A Five-Minute Peek Into the Global Credit Union Movement
Gigi Williams, Vice President of Finance and IT, Magnolia FCU, Jackson, Miss.
Williams has worked in credit unions her entire career, starting as a part-time filing clerk at a $5 million credit union while pursuing her accounting degree at Mississippi State University. The credit union, Meridian Mutual CU, hired her full time before she finished school and paid for the rest of her education while she completed her degree at night.
In 1990, she attended her first WOCCU annual convention in Madison; that same year, she earned her DE certification.
"As a DE, this forum is like candy to me. I love meeting everyone and learning not only about their credit unions but also about their culture," she said.
Dottie Tichavsky, Director, Austin Telco CU, Austin, Texas
Tichavsy was the first woman elected to the Austin Telco board 24 years ago, only gaining another fellow female director five years ago. She and most of the other volunteers have held their positions for many years; however, she said tenured directors work for her conservatively run credit union. Austin Telco has low delinquencies and charge-offs and strong ROA even in a challenging economy.
"I've seen this credit union grow from $6 million to $1 billion," she said. "The board works very well together as a group, but the real secret is to have a good staff, treat them well, keep your key employees for a long time, and utilize part time workers to keep operating expenses low."
Carlos Leon Galeno, Vice President, Caja Popular de Ahorros Yanga, Yanga, Vera Cruz, Mexico
Galeno's credit union is the fifth largest in Mexico, and he said if the institution maintains its current rate of growth, it will be the largest. Key to its success is WOCCU's "backpack branch" technology, which allows Galeno and his staff to access to financial services is rural, mountainous areas using remote technology. Often, employees ride motorcycles to access rural villages; sometimes, site visits require two or three hour hikes.
Snakes and other wild animals are the biggest risk for mobile credit union employees. Central Mexico isn't experiencing any of the drug-related violence publicized in U.S. border towns, he said.
Growth has been challenging in some areas, he said, because a previous credit union serving the area experienced severe internal fraud, and many members lost their deposits. To rebuild trust, Galeno and his staff spend at least an hour over coffee getting to know potential members first, before presenting them with a membership application. "It's important to be seen as part of the family," he said.
Because credit union employees can only visit remote areas once a month, members are organized into groups of 10 or 15, usually family members and friends, who serve as co-signers on loans. One member from each group serves as a treasurer for the group, collecting loan payments and deposits and holding them securely until the next credit union visit.
"Of course, it is important to select this person very carefully," he said.
Vidar Jorgensen. President, Grameen American, Boston, Mass.
In just three years, Grameen American has underwritten $4.5 million worth of micro loans primarily in New York to borrowers who usually don't have jobs. And yet, the organization boasts a 99% repayment record.
An offshoot of Bangladeshi micro lender Grameen Bank, founded by Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus, Grameen American received coverage in Newsweek earlier this month for its work.
So far, all borrowers have been women who must use the funds for income producing purposes, like nail salons, catering companies and house cleaning services. Loans start at $1,500 and require mandatory participation in borrower support groups.
Jorgensen's unit has applied for a low-income credit union charter, which is currently making its way through the NCUA.
"To me, it's funny to hear credit unions say they need to lend, but there isn't any demand," he said. "In our experience, there is plenty of demand and opportunities out there."
Corrine Robinson Fuller, Executive Director, Belize Credit Union League
The Belize credit union system includes 13 credit unions that hold more than $500 million assets and serve 120,000 plus members. Despite only recently offering ATM services for the first time, more than one-third of the country's citizens are credit union members.
Many members have accounts at a credit union and a bank, utilizing banks for services not yet offered by Belize credit unions.
"Now that we have ATMs, we hope to gain members because they prefer credit unions to banks," she said.
Due to the global financial crisis, Belize's economy is struggling. Tourism, a major industry, is down. And, Fuller said remittances from the U.S. have reversed, with Belize citizens living in the U.S. drawing upon savings accounts back home.
Five years ago, credit union regulation was transferred to the country's central bank from the Ministry of Finance, where Fuller once worked. While the relationships with former bankers turned regulators isn't unfair to the cooperatives, regulators nonetheless don't completely understand the differences between credit unions and banks, she said.
"Our relationship with them is gradually getting better," she said.
Richard Kerton, Director, Coastal Community Credit Union, Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada
This year marked Kerton's first WOCCU conference. Coastal Community hosted credit union professionals from Mongolia two years ago, and Kerton said he was surprised to learn that despite different stages in the two system's development, they shared many of the same challenges, like finding qualified members willing to serve on the board.
One of the credit union's goals this year is to enhance the member experience, he said. That includes increasing employee awareness regarding how members want to be served. For example, some members prefer to open accounts and access them via the internet and other electronic means. Others use credit union branches as community gathering places.
In his day job, the volunteer is general manger of Comox District Consumer's Co-Operative, a petroleum cooperative.
Florence Awah Tumasang, Vice President of the Board, Bamenda Police Cooperative Credit Union, Bamenda, Cameroon
Like many credit unions in the U.S., BPCCU was chartered 40 years ago as an employment-based credit union. Since then, membership has been expanded to the community, and now no volunteers remain from the police department. That's a problem for the credit union's founders, Tumasang said, and the now retired members are pressuring the credit union to reserve at least three of seven board spots for current or retired police officers.
Also like in the U.S., credit unions provide good professional opportunities for women. Three board members are female, and more serve on committees. And, women are encouraged to apply for credit union jobs.
A high school teacher by day, Tumasang said she planned to initiate a financial literacy program for children upon her return. She was impressed by credit union youth programs in the U.S., and the fact that American credit unions volunteer in local school systems to provide financial education.