Maurice Smith's high school classmates were on the right track when they predicted in the yearbook he would be a bank president.
Of course, credit union supporters would say he's achieved something even better. He's president/CEO of Local Government Federal Credit Union in Raleigh, N.C.
"I knew when I was in eighth grade I wanted to be in financial business," Smith said. "I saw how access to money and the management of money can really affect a person's lifestyle."
Ironically, in a way LGFCU owes its start to banks. In the mid-1970s, State Employees Credit Union received approval to expand its field of membership to include city and county employees throughout North Carolina.
"This was pre-SEG days," Smith noted. "It was a fairly ground-breaking move on the part of our state credit union regulator."
A group of banks sued the regulator, arguing it was not permissible for SECU to expand its membership that way because there wasn't enough commonality. The case went to the courts, and eventually the regulator lost in a split, controversial decision. SECU was ordered to divest itself of the local and county employees who had joined.
The regulator's response was to charter a new credit union, LGFCU, in 1983. The fledgling organization immediately signed an agreement with SECU allowing its members to go to SECU for services and use SECU's ATMs. That means LGFCU members today have access to more than 225 branches and 1,000 ATMs.
"We've been going strong for 27 years now," Smith said. "We have no proprietary retail facilities. When our members go into a SECU branch, they don't identify themselves as LGFCU members. At the end of the day, the computer system recognizes which ones are SECU members and which ones are LGFCU members. It added up all the debits and credits and we wire the money to each other the next day."
LGFCU did build its own headquarters about three years ago, and it's the only building bearing the Local Government Federal Credit Union name.
If this suggests LGFCU needs to be sharp at branding and marketing so that members understand the operation and develop loyalty even when they walk into what appears to be a competitive credit union, Smith agrees.
"Being good at branding and marketing is a core competency we recognized early on," Smith said. "As a result we have built, I dare say, one of the best marketing and graphic teams you'll find in the industry."
Lately that team has been sharing those skills with the field of membership by offering services that help local units of government promote themselves in areas such as tourism and prepare house organs for their employees.
LGFCU also reaches out through the 400 volunteers on its advisory councils who serve as a link between the board and the membership. It's a two-way street, with CU members relaying what they'd like the board and management to know and council members sharing information about the credit union in their local communities.
"Many of them are well-known in their places of work," Smith said. "Some of them are politically savvy. Others have contacts in HR channels. There are multiple disciplines that make up our advisory council.
"When a member has a concern about a service or has an idea, they can talk to a council member. Back when the recession began, members had concerns. 'Is my credit union safe?' We shared a great deal of information with our advisory council so they in turn could share it with their fellow members."
The average LGFCU member is 43, and the average household income is $55,000. But the range of occupations is diverse, and Smith is proud of them all.
"The people who work in local government-police officers, mayors, county commissioners, tax collectors, the guy who picks up your garbage every Thursday, the guy who patches the pothole down the street-recognize they are public servants. They're people who help make society work. The purpose of their job is to make people's lives better by providing an essential community service."
LGFCU understands that, although government jobs have traditionally been considered quite secure, members aren't immune to the economic pressures of the current recession. Merit increases have been halted in some cases, and there have been furloughs. A halt in hiring has reduced workforces through attrition. Many members have spouses working in the private sector.
"We help educate our members about their options - what resources are available and how to budget their money," Smith said. "We have also initiated a Mortgage Assistance Program, MAP. We reach out to all our members showing signs of stress on their mortgage loans. We ask, 'How can we help?' We've become very aggressive in working out plans to modify mortgage loans or maybe provide bill consolidation to pull consumer debts together."
After earning a bachelor's degree in business administration from the University of North Carolina - Wilmington, Smith joined SECU as a loan officer. He remained with SECU until 1992, when he came to LGFCU as executive vice president. In 1999 he became president/CEO.
Then in 2001 he decided to go to law school.
"It wasn't to change careers," Smith explained. "I was hungry for more information and a different perspective on how to help our credit union become a world-class organization."
He is a member of the North Carolina Bar Association, the District of Columbia bar and the Supreme Court bar. As his schedule suggests, when he heads home in the evening, he often continues working.
"This may be sad to say, but I have no hobbies," Smith said. "I leave my office at the credit union, go home, and go into my office at home to do some more work.
"I do work for my church, and I practice law on a pro bono basis. Clients call me who cannot afford representation and have been wronged by some institution, usually in a transaction or contract matter. I help them deal with consumer and business issues. It keeps my skills fresh, and if I didn't do it, nobody else would."
As for LGFCU, "What I'm most proud about is our determination to stick with the cooperative spirit," Smith said. "It's not just a pitch that we tell members. It's our life."
And the future? It looks bright. "I fully expect credit unions to come out of the recession as a shining example of how to run a consumer financial institution," Smith said.