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PEWAUKEE, Wis. – It’s no secret that small credit unions daily deal with unique sets of operational challenges that test their survival, but the Wisconsin Credit Union League has begun a new initiative to make those challenges more manageable and less overwhelming. WCUL VP of Operations Jim Drogue, who heads up the new small credit union program, estimates one-third of all the credit unions in Wisconsin have $10 million or less in assets. The program has been expanded to include those with $20 million or less. “Staffs at small credit unions wear so many hats, it’s difficult for them to see beyond the day-to-day and focus on the big picture,” he says. “So there’s a lot of opportunity for our team of consultants to go in and work with these credit unions instead of waiting for the credit unions to phone the League asking for help.” The program, Drogue explained, targets CUs “willing and able to grow or develop significantly with objective, expert advice. We’re looking for healthy, functioning credit unions that want to incorporate the knowledge of experienced credit union professionals into their daily activities. We want to help them get to the next level.” Launched in February the program was initially beta tested with Lakeside CU, Oak Creek, Wis. last September. After being named president/CEO of the $10 million in asset, 3,900-member CU in June 2004, Sandra Gudelski, a former office manager for the CU and prior to that a member of Lakeside’s board for six years, found herself in the unenviable position of knowing a lot about the day-to-day activities of the credit union, “but I wasn’t familiar with many issues that come across the president’s desk. I had all the necessary skills except on the financial side, and that’s what I needed to be honed on.” Gudelski contacted the Wisconsin League for assistance, and they sent her two League consultants to help her out – Bill Rockeman, former CFO, Commonwealth CU (merged with Summit CU), Sun Prairie and Kay Hinkens, former CEO, AAL Member CU, Appleton. Between Rockeman’s expertise in accounting and financial analysis and Hinken’s more than 30 years experience in lending and management, Gudelski said “the two of them combined are an incredible team. They came up with a plan to move Lakeside forward.” One area in particular Gudelski said she needed assistance with was Lakeside’s bookkeeping department. She said there were “a lot of issues with the books not balancing.” “Rockeman worked hand in glove with our new bookkeeper to get her up to speed, and my books are in incredible order now,” said Gudelski. In addition, Hinkens spent a lot of time with her and Lakeside’s lending officer going over lending issues, policies and procedures. Hinkens also worked with Gudelski on marketing issues. “I feel like I’ve turned the corner,” said Gudelski. Lakeside is in the process of building a Web site, and Gudelski said she wants to have an online banking system running by the end of the summer. “If there was no program, I probably would have tried any resources to help me get through this. Fortunately the League was there,” said Gudelski. The Wisconsin League’s small credit union program begins with a signed agreement between the League and a participating CU that assigns responsibilities to both the League and the credit union. Drogue said it’s a two-way partnership. The League’s consultants work with credit unions in the program up to one day a week for six months, depending on the needs outlined in the agreement. As part of the consultant’s responsibility to assess the credit union’s potential, they review important CU documents including financial information. The consultants also attend board meetings and other credit union functions to observe and share information as well as talk with staff and volunteers to discern the knowledge level of employees, functions of each department and the organizational structure of the CU. After that’s completed, the consultants design and implement a training schedule for the CU’s volunteers and staff. Board members are required to take a minimum of four training sessions in areas such as succession planning and asset liability management and finances. The CU president is also required to participate in training in leadership skills, delegation techniques, work prioritization and accounting. The CU is responsible for committing time to the project. Drogue emphasized that board and management support is vital to the success. “Think about how many small credit unions can be saved,” said Rockeman. “We want to give the small credit unions tips on how they can make their operation better. It can be as simple as doing something on the computer instead of manually. At small credit unions where the president typically wears many hats, there are just so many hours in the day to do so many things. They have to prioritize and something usually doesn’t get done.” Hinkens agreed that “the Wisconsin League is trying to preserve small credit unions. In assisting small credit union presidents we’re trying to elevate their thinking up to the strategic level where they can plan more for the future of credit unions. “A lot of what we hear from small credit unions is they’re mired down with everyday stuff. They want to get at new program development and strategic plans, but they don’t have enough time or staff,” Hinkens added. “We’re asking them to set aside time so when we come in for the whole day they can focus on working with us for that day. It’s asking a lot, but they’re thrilled. It’s almost like they have permission to get away from the daily work, it’s like a big reward.” That’s especially the case with credit unions where there’s a new president, said Hinkens, because they typically have their hands in so many things. We can come in and assist them in areas they’re not strong in, she said. So far, the Wisconsin League has chosen three credit unions to participate in the new initiative -Kenosha City Employees CU ( $8.3 million in assets, 1,100 members), River City Community CU ($8.4 million in assets, 2,200 members), and Partners CU ($13 million in assets, 3,200 members). Rockeman and Hinkens began working with them in January and will continue for six months when the next group of three will be selected. For Kenosha’s Kim D’Amore, the program couldn’t have come soon enough. She’s been president of the CU since July 1 but started as a temporary manager when Kenosha’s former president left. Prior to being “borrowed” by Kenosha, D’Amore worked as branch manager at Educators CU in Racine. Besides her president’s responsibility, D’Amore wears many other hats such as balancing the CU’s corporate central account, serving as Kenosha’s primary loan officer, handling investment, and managing all the CU’s payroll and tax functions. “When Bill came to us about the program, I thought it would help me fine tune the credit union’s policies to make sure everything was up to date and in compliance. Kay also has given us marketing tips on driving our loans,” said D’Amore. When the first three credit unions graduate from the Wisconsin League’s small credit union program around June, Rockeman said the selection process for choosing the next group of three will be very important. As word about the program gets out and it gains in popularity, he expects there will be a waiting list. “As Kay and I drive around the state, we see a lot of small credit unions in the field that could benefit from the program. Our choices will be based on a combination of the credit unions’ interest and our selection of those that we think best meet the criteria,” he said. -

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