World Council of Credit Unions President/CEO Pete Crear sat down with Credit Union Times Editor-in-Chief Sarah Snell Cooke just prior to flying off for his association’s last annual conference before his retirement. While Crear was shy about naming a date for his departure, he did share his thoughts with us on the global trends that will come to face U.S. credit unions, including the greatest threats. Click here to watch the video.
Sarah Snell Cooke: Welcome, we’re here today with Pete Crear, retiring CEO of the World Council of Credit Unions. How are you doing today?
Pete Crear: I’m doing great, Sarah.
Cooke: Do you have a countdown going yet?
Crear: I’m not going to give the days. You know there are all kinds of iPhone apps, and there’s a countdown iPhone app. And when I’m sitting not really doing anything I click on it and go “Oh, yeah.”
Cooke: And your wife, too, probably. Now is this going to be a “real retirement” because I know you retired from CUNA once before. And I know you folks from Wisconsin have a problem with retiring. Is this a real retirement?
Crear: It is a real retirement, for sure. I know you’re referring to Brett Favre. I’m doing this for a couple of reasons. One is that Mrs. Crear says that I am retiring, and if Brett Favre would have called her, he’d have retired the first time. And secondly, I know I’m retiring because I’ve just had enough of travel. Just not having to go to the airport anytime soon is very encouraging to me.
Cooke: Now you have one more big trip left coming up–Scotland.
Crear: Yep, Scotland’s going to be a lot of fun. We’re going to have a big party. It’s our 40th anniversary as you know, so we’re going to have a big party for that and a big party for my retirement. Hopefully everybody will get their fill of…cake. So 1,600 people are going to show up in Scotland
Cooke: For your retirement!
Crear: Yes, for my retirement, and I tell people, that’s more than Oprah got. Let’s put this in perspective.
Cooke: So what are you going to do with your free time?
Crear: Believe it or not in my free time I’m going to make a plan because I don’t have a plan at this point other than to do nothing. Now that won’t last very long, but certainly I think left to my own devices, I won’t have to sneak off to play golf. I’ll just say, “I’m going to play golf. Bye.” And that will fill a considerable amount of my time. And I would really like to see my house in daylight again.
Cooke: So you’ve been in credit unions for, well let’s just say decades.
Crear: Yes, very, very long time.
Cooke: What have been the biggest changes and the most exciting and interesting times for you?
Crear: Every time I decide that, something else comes along and I re-decide that. There have been so many changes that are just great. I came into this business when everything was done by hand, if that tells you something. We thought a Postronic machine that could read the stripe on the back of a ledger card was exciting stuff. That was a big leap forward in technology and some of these credit unions were large enough that they would put these things in these big bins and the sellers of this equipment would sell you a bin the length of this table, and they stuck all the ledger cards in. They’d turn this machine on and leave it on all night and all day because sometimes it would take as much as three days to run all the balances, but each one of those cards would be read and the balance would be spit out and printed. And then the next week we would sit around and try to balance those. But that was a big leap forward. Of course, data processing came forward and changed all that. I look at it today and think how easy all this stuff is in contrast. Easy stuff.
There’s a commercial that’s on. There’s a couple guys sitting around a machine, and they’re talking about all the great things it can do. One guy looks up and says, “Oh look, an elder.” And the guy walks up, and he’s about 27 years old, and he says, “You’re all soft”. This is a guy who’s familiar with floppy disks, but that’s the era in which I’ve come from.
But that’s just one side of this. The other side is the regulatory piece. I was with my chairman, Barry Jolette, and Barry and I were reminiscing about the old BFCU, the Bureau of Federal Credit Unions that he came from, the predecessor of NCUA. Their operations today don’t look anything like the old bureau’s operations of the ’60s and ’70s.
A lot of things have changed and changed for the better to be perfectly honest. I really like this new form of volunteer; we’re getting a lot more energy, a lot more interesting in terms of the dimensions that they bring. Exciting times for credit unions. And I hope credit unions always continue to change because I think standing still is just waiting for a train wreck.
Cooke: Now that you’ve gotten a global perspective over the last five years, talk about some of the lessons that some of the U.S. credit unions could take away from what you’ve learned.
Crear: If there’s one or two lessons we’ve learned. One, almost everything will work if you believe it will help your members. And we’ve seen some really peculiar things in various places, various cultures. Not to be critical: The fact is that these are necessary. They’re wanted.
Cooke: Can you give us an example?
Crear: Yeah, some of the stuff we see in Afghanistan, for example. This is a culture that doesn’t embrace money lenders. The fact is banks and other financial institutions just aren’t welcome because it rubs up against the culture of that society. To be able to develop 30 credit unions speaks volumes about the importance of having these. But working around the laws–I guess not working around them but within the law and complying with the law, being innovative.
Secondly, the big deal breaker: involving women. This is a culture that doesn’t do that either and essentially we said we’re not going to work with you unless you do that. And ultimately they said, “You know what, it’s more important to have the credit unions than to keep this intact by keeping women out.” So all of those credit unions have women involved as members and employees and on the board.
So, being innovative. If you had asked me this question 10 years ago, I’d have said “Absolutely not. We’ll never start credit unions in those types of cultures. It just won’t work.” You can just look at them on the surface and you can see things are different. Things are changing. I like to tell people that you could have taken all of my library money and bet there would be a credit union movement in Russia, and I’d have said, “Not a chance. No way. That government is never going to step aside and let that happen.” Today there are five, and they’re relatively small. Democracy was not the thing that would have been very attractive 10 years ago there and today it is an exciting underpinning for a growing, budding movement that’s coming into existence there.
So those are examples of the kinds of things we see on an ongoing basis that are so different and so innovative and so creative and so necessary to the viability of credit unions.
Cooke: How has your view changed?
Crear: Somebody asked me that question recently and one of the things that over time I can now put names with faces in the public eye in the international arena. So you can imagine working at CUNA when the term G20 came up, I’d yawn and go back to my nap. Now if somebody says the G20, “Well whoa, wait a minute. Who? What?” Because I’ve got to know what the heck happened because it’s important for us to know what the heck they’re thinking and who’s thinking it because it has an impact on the operation of our credit unions around the globe that I really didn’t pay much attention to. But again, today we can really put names with faces with these people and we know exactly what they’re doing and how they’re doing it.
You know, there’s a great learning lesson in the European Union, particularly in Parliament. Not many people understand or know anything about credit unions. And in working with those groups and trying to explain to them, “these rules and laws, did you really want to do that, because there’s this group of credit unions and it has an impact on them.” And they go “Really? So, how many are there?” and we talk about the numbers and that’s when we begin to get the kind of respect that we get in other places around the globe that are familiar with credit unions, so very intriguing some of these new groups we work with.
And, with some of these things that I’ve learned over just the last five years is that credit unions, one, are the same the world over. Two, everybody’s focused on the same thing and that’s the member and the needs of those members. The good news for us is the “people helping people” slogan is a good slogan. Everybody doesn’t use it, but boy I’m telling you it’s a growing slogan around the globe.
Cooke: Do you have a favorite system?
Crear: Yeah, I’ve got a couple favorite systems. Not long ago someone told me, “Well, Poland was your poster child, wasn’t it?” And the answer is, I have to admit to it, yes, it is because I hold Poland out at a great example of what you can do in a very short period of time. In Poland, the system is only about 15 years old. Came from almost nothing. When they went through the revolution there and spent all those years fighting, their system truly, truly got rubbed out, and within just a few years it was back, it was up and it was running and it was better than it was before. And they’ve got a group of dynamic leaders. They made all the right moves, did all the right things. So Poland has become the go-to example for me around the world. I tell a lot of stories about Poland and their contribution to their membership, just 63 credit unions but 1,600-plus branches. They’re all networked together so if you walk in anywhere in the country, it’s just like your credit union. Secondly, their contribution both to their community and to their country—I say country. I didn’t make a mistake when I said that. I was at one of their meetings not terribly long ago and they had just reopened the cathedral there in Warsaw and they were there with the archbishop and one of the things that happened was Grzegorz Bierecki, who is the president of the Polish movement, gave the archbishop three or four tubes. Just white mailing tubes and afterwards I asked him, Grzegorz, what was that. And he said oh those were maps. Well of course I thought maps. Why would you give the archbishop maps? And he said well, they were maps of the original boundary of Poland. O.K., I’m curious. Why is that important? And he said, “After the fighting stopped the boundary lines, the new borders of Poland were re-drawn by the Russians. And of course when they redrew them they kind of were very cavalier in the re-drawing. All the official maps have been destroyed–all the official maps have been destroyed so there was not much argument we could mount to stop this from happening. Their incursion was sometimes 20-30 miles inside Poland, but many of the credit unions who operated inside the border had detailed maps of where families lived and the people they served and they were meticulously drawn and kept up to date. We asked if they’d send those to us and that’s what they did and that’s what those are. We submitted those to the country when they were re-drawing the boundaries and that’s how the boundaries were re-drawn, using those maps.” I thought wow what a contribution. What a big contribution this group of credit unions.
But Poland is just one of my favorite.
And Australia is another of those as well. I just love their attitude: Let’s just do it. Let’s not look for reasons, let’s just get in there and do it. We’ll fix it on the fly. I love that. I just love that.
Cooke: So what emerging trends have you seen globally that are going to affect credit unions here?
Crear: One of the things we watch closely is that a law that is passed almost anywhere in the world makes its way around the globe. Whether it ends up in your country doesn’t make a difference, but it does get looked at and it does get considered so even bad law has to be taken seriously. In fact, bad law has to be taken very, very seriously and hopefully we stop it before it gets enacted.
But the fact is I think some of the trends that are coming for us having to do with agencies we don’t do much business with. Basel, which has been kind of on the outside for us in the U.S. Many of the large banks are very, very familiar with Basel. Certainly the regulatory agencies are familiar. This is the group that looks at risk and decides how best to mitigate risk through reserves as well as actions that can be taken before accepting the risk. Credit unions are becoming more and more under that provision that we aren’t now. Australia and a couple places in Latin America right now are the only places that currently are under Basel. My sense is as that agency gets more traction as we work more and more out of this financial crisis that we’ve got, that we will see Basel in some other places, probably a good chance we’ll have a real good debate about Basel here in the U.S. and that will have implications for credit unions in a fashion that they don’t normally see. Will it be negative? Well, hopefully not but you never know. We’ve got the NCUA who has pretty much set risk weighting and the way we treat risk and how we reserve for it. Now comes an international agency that does it. That’s one of the things that we’re very much aware of and very much looking to make sure that if it does happen, we’re in from the beginning. We get an opportunity to make sure it’s shaped in a fashion that doesn’t have a negative impact on us.
I think from an operational standpoint one of the things that we see, there’s a lot of exchanges taking place. Credit unions aren’t waiting for the World Council. They’re not waiting for CUNA. They’re not waiting for the Canadian credit union movement to kind of put them together with their peers. The Internet’s made that very possible. So we see that taking place: People having Internet conversations or virtual conversations that will soon turn into eyeball-to-eyeball. And we like that. It’s really encouraging. There’s never one of those that’s taken place yet in which both sides haven’t benefited from just being able to talk to somebody engaged in the same thing they are in a different place. It does tend to put things in perspective.
Cooke: do you think that’s a threat to the trade associations?
Crear: I don’t think so. I really don’t. I think it’s just another one of those great tools that only credit unions could have. You just wouldn’t see this in a bank. You wouldn’t see this anywhere else. I think there’s a genuine interest in what you’re doing and what someone else is doing and how we can learn from each other. When you ask the question at the end of the conversation, ‘how did you guys deal with [fill in the blank]?’ What you may find, in some places it’s not as evolved as you’d like but that doesn’t mean anything because those are groups that are using technology better than we are because they don’t have to get rid of old legacy systems. They can just step right into what exists today, so a lot of countries in World Council have PDAs, the application of technology in very, very creative ways is just the easiest stuff on earth to do because there’s no barriers to take down.
And secondly, the government often says this is how we’re going to do it and everybody says O.K., and that’s the end of that. PDA usage today in the U.S., you can almost name the credit unions that use that technology. We’ve got one we’re working with in Ventura County in California who serve migrant workers. I think you know migrant workers get paid based on the amount of crop they pick each day. And so to leave the job to go to the credit union really takes money out of their pocket. It’s like being paid on an hourly basis and having to take several hours to go transact at your credit union. So having PDA application just means you can take it right to the field, so if somebody wants to do something, you walk up to them in the bean field and you say “Manuel I understand you want to make a withdrawal, make a payment on your loan and get some information about whatever.” He says, “Yeah,” and within five or 10 minutes you’re done. He hasn’t had to travel anywhere, stand in line, travel back. That transaction’s taken care of, but the credit union’s really growing in membership at this point because people are interested in using that type of technology. We use it all the time in Ecuador, in Mexico, in Kenya, places you wouldn’t think of as bastion of great technology usage, but this is easy stuff.
Cooke: When there’s no other alternative, that’s the ultimate of serving your members: Going out to them.
Cooke: What do you see as the biggest threat to credit unions?
Crear: There’s always threats. I think the biggest threat to credit unions right now is I guess interest. Maybe I’m not saying this in the best fashion. I think it’s easy to get off focus from a volunteer’s standpoint and so I worry that when we work with our volunteers, given the messages that we’ve been sending, the explanations we’ve had to make over the last probably couple of years, it just has to be one of the most confusing things on earth. And in some cases very discouraging for them. So attracting and retaining volunteers has to be a tough, tough, tough job for credit unions and will be a tough job going forward for credit unions. A lot of that is just based on where we are in our environment and what’s going on in our environment. I think in the near term, the next five to seven years, getting and retaining good volunteers will be very, very tough. Very difficult. You know and I know, volunteers are the backbone of this business. It’s the backbone of what we do. It separates us from the others. Getting good, solid individuals in the trenches will be a pretty time-intensive effort on a lot of credit unions but I see that as a major challenge throughout not just the U.S. but throughout the world of finding the right folks. Some of the people we meet in some of the people in the places we go, they’re just fun people. You can meet the most passionate people on earth today and tomorrow you meet another group that’s more passionate. Just unbelievable. That’s what you like to see. That’s what you want to see because that’s what will propel us. That’s what will keep us on focus. That’s what keeps us from being discouraged. That’s what gets us past the near term. So volunteers are really important and to find the right ones to do the heavy lifting.
Cooke: As the NCUA’s pointed out, you don’t want just anybody on a credit union board. I’m sure it’s the same around the globe.
Crear: And rightfully so. Having a warm body–that’s not very beneficial to anybody. And sometimes to become be something other than just a warm body takes a couple of years to learn and absorb and see what’s happening, but typically good common sense coupled with the right amount of passion is just about all we need.
Cooke: Where would you like to see credit unions leave their mark?
Crear: Where would I like to see them leave their mark? I’d like to see them markup everything. I don’t want much.
For me, what I’d like to see credit union do in a very short period of time and they’re not really doing is to mount a campaign and separate themselves from other financial institutions. You can characterize that as a marketing campaign or it can be something else but I don’t know what that something else might be. But I do believe it’s needed. I do believe it’s necessary. I do believe that every credit union has to participate in it to make it work. Is it tough to do? Yeah it is and we’ve demonstrated that because we’ve walked around the edges of it. Just think if we didn’t have to spend our time walking around the edges and really doing something. Dan Mica used to always say boy it takes a lot of money. Well we’ve got a lot of money. If everybody participates just a little, just a little, we’ve got enough money. That’s not an excuse. That is not an excuse. I look at places like Australia for example who’ve come to the same conclusion. Now they’ve only got about 130 credit unions so it’s a little easier for them to do than a place like the U.S. with 7,000 credit unions. But the fact is that if you don’t do it the results are so bad and so discouraging so what’s your No. 2 choice. Keep in mind we’re looking for young people. We’re looking for young people become and be involved and engaged in the movement. Well you’re going to have to tell them about credit unions, that’s bad news guys. It’s good news because you can do that.
Secondly you have to get the age down—the average age down from where it’s at to put back into place the borrowers credit unions grew on in the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, ’90s and when you do that, again you’ve got to tell them because there’s no way for them to know otherwise. So it’s very important that take place and have it take place in a country this size is very complex, very difficult but nonetheless necessary and very necessary. In Canada, this is one of the things they’ve looked at very carefully and concluded pretty much at this point that they’re going to have to do something. Canada’s probably the second largest developed movement with 1,000 credit unions between the two groups between the French speaking and the English speaking. It’s certainly necessary to put in front of the public the mission, the vision, the history, the contributions of credit unions for the public to make a decision about. We got a great story to tell. I mean a lot of great stories to tell and a lot of great examples to point to, and we just keep them bottled up. I was at a meeting not long ago and somebody was saying we do a lot of talking to each other and we nod and say, “Yeah, that’s what we need to do. But, gee guys, we’ve got to quit talking to each other.”
Cooke: Do you have anything you’d like to add?
Crear: If there’s anything I’d like to say in leaving World Council and slipping off into the next phase of my life is the thing I’d wish credit unions 1) continued success, continued growth and 2) I would hope that credit unions would do the one thing that I think will make the difference going forward and that is to cooperate on more things in the future than they are today and that’s possible. I continue to say that because I continue to believe that–that through cooperation we can move things and we can change things and make things different, better and I think credit unions will discover that. That’s my wish and that’s my message.