SAN DIMAS, Calif. - What do coffee, wine, newspapers, bottle caps and auto loans have in common? Plenty, when they are produced by cooperatives. The values and principles that cooperatives share, and how they affect strategic decision making, is the basis of a Master's program offered at Saint Mary's University in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
Kevin Lytle, WesCorp's relatively new vice president of marketing and public relations, has been enrolled in the program since September 1995. Lytle learned about the degree when he was at CUNA; Saint Mary's consulted with the trade organization when the school began developing the program five years ago. As far as he knows, he said, there is no comparable academic program in the United States.
"CUNA has several programs that focus on the principles and values of credit unions, and how that philosophy and history is a key component in board and management decision making, but I hadn't ever seen anything quite this extensive," Lytle said.
One of the reasons the university created the program is geographic. Nova Scotia is rich in credit union history; in fact, the province is home to Bergengren Credit Union, named after the industry pioneer.
"Historically, Nova Scotia has been quite a proving ground for all types of cooperatives. That philosophy is engrained in many different industries there, not just credit unions," Lytle said.
Each semester is broken up into six two-week modules. Much of the coursework is spent working in three-person teams, developing position papers regarding how cooperatives are different from, or are similar to, other enterprises. Class members communicate with each other daily online.
"Everyone shares their opinions about a particular issue. All the while, the professor is monitoring the exchange and adding comments or bringing in new facts. It's a very rich experience, because you get to bounce ideas off other cooperatives, and they use examples to bolster their points," Lytle said. Last fall, Lytle completed the infield study component of the course, traveling with classmates to Northern Italy for 10 days to observe the numerous cooperatives in the area, including a winery and the world's leading producer of equipment that make bottle caps. The WesCorp spokesman is one of two credit union executives in the class; the other is Canadian Betty Bauhuis, general manager of $150 million Tisdale Credit Union, located in Saskatchewan.
Other students come from a variety of industries, including agriculture, publishing, and even banking: one student is from the National Cooperative Bank in Washington, D.C.
Lytle said his classmates are anxious to learn what he knows about credit union management, because the industry is held up as an example.
"Membership growth among credit unions has been very impressive the last 20 to 25 years, and our growth of assets has corresponded with membership growth, which is impressive to them. The attention that credit unions pay to cooperation amongst themselves, the development of corporate credit unions, the development of CUSOs, the legislative and regulatory relationships the trade associations have developed, all of these things are really looked upon by other cooperatives as examples of how successful they can be," he said.
The credit union marketing pro said now is the time to educate consumers about the cooperative difference.
"Credit unions talk about this multiple bottom line, that it's not just about profits, it's about doing right by your members, employees, and community. Yes, you have to be profitable, you can't be running at a deficit, but there's more to it than that.
"I think young people, especially, are looking for reasons to do business with companies, and what they're looking for is how sensitive is the company toward the environment and social issues, and does it do the right thing and make decisions with integrity. Those are things that credit unions represent, so it's the perfect time to really wave the flag about how we are different. I think consumers are looking for companies that have a more friendly orientation toward society," he said.
Lytle lauded other credit union management educational programs offered within the industry, but said his master's degree program includes much of what those offer, and then some.
"It provides a broader perspective ... a global perspective. It's important for credit union decision makers to have a broader view of what cooperatives mean around the world. This program provides that," he said. --firstname.lastname@example.org