A Marvel Of A Career

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There aren't too many credit union CEOs who can say they've overseen a 624,900% increase in assets.

But then when Marvel Ebenhahn took her job, she thought it would last for the summer. After all, the credit union had just $18,000 in assets. That was in 1952.

Today that same credit union has grown to $112.5 million. It's a long way from the day she joined what was then Eddy County Federal Credit Union, when "all the equipment was a four-door drawer, like a filing cabinet."

Ebenhahn came to the then-tiny credit union having just finished high school, and took the job part-time to complement a bookkeeping position in a farm cooperative store. That co-op was the same building that housed the CU's home-a drawer keeping money and documents belonging to the credit union, which had been formed in 1942 by a group of farmers, including her father.

Without leaving the store she could tend the co-op and the credit union, which has, among its many changes, gotten a new name since it was founded. Today it's Community Credit Union.

"I'm now making loans and doing business with grandchildren and great grandchildren of the people that first started the credit union," observed Ebenhahn.

Building Membership & Assets

When Ebenhahn, born and raised on a farm, took over the running of the credit union upon graduating from high school, the CU had approximately 250 members in a town of about 1,800 people. (While the population remains about the same, the CU's membership has expanded to some 6,500 people.)

She said it helped that there were only "two or three transactions per day." When a member would come, she would stop her bookkeeping chores at Farmer's Union Oil Co. of New Rockford to open a drawer and momentarily take care of those transactions. "I did everything on a typewriter and all of the bookkeeping by hand," she recalled.

The credit union, whose main office continues in the same location along the North Dakota stretch of U.S. Highway 281 that runs like a spine from Canada to Texas, would handle transactions such as keeping a family's savings or lending money to farmers for furniture.

"When we started it was mostly for the members of the farmers' union co-op. Now it is a community charter CU for everybody that lives within a 50-mile radius of this town," she explained.

In the decade after she joined it, the credit union continued to make loans to farmers and continued to take in their deposits until it grew to the point it could afford to move out of the drawer and into its own offices. "We completed our building in 1965, a brick-type building," Ebenhahn said. In those days, when a million dollars was still considered a big credit union, Community CU had grown to a quarter-million dollars in assets.

"That made all the difference. We had our own building and our own identity. Before that, people thought we were part of the farmer co-op," she said, adding that with the building open, growth really began to accelerate.

In the first years "we only had passbook savings and made loans. We were very limited in what we could do," she said.

Today, the credit union has 15 employees to handle products that range from debit and credit cards, to car loans and mortgages and money orders.

Some things, such as interest rates, however, would appear to have changed little. "In 1952 we were making farm loans at 7% to 8%. That is more than now. We are lending at rates of 5% to 6%," she said.

The farming community itself pretty much remains the same, according to Ebenhahn. The closest big city to New Rockford is Fargo, some 170 miles to the southeast.

The credit union added a second office in 1978 when it merged with another credit union in nearby Fessendem, and yet another office later in 1993 when it merged with another credit union in nearby Carrington. Both credit unions needed to merge with Ebenhahn's credit union, which was in a better capital position, she said.

Just as mergers have allowed her the opportunity to expand, other mergers will likely continue in the credit union movement, she believes, acknowledging that in the future, "there will probably be fewer of us." But Ebenhahn doesn't believe small credit unions are doomed to become merger partners.

"I have a little reading that I pasted on my desk which I took from a magazine. It is by Gene Farley, originally with the Virginia CU League. I read it every once in while," she said. Farley's quote: "To remain viable a credit union should adhere to credit union philosophy, develop a strategic plan, practice asset-liability management and control expenses," she said.

"If they all do that we will have CUs forever," she added. Ebenhahn said she sees a future for credit unions because "people need us," and unlike banks, don't treat consumers as "somebody you have to make money from. We have to make money too, but it is a little bit different than when stockholders want to make a return on an investment."

Caring for Members

Running the credit union during these years has helped Ebenhahn to get to know the "core group" of members very closely.

In the case of "a lot of the young farmers, we dealt with their dads and their grandfathers." This familiarity can make it harder when a string of bad crops or other situations force the auction of a farm, she lamented.

Yet there have been more happy times than bad times in the last five decades, she stressed. Still, there are plenty of uncertainties in an industry dependent on crops, and on top of all that Community Credit Union must deal with a declining population and rival banks.

"A lot of people are moving to the city as the farms get bigger. Now just one farmer operates 5,000 to 10,000 acres. When I lived on a farm with my dad we farmed less than 1,000 acres. In families with three children, one stays to keep the farm and two leave. There is never room for all three."

Retirements and farmers who decide to rent their farm also contribute to the decline.

Locally, the main competitor to Community Credit Union in town is Security State Bank. "You never get to do business with everyone," she said.

As farms continue to consolidate and the environment changes, Ebenhahn sits tight and braces for what the future may bring.

"I don't have any plans to retire because I enjoy what I am doing and I think I am doing some good," she said.

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