TAMPA, Fla. – At a time when credit unions were slow to or outright excluded from offering share drafts and credit cards, one trailblazer forged ahead when he learned the credit union he would soon lead was "shamelessly" behind the times. Ask anyone who knows George Hobar, 76, the former president and CEO of GTE Federal Credit Union to describe his legacy in one word and it would unanimously be innovator. "George is both a driven and compassionate person," said Bucky Sebastian, GTE FCU's current president/CEO. "Aggressive and always forward thinking at a time when credit unions just weren't using ATMs or shared branching." Hobar graduated from the University of Pittsburgh in 1956 with the intent of become a tax lawyer. Shortly after graduation, he got a call from the Bureau of Federal Credit Unions asking if he wanted to apply for a field examiner position. "I said to myself, `what the hell is a credit union,' Hobar recalled. Hobar quickly caught on, examining credit unions in Pittsburgh for two years and then transferring to Tampa because there was a shortage of examiners here. By 1960, Peninsular Telephone Employees Credit Union needed a manager and with Hobar previously examining the CU's books, the board of directors thought he would be the ideal leader. A few years later, GTE bought the credit union and changed its name. Despite being one of the larger credit unions in the state at the time with $1 million in assets and 4,000 members, "it was a very maternalistic and probably one of the least progressive credit unions when I came aboard," Hobar said. Indeed, if someone needed a loan for say, $2000, 20 cosigners were needed and a member had to get approval before withdrawing from a savings account. Hobar ended such outdated practices and introduced the financing of car loans, and share drafts at a time when only one other credit union had begun to offer checking accounts. Within two years, 37% of GTE's members had share draft accounts. His next move caused some friction among board members. Hobar wanted to bring the credit union under one roof because all of its operations were scattered in three offices. "It was a tough time because there was one ambitious board member who really wanted to see me go," Hobar said. Eventually, the board conceded and under Hobar's tenure, seven more branches would open in St. Petersburg, Lakeland, Sarasota and Clearwater. Today, GTE is the fourth largest credit union in the state with 142,000 members and $880 million in assets. In the early 1970s, banks were the only financial institutions allowed to issue credit cards. The U.S. Justice Dept started proceedings against Visa Inc. for excluding credit unions of the same opportunity. Ultimately, they and other non-banks were allowed to issue the Visa cards. It was then that Hobar along with Railroad and Industrial Credit Union, Suncoast Schools Federal Credit Union, Publix Credit Union and Pinellas County Teachers Credit Union formed Payment Systems for Credit Unions Inc. in 1977. GTE became the first credit union to receive a national credit card. Payment Systems grew so fast; full-time employees were needed to keep up with the demand for credit cards. One of those new hires was Dave Serlo, initially hired in 1983 to provide credit card training to credit unions. His interview involved more than meeting with Hobar and others and explaining why he would be the best person for the job. "The (company's) office was located in a very remote location in the mountains and the day Dave arrived it happened to be raining profusely," Hobar recalled. "I jokingly told the others if he couldn't find the place, he wouldn't get the job." Serlo indeed found the building and is now the company's president, overseeing credit card and debit card transactions for more than 500 credit unions. The co-op is planning to open a major operations center in Phoenix. "When George believed in something, he fought for it even it wasn't always a popular move, but he always delivered on his commitments" and his decisions were always in the best interest of GTE's members. Serlo said. "My personal lesson from him is it's okay to take risks, push the envelope and never be intimidated by change." Over the next 31 years, Hobar would help form Credit Union Services Inc., GTE's credit union service organization and become one of the first members of Publix's ATM network which allowed members to make withdrawals from savings accounts. He also stayed active in the movement, serving as chairman of Florida Credit Union Services Inc., national director of CUNA, Florida Central Credit Union board member and chapter president of Tampa's credit unions. A GTE FCU board member since 1991, Hobar retired in February. Today, he spends most of his time working with his son, Craig and Life Enhancement Association for People (LEAP), an organization they founded to help physically disfigured people who live in poor countries. Craig, a plastic surgeon, along with several of his physician colleagues, has operated on 1,000 patients through LEAP since 1989. Hobar also has a daughter who is mentally challenged and another daughter who is completing her fellowship at the University of Tennessee and will specialize in rheumatology. Married to wife, Jean, for 51 years, he says, "she tolerated me at times when I didn't need to be tolerated." Part of the reason Hobar retired was due to his failing health, he said. "I smoked a lot," Hobar explained. "I thought I was immortal, and now I'm paying the price because I have emphysema. To anyone who smokes, I would say try their best to stop." He also admits that he rarely smiled. "I probably turned a lot of people off because when someone came towards me, I would have this grimace on my face and not even realize it," Hobar recalled. "That may be true," said Suzanne Wilson, GTE's senior vice president of operations, "but his bark was a lot worse than his bite." Wilson came to GTE in 1978 as the credit card coordinator and later became Hobar's administrative assistant. "He definitely cared about his employees," Wilson said. "Working with him, you couldn't help but learn." For Brian Crawford, chief marketing officer at Payment Systems, Hobar is a "valuable mentor and friend." Hobar hired Crawford in 1987 to become GTE's chief financial officer. "I started my career at a small CPA firm that had one client which was Florida Central Credit Union," Crawford recalled. "Hobar hired me early on and he has been a mentor for most of my career." Given his pioneering spirit, Hobar pauses when asked what would he like to be remembered for in the credit union movement. "I do believe our credit union embraced an innovation philosophy, and our members were always well served. GTE's board always strongly considered what was good or bad for our members," Hobar said. -


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