CU Times readers voted Dennis Dollar the credit union industry’s most influential leader of the past 25 years. However, the former NCUA chairman’s modest response to his CUTimes25 Final Four win was fitting for a man whose life has been devoted to public service.
“I was absolutely humbled and totally blown away to be voted this recognition by my colleagues in the credit union industry,” Dollar told CU Times. “As a former regulator, I didn’t really expect to get out of the early rounds, as the decisions a NCUA chairman has to make in that job are often not very popular and one, at best, has to settle for respect – rather than popularity – in the way the decisions were made and the approach taken in making the decisions.”
But it was the decisions he made as an NCUA board member and later as chairman that gave rise to Dollar’s standing in the credit union community. While he may be out of the regulatory limelight, his influence during the last several decades is still felt by credit unions today.
Born in Mississippi – he still refers to himself as an “ole Mississippi boy” – Dollar, at 22, was elected one of the youngest legislators to the Mississippi House of Representatives. Dollar served a two-term stint in public service before gaining credit union experience first-hand.
“That was my indoctrination into politics and my first indoctrination into credit unions because I was making the laws for credit unions in the state of Mississippi,” Dollar said.
After eight years in public office, Dollar ultimately turned to a different breed of public service, entering the business world and later becoming president/CEO of what was then Gulfport Veterans Administration Credit Union in Gulfport, Miss., and is now the $86 million Gulf Coast Community Federal Credit Union.
In 1997, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) contacted Dollar and asked him if he would be interested in the Republican slot on the NCUA board. As a former Mississippi state representative, Dollar said he knew of the NCUA and what the job entailed, but felt he needed to do a little exploring into the job. The biggest question he had for Lott was how he could possibly be nominated to the board, as then President Bill Clinton was a Democrat.
“I’m a Republican. How’s that going to work?” Dollar asked.
He added that Lott carried the water for him to help get the appointment.
“There’s no better person to help you get confirmation from the Senate than the Senate Majority Leader at that time,” Dollar joked.
Dollar said the Democrats on the then board, Board Member Yolanda Wheat and Chairman Norman D’Amours, did not get along, and as the sole Republican on the board, Dollar found himself in the middle of an often contentious group and served as the swing vote many more times than perhaps he should have, he said.
In 2001, President George W. Bush appointed Dollar to serve as chairman of the NCUA board.
Often recognized as the architect of some of the most innovative regulatory actions in the board’s recent history, Dollar implemented Access Across America, RegFlex, Incidental Power and Field of Membership Modernization. During his tenure on the NCUA board, Dollar also served as vice chairman of the Federal Financial Institutions Examination Council.
Dollar was the first NCUA chairman to have served as a credit union CEO in the past – something he felt brought a necessary perspective to the agency.
“The staff needed the perspective of someone who’d actually lived under NCUA rules and knew the impact,” Dollar said.
As a newly minted chairman, Dollar set out to help the NCUA understand the day-to-day impact of regulations on credit unions and to minimize unnecessary regulations, while preserving those that were essential to safety and soundness. Dollar received some criticism in which he was called an agent of deregulation.
That criticism was absolutely not based on any truth, according to Dollar.
“I would never have been in favor of deregulating a financial industry that has the full faith and credit of the United States government behind the insurance fund,” he said.
His approach was to leave appropriate regulation in place and diminish it where it was overreaching. For example, the chairman implemented RegFlex, a plan that exempted credit unions that met certain criteria from some rules.
“It was earned regulatory flexibility,” Dollar said of the initiative. “It was very well received by credit unions.”
It was also during his tenure that the NCUA expanded field of membership options for federal credit unions. He called these efforts the most progressive expansion of FOM rules in the history of credit unions, ahead of the NCUA board’s November 2015 proposals.
“I would think that our biggest accomplishment was the expansion of field of membership opportunities because they directly related to growth potential for credit unions, which is so essential,” Dollar said.
Regulations were not the only way Dollar and his team influenced the NCUA; significant restructuring also took place at the agency.
“When I came in, they had right around 1,200 employees,” Dollar explained. “By the time we left, we had that down to 1,035.” A dwindling number of credit unions, which primarily resulted from mergers, led to the structural changes.
At the start of Dollar’s tenure at the NCUA, the agency served approximately 12,000 credit unions, but as that number shrank, the agency had to streamline its facilities to reflect the decrease. The regulator had six regional offices, and the board elected to close the Chicago office. Additionally, it moved its “high priced” San Francisco office to Tempe, Ariz. “where it’s less expensive,” Dollar added.
The NCUA also addressed quarterly call reports. Prior to Dollar’s tenure as chairman, credit unions with fewer than $50 million in assets were not required to report quarterly. The rationale behind moving to quarterly reports, according to Dollar, was that if credit unions were taking advantage of RegFlex and other types of FOM opportunities, the regulator wanted to make sure they could handle the opportunities.
“We wanted to have the most updated data possible,” he said. “We had a lot of credit unions that didn’t like the quarterly reporting, but we felt like it was important.”
However, a host of Dollar’s plans did not survive the transition to the new administration. Current Chairman Debbie Matz repealed the RegFlex program and dispensed it with the budget briefing process that Dollar instituted.
The budget process has since become a sore spot for credit unions that want to see the budget placed back on the NCUA board’s schedule for discussion. They may soon see that opportunity, as a bill calling for transparency of the board’s budget was voted out of the House Financial Services Committee Dec. 9.
After his term on the board expired in 2004, Dollar relocated to a suburb of Birmingham, Ala. He continues to influence credit unions through his consulting business, Dollar Associates, which he co-founded with his former NCUA chief of staff and counsel to the chairman, Kirk Cuevas. The two consult with credit unions, trade associations, leagues and others on a host of issues.