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SAN FRANCISCO – As he looks back on a long, varied and successful working life in the public and private sectors spanning more than half a century, Ed Callahan readily admits that being hired at Patelco Credit Union was the pinnacle of his career. “I have to admit that even starting Callahan and Associates doesn’t make the top of the list for me,” he said, referring to the consulting firm he launched in 1985. “It was coming to Patelco. I died and went to heaven when I got the job.” Now, after 15 years as chief executive officer of the San Francisco-based credit union, Callahan will be stepping down at the end of this year. During his tenure, the institution grew from $280 million in assets to $2.8 billion today and boasts some 195,000 members. Patelco also has been an innovator, including being the first financial institution in the Bay area to offer debit cards. Callahan’s philosophy about being on the leading edge is straightforward: “If you wait until you have everything perfect, you’d never launch the boat,” he said. “Some things you have to take a chance on. I wouldn’t say we just dash to be first on everything, but by accident we have been first on a lot of things . . . If you have great ideas and you can’t pull the trigger, what a waste.” Sitting in his office in downtown San Francisco, an electronic gizmo on his desk steadily counts down the days, hours, minutes and seconds until he officially retires Dec. 31. But when he retires to South Lake Tahoe, Callahan doesn’t intend to disappear from the credit union scene. He hints about doing some consulting work and “staying relevant.” And between visits with his wife to see their 14 grandchildren, which he says is a “full-time job” in itself, Callahan promises to continue monitoring happenings in credit union land. “I’ll keep tabs on my brethren in the credit union movement to see that they’re on the straight and narrow and moving forward,” he said. That’s hardly surprising, given his long involvement in the financial world, from director of financial institutions in Illinois to chairman of the National Credit Union Administration. He proudly points to decisions made during his leadership at NCUA dealing with the share insurance fund, deregulation of interest rates and expansion of field of membership. Callahan’s contributions to the credit union movement will be recognized Feb. 23 when he is presented with the 2003 Herb Wegner Lifetime Achievement Award sponsored by the National Credit Union Foundation (NCUF). The award, named for the late CUNA CEO Herb Wegner, is described as the highest national honor bestowed in the credit union industry. “I guess I would like to be remembered as an ordinary guy who really liked to see things moving forward,” Callahan said when asked to reflect on his career. “I loved to come to work every day because I loved the people that were here. That’s the hardest thing about moving on.” Like in his coaching days, Callahan tried to put together a winning team at the credit union. “I always told the employees: `If you want a job, don’t come here. If you want a career, this is your place.’ “We’re not trying to be number one in everything,” he added. “We’re trying to maintain world class service in an affordable way.” Callahan was a relative late-comer to the credit union movement. His recalled his introduction to credit unions came as a young college graduate and newly hired high school assistant football coach, when he borrowed $100 from the Milwaukee (Wis.) County Credit Union. He took that money and deposited it into a bank that offered a checking account, something that at the time wasn’t available through the credit union. He then wrote a check for $69 to pay the rent on his apartment. It was while he was attending Marquette University on a football scholarship that Callahan first came to California. It was 1949 and the game was against the University of San Francisco. “I thought, `I’ve got to go back there,’” he recalled of the visit. It took him nearly 40 years before he had the opportunity. In the intervening years, he pursued his dream of coaching high school football, taught high school math and went on to become an athletic director, school principal and superintendent of schools in the Midwest. After 25 years in the education field, he left to go to work for state government in Illinois, first as deputy secretary of state and then as director of financial institutions. After six years in that position, he was appointed to the NCUA by then-President Ronald Reagan. It was under his leadership at NCUA that the agency deregulated share accounts. “I went on the road and gave speeches to everybody, telling them that the responsibility for what you pay your members should be up to the board of directors, not a bureaucrat in Washington,” he said. “If the bureaucrat makes a mistake, everybody goes down the tubes. This way, we parlay it out and it’s safe and it’s sound. My job (was) really safety and soundness, not making business decisions.” He also tackled what he said was the more serious problem of field of membership. The NCUA subsequently expanded field of membership to allow credit unions to serve multiple groups. “I call it `open up the field of membership,” he said. “It was in order to save the insurance fund, quite frankly.” The insurance fund at the time was “literally bankrupt,” Callahan recalled. To recapitalize the fund, a 1% deposit was imposed in 1985. “Changing the notion on common bond and allowing consolidations of credit unions to go forward was necessary and bailing out a bankrupt insurance fund was necessary,” he said. Callahan left NCUA in 1985 and formed Callahan and Associates, a Washington, D.C.-based research and consulting firm specializing in financial publications and analysis software, strategic planning and investment management. Joining Callahan in the company were longtime colleagues Wendell `Bucky’ Sebastian and Charles `Chip’ Filson. Both had worked with Callahan in Illinois and at NCUA. While Callahan points to the positive changes in the credit union movement, he also said there are things it could be doing better. “The reality is the potential is unlimited and we just are taking too much time to realize the benefits that we have,” he contended. Callahan said he is particularly dismayed by the slow growth of a shared branch network, a convenience he believes would be a boon to attract new members to credit unions nationwide. While he estimates there are currently 1,000 credit unions in shared branch networks, Callahan said the number of shared branches could easily be expanded to 30,000 if more credit unions participated. With such participation, he said, the network could easily include upwards of 40,000 ATMs. “I’m a little bitter about it (slow acceptance),” he admitted. “The people working at it are doing great . . . but selling the notion to the foot soldiers gets to be a little difficult.” One of the reasons for its slow acceptance is because large and small credit unions want to protect their turf, he maintained. “There are a lot of big credit unions that figure, `I’ve got it. Why should I share it?’ The little ones are frightened that it will put them out of business,” he said. Just the opposite would be true for the smaller credit unions, he said. Once those small credit unions joined the network, “they’re as powerful as the largest financial institution in the world,” Callahan said. “The smallest credit union can compete if their members can go into any branch in the country. I just think that’s a very powerful thing to have. “It’s not a matter of size,” he added. “It’s a matter of caring and service and what you get. There’s much to be said about the boutique. There’s much to be said about the biggest credit union in this country.” But he said both needed to work together if credit unions were to thrive. “There’s just no question that the for-profit world cannot compete against the credit union idea,” Callahan said. “What holds down the credit union idea (is) credit unions’ openness to working together. Cooperation is the biggest challenge facing credit unions.” Despite that, Callahan still remains hopeful. “As it (shared branching) evolves, people are going to be amazed,” he predicted. “It’s getting there. It’s still the best kept secret, just like credit unions are the best kept secret.” [email protected]

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