EL PASO, Texas - It's probably appropriate Government Employees Credit Union of El Paso, the city's largest locally-owned financial institution, is located in Texas. After all, folks here like to claim bragging rights about the size of everything considered homegrown. Actually, the place GECU calls home is a blend of both Mexican and American cultures. More than 76% of the population is Hispanic, and that is reflected in GECU's membership and staff. "When we say Hispanic, that covers everything from new immigrants to third and fourth generations," says GECU President/CEO Harriet May. "In El Paso probably 80 or 90 percent of our physicians are Hispanic. Our attorneys are Hispanic and our teachers. It's the basic thread of our community. "Because so many of our employees are Hispanic, a good number of them are bilingual. There was a period of time when maybe people weren't teaching their children Spanish at home. Now it's pretty well set - people learn Spanish in the home where Spanish is spoken. We even have several magnet schools aimed at making their kids tri-lingual in English, Spanish and a third language." May can speak with authority about El Paso because she's a native. She worked her way through the University of Texas as a bank clerk. After earning her degree in math and geology, she continued at the bank until a former co-worker who had moved on to GECU called her. You've got to apply for a job here, the friend urged. They treat you differently, she emphasized. Finally May was convinced to apply for a teller position. That was in 1974. She worked her way up, becoming CEO in 1996. Throughout May's years with the credit union, GECU has been involved in a number of programs specifically aimed at its Hispanic membership. One is an effort to make it easier for members to send money to Mexico. May believes GECU was probably the first credit union in Texas to offer the World Council of Credit Union's IRnet program. Up to that point, she notes, wiring money to Mexico was very cumbersome. Mailing a check to Mexico, and allowing time for it to get into the right hands, was also a problem. So many people would resort to a courier system where someone would give $100 to Aunt Louisa who would pass it on to Aunt Maria who would give it to sister Susie who handed it on until it eventually got to the intended recipient. IRnet is not only more secure, it's less expensive. GECU charges $10 for wiring up to $1,000 compared to $35 for Western Union. May credits Mexican as well a U.S. officials for making the transition possible. "When (Mexican) President (Vicente) Fox was elected, he was a big proponent of credit unions. He had learned about the system in Canada in Quebec Province and really believed in credit unions," May says. GECU averages about 60 wires a month to Mexico, with the typical amount less than $200. The credit union also offers a program called Privilege Pay, basically overdraft protection aimed at helping members avoid payday loans. Members who are eligible, based on handling of their existing credit union accounts, can obtain an overdraft up to a $300 maximum. Then there are efforts to help members buy homes. GECU is part-owner of the El Paso Affordable Housing CUSO. In addition, the credit union works closely with Fannie Mae on programs such as the American Dream Commitment for the Border Region. "We have any number of ways to help our members get into homes with minimal down payments or with down payment assistance," May says. "We are a low-income designated credit union. Our members are largely blue-collar. We have to be careful what we charge for loans, and savings are hard to come by. "We're primarily focused on helping our members learn to save. Our employees have had to learn to move more into a sales culture and ask members for their business. We have haves and have nots. The basic tenet of a financial cooperative is those who have make their funds available to those who don't have." That financial cooperative idea is an important concept to May. In fact, she's annoyed when people lose sight of credit unions' cooperative nature and start viewing them as just another financial institution driven by the bottom line. "I believe we all have to take time out, sit back with our board, and go back to our roots. We cannot forget our roots. Yes, we have to recognize times have changed and we do things differently. But we also have to remember why we were chartered," May says. Even before she became CEO, May was introduced to what was called a flat or pizza management structure. The vision reaffirmed what she had always believed - if you're in charge, surround yourself with experts and bring them together working without threat or fear. Then you have the best possible management style. "I believe I surround myself with phenomenal experts. They're incredible," May declares. "They have learned to work well together." May is married and is the mother of a 26-year-old daughter and the grandmother of a seven year old and a three year old. Her husband, who is retired, is an enthusiastic golfer and a soccer referee. As for May, "I'm just proud of having the opportunity to run a phenomenal organization. How many challenges and opportunities I've had. When I testified before the House Ways and Means Committee last year, I was looking at myself and thinking, `Wow!' (May testified Nov. 3, 2005, in support of credit union tax exemption.) "Coming out of grade school and high school, and even college, you don't dream about things like that. I've had a phenomenal run." -Ecour58516@aol.com
Government Employees CU of EL Paso Area's Largest Locally-Owned Financial Institution
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