MADISON, Wis. -- Two CUNA economists say that their volunteer work at credit unions gives them a better handle on what is really important to those on the front lines of the movement.
"I probably got into it in the first place for the same reason most directors get into it," CUNA Vice President of Economics and Statistics Mike Schenk said. "My impression is we want to be helpful." He wanted to go in and help solve problems. He has served on the board of Great Wisconsin Credit Union for five years now.
However, Schenk added, "It becomes clear...solving problems is best left to management." Instead, serving on a credit union board means being "visionary and thinking about the future rather than operational stuff." This was something Schenk learned from volunteering at the credit union, even after working in financial services since the 1980s and belonging to a credit union since the 1960s.
CUNA Senior Economist Steve Rick observed that he brings his expertise in volunteering on the board of University of Wisconsin Credit Union, but it also helps him with his work for CUNA to "see what real credit unions care about," he explained. "I think it has made me better as a trade association economist." Rick is also a banking and macroeconomics lecturer at the University of Wisconsin, his alma mater. The credit union serves staff and students of the University of Wisconsin plus anyone within a five-mile radius of one if its branches, according to Rick.
Both economists said that given their skill set they tend to gravitate toward the asset liability management-related work in the committees. "It's interesting. Everybody has a unique point of view and we bring something different to the table," Schenk noted. He is an economist and brings a national perspective or look at local trends, other board members have expertise in business lending or technology.
Rick, who was just elected to his second three-year term, agreed, "It was surprising. The level of expertise on the board was very impressive. Everyone else on the board was well-read on all the topics...It was a little humbling."
"The other surprising thing," Rick continued, "is the range of topics a financial institution has to deal with today." From the Bank Secrecy Act to the yield curve, he said, and the board has to look at it all.
But what these volunteers take away from their experience volunteering at their respective credit unions is also valuable. Though they need to look at the credit union in the bigger picture as board members, sometimes they must zoom in when looking at the economics side of things for the Great Wisconsin CU and University of Wisconsin CU.
Schenk said his experience with Great Wisconsin allows him to discover credit unions' real issues. "It gives a better indication of what the concerns are and what really matters. As an economist, you tend to focus on national economic trends," he acknowledged. However, he added, "When push comes to shove...the national economy doesn't matter all that much. The state economy doesn't mean all that much. In some cases the local economy doesn't matter all that much."
Sometimes, he said, it is more about a particular field of membership. Great Wisconsin has "one of the most open fields of membership in the world," Schenk pointed out, but the credit union tends to focus on south central Wisconsin.
Rick has been with CUNA since 1992. "Being in the movement and volunteerism, it's the back bone of the whole movement," he said of his involvement. He views the role of UWCU's board as "providing oversight management and to make sure members' interests are looked after." University of Wisconsin CU, he said, "is a very progressive credit union. Fast growing. Great management. It's just a very dynamic credit union around the city." UWCU is closing in on $1 billion in assets.
He joked about Schenk volunteering for a "competitor," but added, "We actually think the banks are more our competitors...not so much the credit unions in town."
Competition is one of the many things Schenk said the board of Great Wisconsin CU has to think about in addition to the bank attacks, interest margins, and the flat yield curve. He added that he feels his participation on a credit union board makes him "more credible" now when he goes out speaking to various credit unions about the economics impacting them.