Amidst reported member backlash, a planned merger of two Portland-area credit unions - the $162 million St. Helens Community and the $134 million Wauna FCU of Clatskanie - is on the rocks.
At the same time, the St. Helens board announced over the weekend it has hired a former top exec at the $5.3 billion First Tech FCU as its new CEO.
Brooke Van Vleet, former chief administrative officer at First Tech who left last year as the two California and Oregon credit unions, First Tech of Beaverton, Ore., and Addison Avenue FCU of Palo Alto, Calif., completed one of the nation’s largest credit union mergers, said in a formal statement that one of her first acts “is to terminate the recently announced letter of intent to explore a merger with Wauna FCU.”
Van Vleet said the St. Helens board agreed that her focus now “needs to be on the day-to-day operations and getting up to speed quickly on current initiatives.”
Little more than a week ago Wauna’s CEO in announcing the signing of the letter of intent said the consolidation of the two Columbia River credit unions in northwest Oregon had been under discussion for years given the economic and competitive climate.
While both credit unions have been healthy, though St. Helens has been without a CEO since April, the area has experienced an economic downturn and high unemployment related to the slump in the timber, paper and fishing industries.
Still Wauna officials have insisted the two credit unions have reached out to each other over the years progressing to the proposed merger that has now apparently been called off.
Wauna CEO Robert Blumberg, who was not immediately available for comment, had earlier stressed the need to move forward on a merger to create improved products and economic efficiencies with a caveat that member wishes of both CUs be well served.
In covering the proposed St. Helens/Wauna merger, the Portland media last week cited member and employee opposition to the consolidation and to the reported firing of former St. Helens CEO Jeff Schwarz.
The media reports said a bloc of St. Helens members circulated a petition in local retail stores calling for the replacement of board members to protest the Schwarz dismissal and complained they lacked information on the planned Wauna merger. A group of members had voiced their objections during the St. Helens annual meeting June 26, the news articles said.
Lea Chitwood, chair of St. Helens, over the weekend in a statement to Credit Union Times emphasized board unity on both the hiring of Van Vleet and the decision to terminate the merger deal with Wauna.
Chitwood said the letter of intent was signed as an exploratory gesture but now the proposed deal has been canceled, allowing Van Vleet to “transition to her leadership and moving our credit union forward to serve our community.”
Blumberg of Wauna had said last week Van Vleet had been hired by St. Helens and his credit union on an interim basis to oversee the merger. She had been hired to start July 9 under a nine-month contract, said Blumberg.
The formal announcement of VanVleet’s appointment cited her Oregon credit union experience.
“Van Vleet is a recognized leader in the Oregon credit union community and has served in multiple roles at the state and regional association level,” said the release. “Her senior management experience at Oregon’s two largest credit unions gives her a perspective on the evolving financial marketplace that will prove valuable as SHCU continues to seek innovative ways to better serve its membership.”