Credit unions and their cooperative path to success

Credit unions have a clear map to success in the marketplace and it involves one simple idea: work together.

It’s not new. It’s even in the Rochdale Principles – the bedrock of the cooperative movement – where principle 6 said this: “Cooperation among cooperatives.  By working together through local, national, regional, and international structures, cooperatives improve services, bolster local economies, and deal more effectively with social and community needs.”

The belief is spreading among credit union people. Jay Murray, CEO of Vizo, the corporate credit union headquartered in North Carolina with some 1200 member credit unions, leagues, and CUSOs. Murray said, “More than ever, in order to compete credit unions need to cooperate. No credit union will make it alone.”

Murray pointed to the ever more treacherous competitive landscape – populated with megabanks intent on growing ever bigger, fintechs determined to grab highly profitable pieces of business, and of course many thousands of community banks – and said, “Mass collaboration is critical, to gain the scale needed to compete in this environment.”

Jack M. Antonini, CEO of NACUSO, sharply added that cooperation is a unique credit union skill.  “Banks do not have the ability to collaborate as do credit unions.”

As a case in point, Antonini pointed to the fee-free ATM networks found in the credit union world – Culiance is a for instance – which show how credit unions can and do cooperate to produce a result that benefits all participating credit unions and also their members.

No bank can match the number of ATMs in the surcharge-free Culiance network.  Not even close. And that success is a product of the cooperative spirit.

Cooperation takes different forms. Sometimes it is formal – such as the Culiance ATM network – sometimes very informal. Jennifer Oliver, CEO of a $100 million credit union in Southern California, South Bay Credit Union, told how she and three other credit unions in the region all had the same problem: they had trouble hiring and retaining competent collection staff. So they did a radical thing: the four joined together to hire one collections specialist. And it’s producing terrific results for all four, said Oliver.

Just that way of sharing is catching on in credit unions, with a number of institutions sharing the same CEO and some share a Chief Technology Officer. As the discipline grows in complexity – credit unions are joining to share a skilled Bank Secrecy Act/Anti Money Laundering professional.

At NACUSO, Antonini sees more sharing in the movement. He elaborated: “CUSOs bring economies of scale. CUSOs continue to grow. CUSOs are critical to the success of the industry.”

And, again, CUSOs are an advantage that are on the side of credit unions.

Murray said that, in his view, the backend functions – certainly a BSA specialist, a CTO, and a collections expert – are not integral to a credit union’s identity.  He said credit unions could join together to share many functions – typically enjoying lower costs and possibly attracting more experienced staff – and have no negative impact on the community’s perception of the credit union.

Murray added, “Your member doesn’t ask how we process checks. It just happens.”

He went on: “We are at an inflection point.  We are re-energizing the movement with principles

This is a movement, not an industry.”

Cooperation even goes beyond working with other credit unions.  Other types of organizations say they are finding success through cooperation, sometimes involving credit unions.

Cabot Cheese, the large Vermont based dairy co-operative, said that its success has been greatly helped by support from credit unions and rural electric co-ops, both of which it, in turn, has sought to assist. Roberta Macdonald, a senior vice president at Cabot, said this: “Not every cooperative will welcome your suggestion that you work together – I can tell you that from bruised experiences – but many will. It’s a win-win. A member of a food co-op probably wants to use a credit union, they want to buy co-op produced food, and so on. The more they learn about this ecosystem the more they will use it because it is a style of doing business they support.”

Spread the word. Cooperatives – credit unions included – are a different, better way of doing business that put people first.

As Murray said, “You can’t separate yourself from the cooperative principles.”  But he also said that a credit union that wants to be better – different – will find the way there is through those principles.

Which just may be the credit union shortcut to success.

Robert McGarvey

Robert McGarvey

A blogger and speaker, Robert McGarvey is a longtime journalist who has covered credit unions extensively, notably for Credit Union Times as well as the New York Times and TheStreet, ... Web: Details

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