With the latest news involving United Airlines Employees’ Credit Union and NWA Federal Credit Union there now seems to be little doubt that the days of credit unions operating under a single sponsor are numbered. It was inevitable. First, a look at United Airlines Employees’ Credit Union: At one time, United was an exclusive club. A policy of only serving active employees of the sponsor was strictly enforced. Once a member, always a member? Family members? Not at United. It didn’t matter. United Airlines was growing into the world’s largest airline and the credit union was growing right along with it. Some years back United Airlines decided to spread its wings and become a full service travel provider; an airline, rental car company, and hotel chain all under one roof. By the time it became obvious this move was still another airline CEO blunder, hundreds of Hertz employees were already active members of United Airlines Employees’ Credit Union. After deciding to return to being an airline, Hertz-connected credit union members were told to take the next flight out of the credit union. Eventually, Weokie Credit Union, an Oklahoma CU that was originally chartered to serve employees of Western Electric, picked them up. Over the years since, the credit union did change, but very gradually. It went from the best known (and largest) plain vanilla credit union to one that became high tech and offered credit cards, checking accounts, and mortgages. And it instituted policies of once a member and family memberships. Within the last few weeks, it changed even more dramatically. It hired a new CEO from a mega money center bank and announced it would begin serving businesses located around United Airline’s headquarters and main hub, O’Hare International Airport. Ironically, the previous CU CEO, Bob Bream, had suggested to his board that with the well-publicized turmoil impacting most airlines including United, it might be time for the credit union to consider reaching out beyond its sponsor’s workforce and their family members. No way was the response. Now, however, with the airline’s situation even more dire, it appears that United Airlines Employees’ Credit Union is on the verge of eventually becoming a community credit union. And what a community. The area around Chicago’s primary airport encompasses more business entities and people than many well-known cities. The potential is enormous. Will United’s credit union eventually follow the path of many other airline CUs? As for NWA Federal Credit Union, that scenario is still playing out. In case you missed it, Northwest Airlines, in one of many desperate attempts to stop its financial bleeding, has taken a strong arm approach to the credit union. Apparently some of the sponsor’s executives are under the impression that the airline owns the credit union (not an unusual attitude for single sponsors) and expects the CU to ask “How high?” when they say “Jump!” Not going to happen. In fact, it is a sure bet that when the dust settles, the credit union will not be paying the demanded $6 million in annual licensing and royalty fees, will have a new name and logo, will announce some closed and some new locations, will offer an expanded membership well beyond Northwest Airlines, and will have few if any ties to its sponsor of 65 years. These situations are not unique. Motorola Credit union, whose CEO was a leading force in organizing a national group for single sponsor credit unions, has a new name and is no longer connected with Motorola or limited to only serving its employees. The sponsor of a former credit union serving employees of Aid Association for Lutherans actually forced the credit union to become a bank, “or else.” As an industry, at one time airlines seemed to have the most single sponsor credit unions. Remember Eastern Airlines? Legendary CEO Art DeRuso, who built that credit union into a major player, saw the handwriting on the hanger wall long before Eastern Airlines tanked. He turned Eastern’s CU into a SEG credit union before such a bold move was popular. Controversial or not, Art’s foresight saved the credit union for its members. Remember Western Airlines? What was once a single sponsor credit union has just partnered with TRW Systems FCU, in a merger that will create a new and much larger Western FCU, the newest member of the Billion Dollar Club. Remember Branif Airlines? Republic Airlines? TWA? All gone. And what about American Airlines and its billion dollar credit union? What happens to that marriage is probably going to depend on the outcome of the sponsor’s release from intensive care. Do single sponsors make any sense any longer? Not really! At one time the bluest of the blue chip companies looked like they would be around forever. Not any more. The list of famous names long since departed in every industry is long and getting longer. Does “bankrupt” ring any bells? Any credit union completely dependent on its sponsor is in a very precarious position. With only one sponsor, as the sponsor goes, so goes the credit union. Worse, the sponsor feels that if you serve our employees, use our name and logo, operate on our premises, it is the sponsor who gets to call the shots. Not the board elected by the members. These and other disadvantages would seem to outweigh the advantages of various subsidies, corporate ID, on-site facilities, certain operational sharings, being considered a reimbursable employee of the sponsor, multiple sponsor benefits, and especially in the case of airline credit unions, sponsor perks like free travel. No matter the size of the basket, or the number of eggs in it, it is beginning to look like all remaining single sponsor credit unions have an obligation to their current members to at least investigate alternatives in the event their rock solid sponsors someday turn to gravel. Comments? Call 1-800-345-9936, Ext. 15, or Fax 561-683-8514, or E-mail [email protected]

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Peter Westerman


Credit Union Times

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