EL PASO, Texas – Standing in the limelight is uncomfortable for Rufino Carbajal Jr., president and CEO of $39-million West Texas Credit Union. He'd rather be quietly and efficiently tackling whatever job needs to be done. When the call came notifying Carbajal that he was this year's winner of the National Credit Union Foundation's Herb Wegner Memorial Individual Achievement Award, one of his staff members let out a yell. When other employees rushed in to find the cause for excitement, Carbajal told them he'd just bought a new truck. No doubt this humility has contributed to Carbajal's success over the past 27 years in improving financial services for the citizens of El Paso and Texas, many of them in the lower income and underserved community. But the Herb Wegner Memorial Award recognizes "innovative, creative, risk-taking" leadership in the spirit of the late CUNA CEO Herb Wegner. Billed the highest national honor in the credit union movement, Carbajal received the recognition during CUNA's 2003 Governmental Affairs Conference in February. Carbajal's innovation, creativity and risk-taking are most evident in his efforts to tailor services to meet the needs of residents of the colonias, economically depressed communities along the U.S./Mexico border. In El Paso County, the poverty rate exceeds 31%. In addition, 41% of single parent families have incomes below the poverty level, and 35% of households receive public assistance or non-cash benefits. These statistics serve as a rallying cry for Carbajal. The credit union was among the first to offer risk-based lending and individual development accounts. It also has made available low-cost wire transfers through WOCCU's international remittance network (IRNet) and an affordable housing program. A mortgage payment leveling program, a check cashing savings program, and a small loan program are services designed to combat local predatory lenders. Carbajal identified a disadvantage to being a pioneer in the business lending arena. "We were making loans to grocery stores to purchase refrigerators and other equipment even before there was an NCUA regulation, before risk-based lending was ever a buzzword. Needless to say, the examiners weren't crazy about it." The credit union partners with La Mujer Obrera to provide IDAs for women previously employed by the garment industry. "When the garment industry went south, these women needed a means to get back on their feet and to get an education," said Carbajal. "Believe it or not, selling the program is difficult. Low-income workers don't trust you when you tell them you will give them a dollar for every dollar they save." The credit union also is a founding co-owner of the El Paso CU Affordable Housing LLC (AHCUSO), a national credit union model program funded by the NCUF and the Texas Credit Union Foundation. In its first year, the El Paso AHCUSO funded more than 24 affordable mortgages and counseled about 120 members, developed financial literacy curricula in English and Spanish, and translated the National Endowment for Financial Education's (NEFE's) High School Financial Planning Program into Spanish. Carbajal has been with one credit union-West Texas CU-for the duration of his 27-year credit union career, and he has managed it since from the start. His doorway into the credit union came through its sponsor company. In 1971, following his military tour of duty, Carbajal worked to complete his accounting degree by attending classes at El Paso Community College and the University of Texas at El Paso. At the same time, he took a job with Tri-State Wholesale Associated Grocers as a warehouseman. Two years later, Carbajal was promoted to a management position as shipping supervisor. In December 1975, Carbajal's employer chartered TSWAG Federal Credit Union. After searching outside for a credit union manager, the board of directors opted to hire Carbajal, concluding that he had the management experience, education and overall knowledge of the field of membership necessary to lead the fledgling credit union. Over the next 23 years, the credit union grew and added more services. In May 1998, however, Tri-State Wholesale Associated Grocers, after almost 50 years of operation, decided to liquidate, leaving the credit union with no field of membership. Unfortunately, this occurred prior to passage of HR 1151, during the period when NCUA was prohibited from granting federal credit unions new employee groups unrelated to their original sponsor or core membership group. In an effort to survive and position itself for future growth, the credit union opted to obtain a state charter. TSWAG Federal Credit Union merged with West Texas Credit Union in August 1998, maintaining the TSWAG FCU management team. Since then, the credit union has diversified its field of membership by merging problem credit unions and by bringing Select Employee Groups (SEGs), such as the El Paso Food Brokers, Greater El Paso (garment industry), the Ysleta Del Sur Pueblo (Tigua Tribal), into its field of membership. Under Carbajal's leadership, West Texas CU (formerly TSWAG FCU) has grown from a one-person operation located in a trailer next to its sponsor company to today's full-service institution with three locations, 36 employees, and $39 million in assets. "I've been with the credit union since the beginning, so if members don't like the way we do something, they know who to blame," Carbajal laughed. Approximately 70% of the credit union's members are designated low income (minimum wage earners with limited credit experience). Regardless, the credit union has managed to earn the highest marks given by the National Credit Union Administration. Locally, Carbajal serves as treasurer of the R.C. Morgan Chapter of Credit Unions, as vice chairman for the El Paso Small CU ATM Association, and as a board member of the El Paso Affordable Housing CUSO. On the state level, he serves on Texas Credit Union League's Education Advisory Committee and Small Business Assistance Task Force, and Texas Governor Rick Perry appointed Carbajal in June 2001 to serve a seven-year term on the Texas Credit Union Commission. Nationally, he has testified on CUNA's behalf before the U.S. Senate Banking Committee on credit union efforts to serve the underserved. Rufino's expertise in business lending has earned him the respect of his peers. As a resource for World Council of Credit Unions, Carbajal hosted two interns from Honduras in 1995 through WOCCU's People-to-People program. His input on credit union operations and computer systems, as well as his translation of a policy manual into Spanish, was used to train 2,500 Honduran credit union leaders. In 1996, Carbajal traveled to Guatemala on a two-week technical assistance assignment, where he conducted a day-long business lending seminar for 30 Guatemalan credit union managers and officers. Carbajal noted that it was unusual for a Herb Wegner Award winner to be selected from a credit union as small as West Texas Credit Union. And then, the humility kicked in. "I consider myself an example of how ordinary people can achieve extraordinary results when we work with passion and dedication at something we believe in." -

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