Credit union events at the Republican National Convention happened outside the walls of the Tampa Bay Times Forum last week, but two credit union CEOs were among those inside the convention, listening to the speeches and roll call.
Art Wood, president/CEO of the $266 Railroad & Industrial Federal Credit Union of Tampa, was an alternate delegate at the convention by virtue of his current position as chairman of the Hillsborough County Republican Party, one of the largest in Florida and the country. Wood’s wife, Mary Ott Wood, planned to attend the convention on a guest pass. Mary Wood is also a credit union leader, currently president/CEO of the $80 million Florida West Coast Credit Union of Brandon, Fla., and chair of the League of Southeastern Credit Unions.
The Woods became politically active during the Clinton administration.
“I got involved because I couldn’t stand what was happening, and I told myself, ‘Well, if you don’t like it, do something about it’,” Art Wood said.
What started out as waving signs supporting candidates on busy street corners during rush hour traffic evolved into hosting fundraising events in their home for congressional candidates, and eventually, the exclusivity of attending the Republican Convention.
Along the way, the couple discovered that they had already developed successful campaign skills while running credit unions, including writing a strategic plan, writing a budget, delegating authority and prioritizing tasks.
Serving as an alternate delegate to the convention is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, Art Wood said. As an alternate delegate, he doesn’t have a seat on the convention floor, sitting instead in the first tier of seats. However, alternate delegates attend the same events, watch the same speakers and attend party committee meetings and provide input on rule changes and party platforms, he said.
The couple said their political views aren’t something they talk up at work, in the board room or among members. However, they do use the business contacts they make in politics to benefit their credit unions when appropriate, and they educate candidates and elected officials about the credit union difference.
“I’m very concerned about my credit union’s reputation, so have to be ultra-cautious about what I say as the Republican county chair,” Art said. “But, the benefits far outweigh the risks.”
Politics are a common denominator for businessmen, he said, and it presents an opportunity to talk credit unions to high-level officials who he wouldn’t ordinarily get face time.
Mary Wood said it’s important to balance personal political views with her role as a credit union CEO, keeping in mind that members come from both sides of the fence. In particular, Florida West Coast serves county employees and elected officials, so she has to be particularly careful when supporting a local candidate or cause.
“The board knows I won’t get involved in races that are too close to home, which would cause problems for the credit union. I’m very careful about who I support. It’s something you have to think long and hard about before you do it,” she said.
However, Mary Wood said despite the potential for controversy, political involvement is part of a credit union’s CEO job description. She said the couple has developed such good relationships with elected officials and their staffs that they frequently receive calls from Washington or Tallahassee asking their opinion on proposed legislation.
“We have personal cell phone numbers of congressmen. How many people can say that?” she said. “Relationship building is what it’s all about, and it can’t happen by making just one trip to GAC. I love hike the hill events, but I wish people would go home and work for the candidate of their choice.”
Mary Wood said she supports PACs and said even with strong grassroots support, money is needed to run a successful campaign.
“I was chair of the PAC, so have to understand that it’s a bipartisan organization, you have to give to both parties and keep politics out of it, which is difficult from a personal viewpoint,” she said.
The couple is so sensitive when it comes to personal politics, they both hesitated to say whether credit union officials should support Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney over President Barack Obama. However, both agreed that politics aside, Romney would be more likely to reduce the compliance burden that is increasingly difficult for credit unions to bear.
“If I were an independent, as a credit union CEO, I would have to look at the No. 1 thing Romney brings to the table and that’s fewer regulations,” Mary Wood said. “I think we’ve gone over the top with the Obama administration and the CFPB.”