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Hundreds of men and women have been bestowed with the informal title of credit union industry leader. In reality, many never actually led. They were automatically categorized as leaders by virtue of leadership positions they held. When Ed Callahan retired as CEO of Patelco Credit Union on December 31st, his official biography didn’t include the usual laundry list of organizational and committee chairmanships. But make no mistake; Callahan has always been a leader. True leaders don’t have to have titles and trappings. But they do need to see that worthwhile goals are met. Callahan was an effective leader in the truest sense of that word even before his career path eventually took a sharp right turn into credit union land. His bio lists his jobs after graduating from Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where he played a solid game of football (“when only real men played the game with or without helmets”). In short order, he was regarded as a darn good teacher, principal, and superintendent as well as a respected football coach. And then he became a take-charge financial institution regulator in Illinois. As far as that first credit union involvement and all the CU years that were to follow is concerned, the rest is history. President Ronald Reagan asked him to make the big leap to head up the NCUA. He accepted. His record for quickly and firmly making major changes at NCUA and NCUSIF that affected all credit unions forever has been well documented. Some have gone so far as to say he not only saved credit unions from extinction, but gave them the tools to succeed, probably even beyond Callahan’s own most optimistic dreams. But that was only the beginning. He left NCUA early for a variety of reasons, mostly personal. He and his closest associates formed Callahan and Associates. They nearly went to the poor house in the process. But they didn’t. The Washington, D.C. consulting firm that still bears his name is thriving. Then came an opportunity for this dyed-in-the-wool Midwestern to head West and take over a credit union in San Francisco. When he stepped down, Patelco was approaching nearly $2 billion in assets and had just made still another headline, this time for its decision to convert to private insurance. Patelco became so successful because its CEO practiced what he preached. (And boy can this guy preach!) From day one, he showed that he understood what credit unions were created to do. And that he understood the big picture. Ed Callahan thought outside of the box long before the phrase became a clich. He also took risks. More often than not they panned out. He built a senior management team second to none. He groomed his successor to make the CEO changeover seamless. He worked hand in glove with his board despite a speed bump or two brought about by a couple of board members who had their own agenda. It was during his tenure at Patelco that Callahan came up with one big idea after another. He became widely known as a one-man idea factory. With bondless energy and enthusiasm he seemed to be everywhere pushing for changes that would make credit unions better for their members. His name became linked with CUSOs of every type, shared branching, ATM networks, technological innovations, new-age marketing, innovative lending products, state-of-the-art delivery systems, and much more. Despite vocal naysayers (and there were many along the way) tossing up obstacles, he rolled up his sleeves and led the way on the often frustrating journey from idea to implementation. It takes a special kind of leader to accomplish as much as Callahan did just during his credit union career. He has been variously described by those who know him best as a bull in a china shop to just a plain old teddy bear. Both descriptions are accurate. He can argue passionately with the best orators in the land about that which he believes in; the list is a long one. But when this Irishman decided to stop out shouting a friend, or an adversary (his passion makes no distinction), he would put his arm around the person and offer to buy them a drink. Clearly, Callahan comes from the old school. Knock him down and he bounced back up ready to take on all comers opposed to any idea that he felt could help credit unions and their members. Despite numerous political battles (does the name D’Amours and mega merger ring any bells?), a bushel basket full of frustrations (“OTR is out of control”), and serious personal tragedies (the death of a son and a daughter), he never stopped fighting for what he believed in. When he won, CU members won because the words education and cooperation were a permanent part of his daily “things to do” list. Among the many reasons why Callahan has been able to accomplish so much is that he never really cared who got credit for making credit unions better. No wonder so many of the credit union industry’s movers and shakers turned out to pay tribute to the man at his official retirement bash last October, which by the way was a classic example of how to recognize a one-of-a-kind credit union leader. No wonder the multimillion dollar “Ed Fund” in the Credit Union Foundation became a reality in an unbelievably short period of time from idea to implementation. But why not? It is only fitting that it would reflect how fast its namesake was able to get important projects off the ground. That commitment is expected to continue as Ed Callahan’s credit union career heads off in still another direction seeking new battles to fight and win. The only thing left to say is thanks Ed for really making a difference for credit unions and for permanently redefining the term credit union leader.

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Peter Westerman

Credit Union Times

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