MADISON, Wis. -- After 15 years heading the Filene Research Institute, Bob Hoel, its venerable executive director, said he will step down.
The announcement came Aug. 2, but Hoel won't be going too far from Filene, still adamant that there are pressing credit union issues that might benefit from in-depth research and at the very least, spark discussion and debate. Hoel will join the institute's Filene Fellows group as its first fellow in residence. The group was created more than a year ago and comprises eight highly-regarded individuals charged with providing Filene with entry to a vast array of important research essential to the continued success of the credit union industry. Some of its members are from the Federal Reserve Bank, Harvard and University of California Berkeley.
"Throughout my career, quality research and sharing research findings with decision-makers have been my passions," Hoel said. "I now have an opportunity to focus on those two activities."
Mark Meyer, currently serving as Filene's director of innovation, has been tapped by the administrative board to become the new executive director effective Jan. 1. Meyer certainly continues to make his mark at Filene having founded and led i3, a group comprised of next generation credit union leaders focused on identifying and implementing new products, services and business models aiming to transform the industry. A former vice president at Arizona State Savings and Credit Union and assistant vice president at CUNA Mutual Group, Meyer has authored reports on innovation, young adults and other consumer finance issues and is looking forward to taking Filene to another level.
"I am grateful for this unique opportunity to meet the challenges that will enable Filene to assist credit unions in meeting the needs of consumers today and in the future," Meyer said. "To realize success in the future, credit unions need a research institute that provides a breadth of relevant research and is a catalyst for success."
Hoel was there in Filene's early years, coming aboard in 1991. David Chatfield, former president/CEO of the California Credit Union League, served as the institute's first executive director beginning in 1988. Prior to Filene, Hoel knew the inner workings of credit unions having served on the board at a credit union while serving as professor of business and chairman of the marketing department at Colorado State University. An invitation to join Filene "was not on my career path," he admits.
"My wife said [credit unions] became a hobby that got out of hand," he joked. Old Issues Are Still Issues
Hoel recalls what Filene's climate was when he came aboard. The institute had released one study although there were others in the works. Hoel immediately kick-started several research projects with the help of its very close relationship with the University of Wisconsin and took measures to grow Filene's membership. In the 1990s, the institute branched out to other schools and two years ago, it brought the bulk of its research function in house. Filene still works closely with the University of Wisconsin, he said.
"The very first study was on field of membership. When we did that, Filene said it was going to be a long-term issue," Hoel said. "It's interesting that it's still a core issue we're facing."
Back then, the questions were should credit unions diversify their membership and should they allow overlapping membership, Hoel said, adding Filene's research clearly showed that having both would benefit the industry. But the concepts weren't embraced by many. Credit unions had a tendency to say "my members," he recalled. The field of membership issue has now come full circle.
"Today, credit unions are trying to reach out to lower income groups and their efforts are being blocked by various lobby groups," Hoel said. "Now we're trying to take a modern look at what a community is. Filene is very interested in finding out how do [credit unions] serve people that haven't had access to services before."
Another turning point for Filene occurred during the lobbying for passage of the Credit Union Membership Access Act or H.R 1151. Filene was inundated with requests for a study it did on credit unions. The research's main thrust was keeping credit unions to one employer group and was "highly discriminatory" against people who worked at small businesses, Hoel said. Those employees tended to have lower incomes, fewer fringe benefits and were often minorities. Each member of Congress received three copies of the study and it helped lawmakers in those landmark discussions, Hoel said.
Under Hoel's tenure, Filene has placed itself squarely in the middle of credit union issues that are often controversial and frankly, are not embraced by some, he said.
"Filene doesn't attempt to make policy decisions," Hoel offered. "We encourage debate and discussions. We just do the research."
Indeed, Meyer said Hoel's independent thinker mindset is one of several qualities he admires the most. "Bob is very willing to take findings into the marketplace even though some might not want to hear some of the messages," Meyer said, adding but "when he sees the relevance of an issue, he doesn't oversell it" choosing to let the data speak for itself.
One timely and contentious topic Filene has researched is credit unions needing to become more aggressive in courting the young adult market in the 16 to 30 age bracket. Some in the industry argue that doing so could mean higher delinquencies, more chargeoffs and smaller loans. The average age of a credit union member is 47, just when they're about to leave the prime borrowing years, he pointed out. Another emerging group are Latinos, which also tend to be younger.
"Some credit unions say they want to wait until those young adults mature to 35 but our research shows it's not wise to wait that long," Hoel said. "Young adults are seeking relationships with [financial institutions] that go beyond one product."
Filene faced a bevy of criticism over its two-year old REAL Solutions program, Hoel said. REAL or Relevant, Effective, Asset-building, Loyalty-producing services solutions, was launched in 2004 to provide credit unions guidance on serving the underserved.
"There were critics and doubters," Hoel said with surprise in his voice on the amount of naysayers. "Now, it will be a signature program for the [National Credit Union Foundation]."
Outside of credit union land, interest has been building from researchers on just what credit unions are and who they serve, Hoel said. For the most part, they are "positively impressed" by the member-owned model, but others say credit unions can do better.
"They say credit unions are not banks. They have a special quality," Hoel said. "That's a positive contribution to the industry long term."
Filene is on track to publish up to 24 publications this year. The institute has more than 1,400 members with a 95% renewal rate and a research council comprised of 30 credit union CEOs, all who pay their own expenses to meet so that every cent can be devoted to research, Hoel said. Filene's administrative board has diverse opinions, are involved but do not micromanage, he said.
"All of us on the board thank Bob for the outstanding leadership he has provided as executive director," said Larry Knoll, chairman, Filene administrative board. "We all are pleased that his relationship with the institute will continue through the Filene Fellows program, and we expect that he will contribute significantly to Filene's future success."
Knoll said the board chose Meyer "well in advance of the formal leadership change date to ensure a smooth, integrated transition."
As for the overall impact Filene has and continues to have, the influence is far-reaching.
"We have been successful in getting people all over the country to do research on credit unions and members," Hoel said. "Many of these people didn't know what [credit unions] did."
Meyer said Hoel's reach spans to thousands of credit union CEOs and others over the years.
"He's so darn inspirational," Meyer said. "He's such a good teacher but at the same time a good student. It's been an inspiration to work with him for nearly four years."