Cox: 33-Year Credit Union Advocate Pushes for Change
Sheryl Cox is a strong believer that advocacy makes long-term credit union industry survival and growth possible.
“I believe credit unions will never be able to relax and say we are out of the woods,” the latest Women to Watch honoree said. “We will always have to be vigilant and aware of what our adversaries are doing and what they are saying.”
A political activist since her senior year of high school, the vice president of governmental affairs for America First Credit Union in Riverdale, Utah, said she got her basic training working on local and federal campaigns at an early age.
“My father was my life-long best friend,” she said. “He told me when I was in college that I was bullheaded but should always follow my gut instinct. You have to believe in yourself if you want to inspire others. You will never experience the joy of accomplishment if you don't stretch your own expectations of yourself and realize the joy of doing something great.”
Her political and legislative opportunities have only grown over the years, and have in some manner been woven into every position she's held at the $7.1 billion credit union over the past 33 years. Prior to her current role – which she has been enjoying for some 12 years – she served as marketing director, when she felt compelled to let Utah citizens know legislation was passed that could remove their ability to choose where to take their financial business. Viewing the situation as a fight with Utah bankers for credit unions’ lives, she proposed and launched an awareness campaign commercial on field of membership changes, and shared it with local media. While the campaign was short-lived and resulted in threats targeting the credit union, Cox felt a statement had been made.
Cox said her current role has been a perfect fit and that she wouldn't trade what she gets to do every day with anyone.
“I always feel the pressure of protecting credit union members and their right to choose a credit union,” she said. “The bankers are not interested in a level playing field. In all these years, their plan has not altered or changed. We should never be complacent and naive about that fact. They are very good about continuing to try and sell their narrative of who we are, what we stand for and how we should serve our members. That's why it's so important we speak for ourselves.”
Establishing relationships with legislators on both a state and federal level – even before asking for a vote in favor of credit unions – can make a huge difference, she said. She added if they know you and trust you, they will listen.
Years ago in Utah, when the state was a bank-credit union battle epicenter, many exchanges took place between credit unions and legislators, she said. As a result, according to Cox, a lot of bad legislation was passed into law, which ultimately became credit unions’ burden to bear. To successfully navigate the banker-infested waters, credit unions had to first listen to and gain a real understanding of their opponents’ point of view. This insight gave credit unions the ability to offer effective counter arguments when speaking with or in front of legislators.
“The fact is having input in creating a law is less time consuming than trying to repeal or amend a law,” Cox said.
A turnaround took place in Utah when credit unions learned who their local and state representatives were and forged relationships. Whether it was by email or letter, she encouraged credit unions to reach out and introduce themselves, while remembering to always be respectful even if they disagreed with the lawmakers on other issues. In addition, she said if an issue or bill loomed that could harm credit unions, they should not be afraid to ask for their representatives’ support, and should share why belonging to a credit union could benefit their constituents. Many legislators are surprised to discover how many people turn out to be credit union members, she said – in Utah, one out of every two consumers belongs to at least one credit union.
Knowing that strength lies in numbers, Cox led America First to launch its Member Advocate Program, which identified some 37,000 members who want to actively communicate with their legislators about pending legislation. For the past 15 years, the credit union's member advocates have become a successful and passionate demographic, and their numbers continue to grow. Within hours of alerting its advocates, Cox said letters, phone calls and emails with very specific messages and calls to action are sent to their elected officials. Between supplemental capital, regulatory relief and protecting the credit union tax exemption, the stakes have never been higher for the industry, she noted.
“I believe that innovation should never take a back seat to current regulations,” she said. “We cannot be complacent and wait for change to happen.”
She said credit unions can't afford to use regulation as an excuse for not taking risks in lending, such as creating a competitive commercial lending product or serving entrepreneurs. Instead, she said, they must continue to search for opportunities to help those in need.
A strong military advocate for more than 20 years, Cox has been personally involved in issues facing Hill Air Force Base and has built a strong reputation of helping airmen in need. She has served as a liaison between local businesses and Hill Air Force Base in roles including Honorary Commander for the Ogden Air Logistics Complex, 388th Fighter Wing Honorary Commander and chair of the Top of Utah Military Affairs Committee. In the latter role, she spearheaded fundraising efforts that resulted in several base improvements.
“We all should be inspired with the desire to make this world a better place,” she said. “I believe credit unions give hope to families every day. There is always a way. So many members are looking for help. Research and figure out what your credit union can do to create innovative solutions.”