A Distinguished CREAR In Credit Unions

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When you ask most folks approaching retirement what they plan to do with their newfound free time they usually say they'll travel, play golf or a combination of both. Well, scratch travel off Pete Crear's agenda.

"Where would I want to travel?" he answered incredulously, when asked. "Name a spot and I've probably been there at least twice." (Note to the credit union community: please stop asking this question, because Crear isn't close enough to retiring just yet, as he reminded. "I haven't set a date yet. I told (CUNA CEO Dan Mica) I'd think about it. First I have to wind down.")

Winding down from 10-plus years of 150-plus days a year spent at airports, in planes and window-less hotel or office conference rooms requires at least a small window of transition to normal life, said Crear.

"I remember when air travel was fun, even glamorous. Now, of course..." he offered the latest example of indignity at the hands of screeners: the confiscated tiny sewing scissors in his personal grooming kit.

For the next year at least, Crear will be kept busy working with former South Carolina league president John Franklin, who has taken Crear's responsibilities overseeing CUNA's Madison, Wis. Operations, and acclimating him to CUNA products and services. At the same time, he'll be concentrating on the "external stuff" that constitutes his new job as executive VP of external relations for CUNA. "Beyond that, I just want to do less."

Who can blame him? For years, Crear has been the "Everyman" of the credit union movement. In an age of specialty and individual market focus, Crear is the Jack of All Trades and seemingly the Expert of All Trades as well. While he's too modest to say that, he laughed at the designation.

"Well, I've never run the World Council! And believe it or not, I did give it some thought when Chris Baker left. And I so love what they do-is there anything more exciting than promoting the cause of credit unions on the international stage? But when I thought about the amount of travel involved I came back to my senses."

In the end, Crear was content to be the CUNA liaison to the World Council of Credit Unions. Maybe it was the one that got away, but few other posts did. Here is a sampling of Crear's other job titles: senior vice president with the Michigan League; president of the Connecticut Credit Union League; president of the Indiana Credit Union League, and acting president of CUNA after the departure of Ralph Swoboda.

He's also been the executive director of the African American Credit Union Coalition (AACUL), which he helped to found, served as director or advisor to the boards of U.S. Central Credit Union, the Consumer Federation of America, the Cooperative Development Foundation, the National Cooperative Business Association (as board chairman), Credit Union Service Centers, Nationwide Insurance Companies, Jump$tart Coalition, Care USA, and the Filene Research Institute.

He may not be the George Washington of credit union-land, but he sure qualifies as the George Washington Carver of credit unions. Crear's place in CU history is as assured and comfortable as his disarming sense of humor. That's why he's sure to make his acceptance of the Herb Wegner Lifetime Achievement Award a memorable moment for those who attend the National Credit Union Foundation's dinner on Feb. 22 at the Hilton Hotel during the CUNA Governmental Affairs Conference. After 39 years of working toward the betterment of peoples' financial interests through credit unions, Crear knows where the bodies are buried. The Big Book of Credit Union Secrets (not a working title) for his memoirs will surely make for a good read, but Crear promises not to write them until he's mastered golf (more on that later).

"I've never been a big awards kind of guy, but people keep telling me I deserve this," he said. While most elder statesmen types usually acquire a roomful of commemorative plaques (and he has his share), the Wegner is a special designation of honor.

In a remarkable economy of words, CUNA President Dan Mica said of him: "Credit union-land is a better place because of Crear's unyielding efforts."

He grew up in Detroit and remembers his "old Michigan days" fondly. Working as an auditor, field representative and credit union organizer, he said, "I've never worked harder in my life. It was every night, or every other night, it was weekends. But I could see the difference right away. Every day brought results."

How many credit unions did he help establish? "I wish I could tell ya. There were many church and minority-based credit unions, in all maybe 23 or 24 at least; and some of them are still around," Crear said.

Those days were hard, but memorable, especially at the crest of the Civil Rights movement, when earnest attempts to fulfill the promise of Martin Luther King's message was juxtaposed with civil unrest, riots, arson and looting.

Crear has always been a hands-on kind of guy, and unafraid to say the things most folks don't want to say for fear of discomforting others. His language isn't PC, but his passion for credit unions and calling it like it is has earned him the respect and admiration of all with which he has worked.

He recalled vividly how one of the credit unions he helped to start, Feminist Federal CU, broke completely down. "It was in the 1970s, and oh, they had a very good credit union going. It was well-run and well-managed and it just fell apart over stupid stuff."

The CU bought a large commercial building and had grandiose plans to turn it into apartments with a health club, the CU's offices and so on, he related. Somehow, the loan on the building got delinquent and at the credit union's annual meeting the combined fury of women scorned was hellish.

Trying To Make The Bitter Better

"It got bitter. Remember, Michigan is a union state so it got tough. But these ladies made the Teamsters look like pikers! The meeting had to be adjourned and an attempt at another meeting took place two weeks later. Well, we needed added security to keep the peace. The tragedy was that members lost confidence and the whole thing fell apart."

That, in turn, bolstered his lifelong belief that while credit unions do work, that "when in the hands of either incompetent or uncaring stewards, they can and will fail."

In those days federal credit unions were supervised by the "Bureau," which lacked the power to merge struggling CUs. "There was no mixing of fields-of-memberships and even sick credit unions couldn't be assisted that way; they had to be run into the ground first."

For many it was too late by then, he added, brightening a bit when remembering that Ed Callahan's tenure as NCUA Chairman changed all that.

Today, there are some 500 credit unions in Michigan, said Crear, noting that when he was working in the state there were 1,200. "We've lost a lot of credit unions," he rued.

Speaking of the willingness of the future generation of credit union volunteers to put in the "sweat equity" required to start, operate and keep a credit union a going operation, he said he's been amazed at the power of the CU ideal and philosophy to hook young people. When they are given the opportunity to hear the call, they seem captivated by it, he said. At the least, a seed of loyalty to the idea of financial cooperatives is planted. It would be a shame if it weren't nurtured further, Crear said. At most, a new career path is set before Generation Y.

When Crear was lauded last year with a Lifetime Achievement Award from the African-American Credit Union Council at its annual conference, he met with several of the students that received a scholarship named for him. "These interns each gave a presentation and I was wowed. These are some very bright individuals. I spent some time with a few and even met and spoke with one young man's mother."

Crear was astonished to hear the young man say how he'd never been away from home, and that he was the first one in his family to attend college because they couldn't afford to send him and how he'd never dreamed of working for a financial institution.

"I remember thinking, 'Oh my God, we gave all of that to this kid for a $2,000 scholarship?' Well, we ought to be doing a lot more of that sort of thing," he said. "Listen, these kids in college all need a safe place to keep their money. Whatever these kids do in the future, they'll carry the credit union philosophy and spirit with them. Some of them could end up in Fortune 500 companies or working on Wall Street."

One of the ideas behind the founding of the AACUL was to provide a forum for blacks and minorities working in credit unions to network with each other and provide mentoring opportunities to promising candidates.

Sure, he said, he'd like to see more minorities and women in positions of leadership in CU-land. But don't expect any "gimmes," as Crear is very clear about having to earn a spot on the CUNA board, or any other prominent board.

Challenging Minorities

"Whenever I am asked that question-why aren't there more minorities on the CUNA board?-I always answer, 'You run lately?'" offered Crear. "If all they did was answer that, it'd be enough to open their eyes as to where to start."

He went on to say that it's true, as former House Majority Leader Tip O'Neill observed, that "all politics is local."

People just have to stop complaining and "get in the game. I'm in the game. When the time comes to fess up, as in 'where's my loyalty?' Well, I'm in the game. What are you doing?"

That's why the AACUL intern and scholarship programs mean so much to him. In 2004 AACUL will award three $2,000 scholarships during its 6th Annual Meeting to be held on Aug. 14, 2004 in Atlanta.

Crear isn't sure if the jury is in yet on the merger/consolidation trend among credit unions. "Is big better? We'll soon find out, I think. The proper question is: do the economies of scale really serve members? It seems as if we could combine our strengths and plan better, doesn't it? Cooperation is tough, though.

"Cooperation is tough to do," he continued. What did (Georgia Credit Union League President) Mike Mercer say? 'Cooperation is unnatural.' The Canadians tried it; the California League did a study that showed the system would be better if backroom operations (and their costs) could be shared. The time doesn't seem to have arrived yet, but it will."

A Matter Of Survival

Crear allowed that time spent waiting for the time to arrive might prove dangerous and possibly ill spent. "We do face survival problems, yes. It's a dandy question. Membership growth is stagnant; last year it was up only 1.4%. We still have some 86-million members and the same market share of 3% to 4%. We clearly lack penetration in the younger demographic and when older members retire and move to sunnier climes, we tend to lose them. We should have 8% to 10% growth. We need to effectively keep retiring members from leaving credit unions and taking their money with them when they go."

The threat of further economic downturn and job losses and their potential to devastate employer-based credit unions is also on Crear's mind. As is the not-quite-a-trend-yet of credit unions becoming mutual savings banks and later, stock issuing corporations, which often results in the enriching of insiders. "That is so contrary to our purpose," he said.

"Listen, people in a democracy get what they deserve, as in you can change things. If you can take out the possibility of voter fraud and corruption, you can stand up and take control by selling your point of view. It's the best way we have to effect change; it's the American Way," Crear said.

Crear recalled the early days again, when the credit union movement was inexorably tied to the labor movement and the labor movement marked as socialist, and worse, communist. "In those days we had agreement on certain principles. I used to say, however, that we were socialistic rather than socialist. People used to get ticked at me for just saying that."

So the answer seems to lie in working out the differences among credit unions by first settling on topics of importance to address and beyond that, to seek best of breed solutions (from anywhere, even outside CUs) and apply them. "We have to agree on the central issues. We did it with HR 1151. If we got all the right people in a room together once a year, there'd be no end to what we could accomplish."

But politics can make for strange bedfellows, he agreed. Those early cries of 'Socialist!" may have their echo in today's charges of "class warfare" and both political parties use separate (if unequal) arguments to put their agenda forward. Just where will credit union leadership place its dime and its PAC power influence?

Not Taking Any Stuff

"Remember when we went to the GAC and credit unions were told to tell Congress, 'Credit unions are doing just fine; we don't need any help'? Well, that's just what we got-nothing! Today, we've learned to be more proactive. We have to give banks what for. We have to weigh-in on bank legislation. We can't take any stuff from predatory lenders, either. The movement is split on all this, I know," said Crear.

The paralyzing fear of many within credit unions is that political activism-especially on issues not directly related to CUs-will result in CU taxation. "They think the way to avoid it is to not draw attention to ourselves. Well, it's difficult to live in this world and not do things."

"I'm lucky to have been able to indulge a passion I didn't know I had: credit unions. The people I've known and the places I've been have taught me the continuing importance of this effort," he said.

And now, Crear can indulge his other passion: golf. "You ask any golfer and they'll tell you that it's the limitations of their equipment that hold them back. Just ask how many putters they own! Me, I have five drivers and as many putters, so I'm proof that it's the equipment, stupid."

Two things are sure, Crear and his wife, Diane, will migrate to a warmer state than Wisconsin in the winter months, and may settle in the sun when he finally does retire from CUs, and the credit union movement will lose a giant.

Carol Anne Burger is a freelance photojournalist who lives in Boynton Beach, Florida. She can be reached at carolwrites hlink.net

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