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<p>RHINELANDER, Wis. – The air rife with `political infighting,’ former CUNA Mutual Insurance Society president/CEO Robert Curry sought to heal a cut that ran deep and wide when he assumed the helm in 1973. Careful not to open any old wounds, Curry, recalls that a major factor for the division between CUNA Mutual and CUNA stemmed from a few jockeying for the top position of the industry trade group. “It was inevitable,” Curry reflected. “I was in a very difficult position but one of my challenges was to try and bring the two groups together.” Geographically, that meant first bringing both factions under the same roof by purchasing land on Madison’s west side. Previously, management would crisscross the city for meetings, a move that Curry believes fueled isolation among the two organizations. When he retired in 1988 after 15 years of service, CUNA Mutual’s assets climbed from $186 million to $1.5 billion and life insurance increased from $21 billion to $76 billion. Curry also became president of CUDIS (Credit Union Disability Insurance Society) and CUNA Investment Corp when they launched in 1976 and CEO of League Life and League General Insurance companies in Southfield, Mich. His multi-tasking and diplomacy skills were honed as a flight instructor during World War II. After the war, he received a Bachelor’s degree from Lawrence University in Appleton, Wis. in 1948 and graduated first in his class from the University of Wisconsin Law School in 1953. Curry was hired to work for a local firm that represented CUNA and all the nation’s credit unions. For twenty years, he practiced trial law and later dealt with labor relations when CUNA Mutual had a union group, becoming the association’s general counsel in 1961. When he got the call that he was in the running to lead CUNA Mutual, he admits he was torn. “I spent a long time at the law firm and had formed strong relationships with many of my colleagues but at the same time the move involved more responsibilities that I looked to take on, Curry said. Besides wanting to bring both CUNA operations together, Curry also sought to take the credit union concept worldwide as an alternative to banking particularly in countries with large populations of poor people. “There were some very successful movements globally but there was still more work to do,” Curry recalled. CUNA International, now known as World Council of Credit Unions, Inc., looked to high priority countries such as Columbia, Brazil, Panama, England and several areas in East Asia such as Thailand and Hong Kong. Curry is most proud of countries like Ireland, which he says had a weak banking system: “they were very determined there and today credit unions continue to be the primary institution for many.” At the time, Columbia and Kenya had viable banks but those financial networks were not privy to the low-income masses, he said. The movement has since taken off in the two countries with many credit unions tailoring services and products so less fortunate members can afford them. When he retired in 1988, Curry felt confident that rifts had been patched and the industry became a stronger entity in large part to the development of programs to help control theft, forgery and embezzlement losses. Industry wide, CUNA Mutual had the best returns on insurance averaging 65 to 75%, he said, and “without gouging everybody.” Today, he and his wife Muriel of 52 years split their time between their home in Madison and a lakeside cottage in Rhinelander. They also travel the globe visiting England, Greece, Italy and are planning to tour Scotland again later this year. He plays golf at least once a week with fellow CUNA Mutual retirees and enjoys visiting his three children and nine grandchildren. He reminds credit unions to keep the focus on members and continue to promote the concept of being member-owned. He worries about the smaller credit unions being swallowed up but at the same time understands how some may have to seek large community charters to survive. “When you have plants closing and credit unions relying on them as their sole sponsor, it becomes a matter of survival,” Curry said. “I think the community charters are a good thing because unless you’re a Navy FCU – and even some defense credit unions are concerned over the closing of military bases – it means surviving and being competitive.” One perennial banking protest – what critics have called unfair competition due to credit union’s tax status – was just as touchy an issue nearly thirty years ago. “Time and time again, when the issue of tax exemption comes up in Congress, there’s always a viable argument that credit unions respond to the needs of members when banks and others have turned them down. It continues to stand the test of time.” [email protected]</p>

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