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EASTLAKE, Ohio – As she sips her coffee and picks at the fresh fruit on her breakfast plate, Betty Rutti, explains her quandary. “We’re trying to grow, we’re spending money on marketing and advertising,” she says, but, as manager of Reliance Mutual Inc., a credit union with $5.7 million in assets in nearby Euclid, a Cleveland suburb, she’s worried the examiner is going to downgrade her if her spending cuts too deeply into profits. Across the table in the restaurant of the Eastlake Radisson, Theresa Halaburda, manager of Acme Federal Credit Union cuts Rutti off. “You have a plan, so the examiner isn’t going to bother you.” These two managers of small credit unions and several of their colleagues have for several years met at the Radisson one morning a month to share their problems, vent their frustrations and, hopefully, learn something about staying ahead in a rapidly changing industry. This day, during the height of vacation season, only three credit union managers attend, two regulars are missing. Also at the table this day is Janet N. Nute, treasurer and manager of Western Reserve Credit Union in nearby Wickliffe. All three have at least 15 years experience in banking or credit unions. A breakfast with a few competitors may be unusual, but it symbolizes how desperate small credit union executives are for advice and education. Not only are they constrained by small or nonexistent budgets for training, they often find it difficult to get away from the office. Western Reserve CU has only three full-time and two part time employees. Acme Federal has five staffers to cover an office and a satellite. “If I take a sick day, they’re still going to call me,” she observes. So, getting away for an early breakfast with nominal competitors, before the office opens, is sometimes the only way to stay abreast. Credit unions elsewhere find other ways to pick the brains of their peers. Peggy Cummins, president and CEO of Three Rivers Community Credit Union in Mt. Carmel, Ill., has signed up for the “Tri-State Small Asset Size Credit Union Conference” in Naperville, Ill., August 13 and 14. “I’m sure there are going to be a lot of good sessions, but I think networking is a big, big thing,” she said. Credit union leagues in Indiana, Illinois and Michigan are sponsoring the conference. Carolyn Miller, a senior consultant with the Michigan Credit Union League, said her group typically has two conferences a year for the more than 200 credit unions in her state with assets under $20 million. That asset threshold is higher than that for earlier conferences. This opens the sessions to a greater number of credit unions than are eligible for the NCUA’s Small Credit Union Program, which is open to credit unions with assets under $5 million in most cases. This year, she thought, ” it would be nice to talk to other people,” so the scope was expanded. Region IV’s current one-day program covers lending, strategic planning, investments and balance sheet balancing. The region has held several sessions so far this year, including stops in Cleveland and suburban Chicago. Upcoming sessions are scheduled for St. Louis (Oct. 8) and Charleston, W. Va. (Nov. 7). NCUA started its small credit union seminars in 1999, said information specialist Cherie Umbel, though it had started programs focusing on small credit unions some years earlier. She noted that many trade organizations, including CUNA, now tailor programs to smaller CUs. The NCUA programs are free and open to credit unions with assets under $5 million and to those with higher asset levels that are either low-income credit unions or have were chartered in the last 10 years and have assets of less than $10 million. Asked why the NCUA threshold was so low, Umbel said, “ A $20 million institution is not a huge financial institution, but there had to be some criteria.” The focus of the tri-state conference, Miller said, is marketing. The keynote speaker will be Steve Goldberg of CUNA Mutual, who will speak on “Best Practices of Small Credit Unions.” Miller said she expects to come close to filling the 80 available slots for the session. The program costs $99 per person. Steve O’Mara, a Chicago area credit union executive who is currently consulting, will talk to the tri-state attendees about setting goals and the importance of making those goals hard to reach. “When you’re not practiced at setting goals, you look for something easy,” he warned. Other sessions will cover public relations, SEG development and other marketing subjects. Attendees are encouraged to bring their marketing materials and share their ideas. O’Mara urges executives and managers of small credit unions to find ways to meet others in their same situation, whether it is at conferences, conventions or elsewhere. He suggested attending meetings of league league chapters for networking, but added, that, sometimes, “there is no better place than over a cup of coffee to swap ideas.” The Eastlake group agrees. Nute, whose credit union has assets of $4.7 million, is doing her share of networking and she has attended NCUA small-credit union sessions for the last several years. Last year’s session was more helpful than this year’s. But she also likes her monthly breakfasts. “Training is good, but more and more it’s in Columbus, a 2 1/2 hour drive, so that gets expensive,” she says. This Tuesday morning, over the course of an hour and a half, the conversation ranges from keeping board members focused on long-range growth instead of making sure they’re getting top dollar on their share accounts, to problems of hiring and keeping staff, to gossip about who might be merging with whom. Nute expresses concern about her office location. When she had a SEG charter, being on a side street – in a building that was paid for – was OK. But Western Reserve converted to a community charter and now she’d like more visibility. On that question, her colleagues had more sympathy than solutions. Halaburda worries about security – she tries to schedule her small staff to make sure there are always two people in the office, but what if someone calls in sick? “We’re always looking for training,” says Halaburda. -

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