R.C. Robertson Kept Roots at Arizona State Savings & Credit Union While Impacting Movement through CUNA, WOCCU and Filene
PHOENIX, Ariz. - Most credit unionists would agree that the list of presidents that have served at the helm of their respective credit unions for four or more decades is a short one. For R.C. Robertson, not only did he achieve this milestone, but the Oregon native left his footprints...
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PHOENIX, Ariz. – Most credit unionists would agree that the list of presidents that have served at the helm of their respective credit unions for four or more decades is a short one. For R.C. Robertson, not only did he achieve this milestone, but the Oregon native left his footprints within a number of industry organizations including co-founding one of the most respected research institutions for the credit union industry. Robertson, 73, former president/CEO of Arizona State Savings & Credit Union (ASSCU) retired in 1999 after a 40-year career and during his tenure, membership grew from 1,500 members and $500,000 in assets to more than 100,000 members and $500 million in assets. Arizona continues to be the model state for almost every aspect of credit union law and regulations, and Robertson led that recodification effort. He’s also a founding member of the prestigious Filene Research Institute, the industry’s “think tank” formed by CUNA, CUNA Mutual Group, several state credit union leagues and the University of Wisconsin. His list of milestones also include serving as president of the World Council of Credit Unions, CUNA Mutual and at age 38, the youngest to serve as president of CUNA. With all that he had on his plate, it would have been a lighter load to leave his position at ASSCU, but when he retired nearly four years ago, Robertson had no regrets. “I felt I could do more staying in Arizona,” he said. “We were very much in our infancy and I saw the challenge of growing it from the beginning. I saw the credit union’s potential.” Today, Robertson is enjoying his retirement, although he admits the first year or two was “quite a challenge and an adjustment.” After waking up most mornings during that period wondering “what I’m going to do today,” Robertson took a different perspective on his newfound free time: he embraced it. Now, he travels to his home on the Oregon coast to escape the dry, suffocating Phoenix heat during the summers and visits his daughter, son and three granddaughters in nearby North Phoenix. He’s an avid reader of history books, quipping, “I’m not into the fictional books,” and golfing and salmon fishing in Oregon get equal time billing. He’s also been approached to become a board member of a “progressive” credit union in the Phoenix area. One project that is in the early discussion stages came about on the urging of credit union colleagues. Robertson has been approached by a number of friends to document his 50-year career in the movement. “You really need to capture those experiences so they won’t be lost,” Robertson said. “I’ve been concerned about CUNA in recent times not keeping abreast of recorded history. I talked to Pete Crear (CUNA’s executive vice president and COO) and while he agrees with me, he said CUNA’s priorities have been legislative and keeping ahead of current needs.” Robertson can certainly write the manual on what it takes for credit unions to have wide-reaching impact. His credit union career started in 1954 when he helped start a credit union for his employer, Reynolds Metals Company in Portland. The start-up came about because he and his pregnant wife needed financial assistance with the medical bills. Robertson applied for a $400 loan only to be told more than a week later that his parents would have to guarantee the loan. “It was very difficult for young people to do business with banks in the mid 1950s,” Robertson recalled. “The upshot was I went down the street to a local loan company and they were quite happy to lend me the $400 at 3% monthly interest.” Early misgivings about joining the credit union were rampant “No one understood what it was and most thought it had something to do with a labor union,” Robertson said. Still, the Reynolds credit union grew to become a much-needed entity with most, like Robertson, having the ability to save through payroll deduction for the first time in their lives. Since 1959, the Robertson family has vacationed in Phoenix. Curious about the operations at other credit unions, he stopped by the Arizona State Savings & Credit Union “to get a feel” for the setup. Robertson wasn’t looking for a job but after talking with the volunteer board chairman who was dismayed that ASSCU had gone through three managers, the chairman offered him the vacant position. “We went back home, I talked with the family about it and my boss, who not only gave me his blessing but said `if you ever want to come back to Reynolds, you can.’ With that, Robertson began his first day as ASSCU’s manager on Nov. 1, 1959 under “urgent circumstances.” The credit union had a 4% annual dividend, which Robertson said was “quite acceptable” then but with less than two months in the year, he had to maintain that dividend. The newly-hired manager worked around the clock to get enough income flow to maintain that crucial 4%. Over the next four decades, ASSCU would grow from serving state government and university employees to community charter status encompassing several counties. Robertson said American Express’s Phoenix operation chose to become a select employer group with ASSCU rather than start its own credit union. Nominal loans were surpassed by innovative products such as share draft checking and debit cards, making Arizona a `test market’ for financial services, he recalled. The credit union also boasts more than twenty full-service branches around the state. Robertson credits ASSCU’s growth with its strong staff base, which didn’t miss a beat as extensive, outside credit union work took him away from Phoenix. The diverse economic makeup of ASSCU’s membership – “up and down the economic scale, but mostly those with modest incomes” – fueled strong expansion. It was during his tenure as chairman of Arizona Credit Union League’s legal and legislative chairman from 1968 to 1999 that he became a part of a wrinkle in CU movement history that continues to have wide-reaching impact for the state’s credit unions today. In 1990, the committee undertook the landmark task of rewriting of Arizona’s credit union law. “It was rather restrictive,” Robertson recalled. “We wanted to streamline statutes and rewrite regulations that would allow credit unions to be able to get into a variety of things.” With “overwhelming support” from state legislators, the entire law was recodified with the thrust being a distinction written in that Arizona’s credit unions had a common bond of interests. Ironically, the American Bankers Association, a longtime industry foe, had an amiable relationship with Arizona’s credit unions, Robertson said. He recalls meeting with the ABA’s president and reassuring him that the recodification “would not hurt banks,” and with that, the banking group stayed on the sidelines. While there was some concern from the smaller banks, the large banks didn’t feel threatened because of the hold most had on wide-spread branching, Robertson explained. In the mid-1980s, Arizona’s superintendent asked Robertson to serve as special deputy superintendent for credit unions, a role he took on for nine years with a salary of a “dollar a year.” As Robertson’s career continued, his reputation as a progressive thinker grew and he was soon approached to run for president of CUNA. Being 38 years old – the youngest CUNA president ever – didn’t deter Robertson. His recommendation to CUNA officials by Nobel Peace Prize Recipient John Hume carried much weight and humbled Robertson at the same time. Hume received the award along with David Trimble in 1998 for their efforts to bring the Unionist and Republican communities of Northern Ireland together. Robertson said Hume was very involved in the Irish credit union movement and his admiration for him is unyielding. “He lived to bring peace to his country,” Robertson said. “I remember visiting Ireland and when I called him, we were lucky to get a conversation because his phone was always tapped. He and his family were constantly threatened.” At the time of Hume’s recommendation, there was a tumultuous division between CUNA and CUNA Mutual, but Robertson had little respect for the divide, making it a priority to bring the factions together. “The bottom line was we couldn’t afford to have separate operations,” Robertson said. “It was tough early on because there were some strong personalities here but working together we were able to build bridges.” During his CUNA tenure, CUNA International became WOCCU under the post Vietnam War’s tense environment that saw some wanting to “stay out of international” concerns. The creation of WOCCU quickly extinguished that notion and Robertson would later be appointed by Pres. Dwight D. Eisenhower’s People to People International to lead a group of financial management specialists to China. In 1987, Robertson, along with 25 others, including a number of credit union standouts, toured Beijing, Shang Hai and North Korea on a mission to develop relationships and learn about the various forms of financial systems here. Over a three-week period, Robertson saw a version of cooperatives similar to U.S. credit unions. Members pooled money and savings and aggregated them to create a common account at a bank, which were inaccessible to the poor. “As a board member, we knew we could always rely on his judgment,” said Michael Kitchen, president/CEO of CUNA Mutual Group. “He was a great example of a cooperator. During his career, he championed matters that would help build the future of credit unions and he was a big driver of these initiatives.” Nearly two years after his China trip, Robertson along with other visionaries would create the Filene Research Institute and he served as its chairman for ten years. “The idea of a research facility kept coming up,” Robertson recalled. “We were able to get the funding and Filene’s research really strengthened our case when were fighting for lives a few years ago. It continues to dismiss a lot of myths and opinions about what credit unions out to be doing.” Filene President Bob Hoel recalled meeting with Robertson in 1990 and remembers his progressive vision and how research was necessary to fuel the movement. “He’s a very talented man who was identified early in his career as someone who can help the movement survive,” Hoel said, who was a professor at Colorado State University when Robertson asked him to come aboard. “His fantastic memory for details allowed him the ability to work with a variety of people, even those that had opposing views.” Robertson was also one of the organizers of U.S. Central Credit Union and its first treasurer in 1974. The $40 billion corporate credit union got its start with a collection of $5 from all of the organizers as they met for the first time, he said. His many recognitions include the 1995 Herb Wegner National Memorial Award and an induction in the National Cooperative Hall of Fame in 1998. Today, he keeps in touch with colleagues and attends Arizona’s annual meetings when they take place during the cooler months of the year, he chuckled. He’s a staunch believer in sound credit union boards, which at their core, provide “checks and balances.” “Enron’s demise is linked to a board that didn’t have checks and balances,” Robertson said. “Since credit unions are non-profits, board members don’t receive director fees but qualified people should serve. There are some headstrong CEOs that have done some dumb things that have come back to haunt them. The board is the conscience.” He feels just as strong about credit unions getting back to character assessment in loan granting decisions and reaching out to the underserved. “Some credit unions have taken the easy route, letting computers determine a score, others are turning down half of their loan applications,” Robertson said. “I understand that some people may not look good on paper but character still stands for something. I used to tell our loan officers to make it a win-win situation. Granted, we had to deny some loans (at ASSCU) but we made a lot of loans to people who didn’t have a great score.” Robertson added while some credit unions are doing a number of good things to reach out to underserved, the larger credit unions can afford to go much further. “Some people blame the regulator because of the CAMEL rating threshold, but we need to look at something broader,” he explained. “Some of my peers say this is a dollars and cents business. I say if we do what we’re supposed to do here, the bottom line will take care of itself.” Friends of R.C. Robertson who want to contact him can reach him in Phoenix at (480) 946-9007. -
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