MANCHESTER, U.K. – As the new CEO of the Association of British Credit Unions, Ltd. (ABCUL), Mark Lyonette is ready for the many challenges facing the United Kingdom’s growing credit union industry. Lyonette has worked for ABCUL since 1998, and when former CEO Shaun Spiers resigned early this year Lyonette considered if he wanted “to provide further leadership for the association from a new position out in front.” He decided he did, and he plans to do it by “evolution not revolution” building on past ABCUL developments. Lyonette said his decision was helped by his belief in credit unions’ “great potential in Britain”. Lyonette knows what the challenges will be. One of the greatest is that credit unions were only released in 2002 from legislation that crippled their development when the Financial Services Administration took over the regulation of credit unions. Prior to the change, membership was limited to 5,000 people and product offerings were restricted to the most basic loans and savings programs. However, credit unions still carry the perception of poor people’s banks because so many small credit unions (under 500 members) developed in poor communities by and for people who were ignored by banks. Major government initiatives have targeted credit unions to help with the problem of the “unbanked” and the ensuing publicity only reinforces the poor people’s bank image. “ABCUL and many of its credit unions have worked hard to shake off that image by promoting credit unions as a benefit for many people on a wide range of incomes. Most of the stories we place in the media show credit unions helping people with a range of incomes and experiences,” Lyonette said. A recent three-page spread in a consumers association magazine and a broadsheet coverage in the Guardian, a major UK daily, featuring credit unions as providing good value savings products were just one more step in Lyonette’s evolutionary process of improving the credit union image. Size doesn’t count, Lyonette opines. “ABCUL has no view on whether credit unions should be big or small in British terms. We are very keen however that all our members are financially sustainable and clearly volume is a key factor in creating economies of scale. Sometimes sustainability is not just about the financials. A small volunteer-run credit union with one or two people doing all the work is vulnerable to any of the volunteers moving away, getting ill etc., and to that extent this represents a risk to the business.” ABCUL has had some strong supporters including the Archbishop of Canterbury who not only frequently reinforces the credit union message in news releases and in the opening of credit unions, but by a recent visit to a credit union by Queen Elizabeth II. It is beginning to work. Leeds Credit Union has expanded its membership base to cover the entire city. Other credit unions like Capital Credit Union in Edinburgh just signed up its 10,000th member. Although it may seem small by U.S. standards, ABCUL considers it a positive step. Lyonette plans to continue to refine many of the programs already in place. This includes providing the technical services in IT, training, and bulk purchasing, operations. Some services operate as profit centers, but others are offered to members without charge. ABCUL’s expertise is extremely important to UK credit unions which often lack professional staff. However the trend to more professional staff is beginning to match the growth. Although Lyonette has a degree in chemical engineering, he feels his 15 years working in trade associations including The Tenant Participation Advisory Service prepared him for his current role representing credit unions in England, Scotland and Wales. ABCUL does not represent credit unions in Northern Ireland which fall under the Irish League of Credit Unions and the Ulster Federation of Credit Unions. Part of his evolutionary process is to learn from other credit union movements. “ABCUL has watched closely the developments in Ireland and New Zealand in recent years the development of IT systems. We have been developing our own project with a number of our larger credit unions to test the feasibility of credit unions being able to offer current account facilities such as electronic funds transfer and card payments services. One of the lessons we have learned from other credit unions is that we need to find ways to enter these markets with minimum risk and that will inevitably mean minimum capital investment. We are coming towards the end of a phase of this project that should see us send a Request for Proposal to a number of banks who have indicated that they may be able to provide these services to credit unions,” Lyonette says. Although he may never lead a credit union revolution, Lyonette says he will work hard in “promoting the credit union difference by understanding our members needs and helping them understand their members needs.” email@example.com
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