Bill Cheney, who has spent almost his entire career in credit unions, most recently as president/CEO of the California and Nevada Credit Union Leagues, became president/CEO of CUNA on July 5. He spoke about his plans and the challenges he expects to face during an interview with Credit Union Times before he took office.
Credit Union Times: What are your goals for your first few months at CUNA?
Bill Cheney: Making the transition as smooth as possible and making sure we don't miss a beat. We've had a lot going on and there are a lot of other issues that we have to be following, such as member business lending and capital reform. Those two, plus interchange that we just completed, are priorities one, two and three.
CU Times: What do you see as CUNA's greatest strengths?
Cheney: We are very well respected on Capitol Hill, notwithstanding our challenges on interchange. Politically we are in a position of strength, but we need to do a better job of communicating what credit unions have done for their members. Credit unions have done a great job helping members through the financial crisis even though they didn't cause it.
Also, our educational programs are successful. They help our members do a better job and they are a key source of revenue for us.
CU Times: What about CUNA's weaknesses?
Cheney: There are a couple of areas for improving an already strong organization. In advocacy, the grass roots are one area where we can do better. We had 1,000 people come to Washington on two weeks' notice to lobby on interchange, and we had 640,000 contacts with Congress. But we have to do better because we want people on Capitol Hill to have a better idea about what our position is. Of the 640,000 contacts, 125,000 came from California and Nevada, and we have to be sure that there are large showings across the board.
CU Times: You've had a lot of experience at credit unions and at the state level, but not at the federal level. Do you think you will have a big learning curve?
Cheney: I've spent a lot of time boning up on issues, talking to Dan Mica and the CUNA team in Washington and Madison so I can hit the ground running. I won't have the political background that Dan Mica had, but I have had a baptism by fire in the past four and a half years with the leagues. I have been active in lobbying the congressional delegation and state legislators. The league background will be helpful, and Dan Mica is still going to be with us and available for advice in this area. It's not like he is riding off into the sunset.
CU Times: How would you describe your management style?
Cheney: It's participatory, especially with the great team that Dan has built. It is important to involve teams in the decision making, but that doesn't mean that every decision is made by consensus.
CU Times: Do you anticipate using that decision making approach when making immediate changes at CUNA?
Cheney: I don't come in with preconceived notions of things that need to change, but that's not to say I won't make changes. The organization has made lots of changes in the past few years and hopefully we won't have to make any more drastic changes.
I know quite well how to manage change at an organization. When I came to the leagues in 2006, the budget was $13 million and there were 83 employees. Now the budget is $9.1 million and there are 60 employees.
CU Times: One of the big issues facing the movement is the corporate credit union crisis. What are your preferences for what the NCUA should do?
Cheney: I suspect the final rule will look somewhat like the initial proposal. We unfortunately won't know what the costs will be until they announce the legacy assets plan. Hopefully the plan will allow the corporates to hold the securities to maturity.
CU Times: What about the litigation, including the suit in which you have been named?
Cheney: Obviously I would prefer if it weren't happening, but I am not concerned about the outcome.
CU Times: How would you assess the way CUNA has conducted its advocacy on Capitol Hill and at the NCUA?
Cheney: It is really unfortunate that the interchange amendment was included in the financial overhaul bill. The good news is that credit unions weren't seen as the cause of the crisis but some of the provisions were aimed at the big banks and we were swept in. It has been a while since credit unions had a large offensive victory, but we've had some smaller wins. We've minimized the damage from the changes on overdraft protection; we helped defeat cramdown and minimized the impact of some of the CARD Act provisions.
CU Times: How about at the NCUA?
Cheney: We've had a lot of dealings with the agency because of problems facing some credit unions. Both credit unions and the NCUA have been under a great deal of stress.
But in general the relationship has been respectful and professional, and we look forward to working with them to help credit unions prosper.
CU Times: Coming from the league system, you bring an important perspective to the job. What have your fellow league presidents said they want CUNA to do differently? Were there things about CUNA that frustrated you as a league president that you now have the chance to change?
Cheney: The leagues are central to the work of credit unions and CUNA. The key is to figure out how to have CUNA better communicate with credit unions. But we need to improve the quality and timeliness of that communication. It is hard to communicate with 7,000 credit unions directly so leagues are vital as a means to do that, but we need to work with the leagues to better energize those at the grass roots level.