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We had a rocker for a school bus driver during junior high. He wired the bus with speakers and a tape drive. Every morning, when the school bus doors flew open, “Bennie and the Jets” was blaring. We thought it was cool, especially in Oklahoma where we were more famous for an overzealous football team than for being hip.Like many times in our lives, there are events that led up to that one “rockin’ moment” in time. “Bennie and the Jets” was a hit by Elton John, yet without the collaboration of Bernie Taupin writing the lyrics, the tune might have been anything but a hit, and my life in junior high would have been doubly less interesting.Taupin had answered an ad in “New Musical Express” looking for talent. Elton John and Taupin struck a chord of collaboration and went on to work together on 30 albums with hits such as “Tiny Dancer” and “Candle in the Wind.”Zip forward to 2004 with two very unlikely credit unions, Meridian Trust Federal Credit Union, Cheyenne, Wyo., and Utah Power Credit Union, Salt Lake City. Meridian Trust was a $140 million credit union with branches across Wyoming, except for the southwest corner of the state. Meridian Trust wasn’t excited about putting up a branch there after being forced to close a $990,000 branch building on that side of the state following the 1980s energy bust.Sitting south of Wyoming was another credit union, Utah Power, with $220 million in assets and sole sponsorship of the utility company. Utah Power wanted to cross the state line to the north, but something about state charters and interstate banking commerce prohibited its progress in serving potential members located in southwest Wyoming.Both credit unions could see the advantages and opportunities of joining forces and working together collaboratively. After several telephone conversations and two strategic planning meetings, it was time for that one “rockin’ moment” in time.Of course, there was some busy work to do first. We set up operating procedures, found a facility in southwest Wyoming and hired staff for our first PowerTrust CUSO location. In order to win the secretary of state’s approval, we opened under the definition of a “manned ATM.” PowerTrust offers all the services of a shared service center-deposits, loan payments and account transactions. During the first year, we shared costs 50/50. In the second year, we prorated costs based on the number of member transactions.Credit unions have a unique, “man on third base” advantage when setting up a project or program collaboratively. In our industry, it is more intrinsic for us to share good ideas and resources than any other industry. This advantage should be exploited to its full benefit. Many ideas for CUSO or partnering have been initiated for insurance, lending, investments, technology or shared facilities. It could even make sense to collaborate on sharing personnel resources such as accounting, business development and maybe even CEOs.This is especially true in these economic times when the purse strings are extremely tight and there is reluctance in taking on risks because of this uncertain market. We hear a lot about economies of scale when we discuss mergers. Realistically, this is true when looking at collaborating with other credit unions. Credit unions share the risk yet gain more in reward regardless if we are discussing increasing revenue, membership or reducing operating expenses.Both Meridian Trust and Utah Power have seen this as a successful, collaborative venture. So much so, in fact, that less than 18 months after the doors were opened, a second location was launched 300 miles away. We both enjoy lower operating and branch costs while providing additional service outlets for our members.This is a good winter project. Open up the dialogue with “Bennie and the Jets” blaring in the background, remembering how that collaboration brought happiness to the masses, and resulted in awards and many more hit songs. By the time you hit verse three, you’ll find a way to do things together that makes more sense than continuing to do them separately.

Peter Westerman

Credit Union Times

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