. The future of finance is a new paradigm where both the credit union model of cooperation and fairness are combined with the new digital economy where consumers control their financial lives. For the credit union industry to survive, small, nimble, and niche credit unions must plant their seeds now.
Credit unions were created because certain groups of people were being left out of the traditional financial system. Those disenfranchised groups chose a cooperative model where they pooled resources to help each other using a democratic process by which to govern this model. Credit unions are focused on the mantra of people helping people.
The renaissance has begun.
Denise Wymore is an inductee to America’s Credit Union Museum and a cheerleader for passion and commitment. Currently, she is the Marketing Manager for Small Credit Union Initiatives at Zest AI and is proud to be a credit union lifer who started her career as a teller.