Paula Nihoff, president/CEO of the $48 million HealthCare First Credit Union, said she thinks many in the industry believe small financial cooperatives don't have a right to exist, even though they successfully fill important niche markets.
Nihoff said there isn't a community chartered credit union in Johnstown, Pa., where HealthCare First is headquartered, and she said her credit union fills an important niche for the metropolitan area's 150,000 residents.
"I see how some credit unions fight amongst themselves for members, but we don't have that here," she said of her field of membership, a TIP charter limited to a three-county area.
"There are plenty of small- to mid-sized credit unions who are successfully filling important niches, and have the right to continue to operate that way," she said.
Furthermore, she said, some boards have been "misled" by former banking executives who have convinced them to "run credit unions like banks," growing the institution by leveraging capital and targeting small credit unions for mergers.
"Yes, former bankers have intelligence and abilities, but in my opinion, they need to be deprogrammed and told they need to play the game our way if they're going to lead large shops," she said.
Brad Warner, president/CEO of the $47 million White Rose Credit Union, began his career at Mellon Bank and said he "understands the world" of billion- dollar institutions. However, the York, Pa.-based executive said it was large credit unions that drove corporates to invest in risky securities not small ones.
"The problems are on the investment side, not the transactional side," he said. "I'm not the one who had tens or hundreds of millions of dollars to take shopping, offering it to whichever corporate would give me the best return."
He said it "scares the daylights" out of small credit unions to think that they don't have a say in the future of the corporate system when they're the wholesale tier's biggest users.
Warner said he believes threats to sue the NCUA over the U.S. Central and WesCorp conservatorships are wrong, and that overall, he has "no beef" with the agency. However, leagues and trade associations are becoming less attentive to small credit union needs.
In speaking with small credit unions from across the country, "that feeling is very common among those under $100 million in assets," he said.
Part of the problem in small credit union representation is the lack of funds for conferences and travel, which make it difficult for smaller institutions to be heard by trades, as well as network among themselves, he said.
Nihoff, who has spent nearly six years on the Pennsylvania Credit Union Association Board, said she feels trade associations do their best to represent small credit unions but admitted that even in her own state, "as credit unions get larger, they tend to forget where they came from."
However, if a credit union leader is "vocal and pays attention," there are plenty of opportunities to be heard, she said.
"I understand that when you run a small shop, there's a lot to keep up with," Nihoff said. "But, if you have the position, it's part of your job. Small credit unions must use leagues and associations, read the news and information they provide, and support them."
Tracie Kenyon, president/CEO of the Montana CU Network, said she isn't hearing mixed messages from her small and large credit union members. Though Montana is a largely rural state, its 60 credit unions range in size from $1 billion to $500,000 in assets.
"I think every credit union, large and small, is concerned about the corporate stabilization issue," she said. "I'd think most credit unions are concerned about corporate services going forward-the potential for loss of their own corporate, where many feel they have good representation and immediate access."
Kenyon, who represents small credit unions on CUNA's governmental affairs committee, said she feels heard among larger credit union league representatives.
However, when asked how she would respond if the NCUA decided to merge the $325 million Treasure State Corporate Credit Union into a larger corporate, Kenyon said she "didn't want to speculate on what will happen to corporates."
"We support the system and what's best for credit unions," she said. "If, at the end of the day, [merging Treasure State Corporate] is in the best interest of Montana's credit unions, then we will support it."