As CUNA Chair Steps Down, Sees Lesson From Florida

Register now

When CUNA Chairman Barry Jolette steps down from the CUNA board of directors in October, he hopes credit union managers, volunteers and members remember what he says is the real lesson of the disputed presidential election of 2000.

"If a few thousand more registered Democrats in Florida had voted, the country would have a different president, and we wouldn't have spent three years talking about hanging chad," said Jolette, who stressed he was not attacking President George W. Bush or making a partisan political statement. "People got up that day, and, for whatever reason, did not vote. Just a few thousand votes would have changed the outcome in Florida, and that would have changed the outcome of the election."

In his numerous speeches at CU conferences, Jolette frequently has compared leadership to a parade: some people are part of the parade, some make it happen, while others stand and watch. Given the current political climate, he urges those involved with the credit union movement to get off the sidewalk and into the parade.

"We can't have people sitting on the sideline," he declared. "At credit unions, we think we are the good guys-we think we wear the white hats. That's nice, but we think we always win, which isn't true. The good guys don't win automatically."

"By the same token, a few people working hard can make a difference," he added.

As an example, Jolette pointed to one of the most pressing issues facing CUs today-the potential revocation of the tax exemption, which has been under attack on the state level. Jolette noted the state-level banking associations that are working hard in the political arena to pass legislation that would hurt the movement.

Asked how he has dealt with key legislative issues during his two terms as CUNA Chairman, Jolette said he has tried to be attuned to the needs of credit unions by listening to CUNA's board and its Government Affairs Committee.

No Agenda

"In their approach to the CUNA Chairmanship-or the leadership position in any organization-some people come in with an agenda," he said. "I didn't come in with a personal agenda, I wanted to push the agenda created by our CUNA board. Advocacy is mostly what credit unions want from their trade associations. I supported the Government Affairs Committee -which shapes and proposes advocacy policy and submits it to the board-on regulatory issues. Also, I support the CUNA staff working on legislative and regulatory issues."

Most people in the CU movement do not realize that their work is not done as soon as a bill is introduced, Jolette asserted. Major legislation-even good legislation-can take a long time to wind its way through the political process on either the state or federal level.

"We're not patient. We're used to things happening very quickly," he observed. "We don't realize it takes years of hard work to get things done."

Jolette said he spends much of his time talking to people at CUs across the country, encouraging them to get involved.

"Respect, in politics, comes from having a lot of people involved. Banks have a lot more money than credit unions, but we have people resources," he said.

Jolette's Leadership Lauded

After Jolette announced his intention to leave the board rather than run for another term, CUNA President Dan Mica praised Jolette as "the epitome of a credit union leader."

"His focus has been to make credit unions more effective in serving their members, and to make credit unions more effective in obtaining what they need from lawmakers and regulators to better serve their members," Mica said. "As chairman of CUNA, and in his many previous leadership positions with our organization, he has pushed us to take action where it is needed, and offered solid guidance on what the credit union community expected of its preeminent trade association."

All CUs Great and Small

One issue CUNA has long wrestled with is ensuring it represents all credit unions in a community in which most credit unions hold less than $50 million in assets, yet most of the assets are held by a relatively small number of credit unions. Jolette said CUNA's committee structure is an attempt to account for the differences among its affiliates. He said CUNA tries to create committees whose members represent a balance of large medium and small asset sizes, state and federal charters, community and employer-group sponsored CUs, and geography.

CUNA also regularly samples the opinions of CU managers, board members and volunteers by taking professional surveys, probing for what it is credit unions want from their trade group. "The members of the board bring a lot of input," said Jolette. "They tell us what credit unions want, what they are upset about and what they are trying to do."

The speaking circuit is a listening circuit, too, Jolette explained. He said he might speak for 20 minutes at a conference, but then spend one or two days listening to the attendees.

He has learned to accept the good feedback with the bad, he said. "You always will have people unhappy with you for the positions you take. That's a fact of life."

"When I started, I asked about our political agenda. I found that it was not complete," recalled Jolette. "We canvassed the country to determine what credit unions wanted in the regulatory and legislative environment, and what they needed to be successful in the future."

The responses covered a "whole rainbow" of issues, he said. CUNA then ranked those issues in importance. "That list has been our Bible. We still use it today," said Jolette.

Asked how his chairmanship differed from that of his predecessor, Dave Maus, Jolette said the two men are not tremendously different. "Everyone has his or her own skills," he said. "I think I kept on what he was doing on advocacy."

Improving Intra-Movement Relations

During his time on the CUNA board, and especially during his two years as chairman, Jolette said he has developed an appreciation for the "critical" role state CU leagues play in the success of the movement.

"I can't imagine not having leagues. They are very helpful to credit unions that need help, and, they bring power to credit unions by getting numbers of people together," he said. "Also, they help bridge the sometimes insane arena within the Beltway in D.C."

Jolette was the head of CUNA's Governmental Affairs Committee for two years, and then was elected CUNA Chairman in October 2001. Last year, he was unanimously reelected for a second term. At the same time, Jolette has been CEO of San Mateo Credit Union in Redwood City, Calif., which has 56,000 members and more than $500 million in assets.

Asked how he was able to juggle both tasks, Jolette replied, "By putting in a tremendous amount of time in both jobs. The first obligation is to your credit union," he said. "You can't be out there working for CUNA and let your organization fall apart."

Technology has made communication much easier, he continued, but it is important to have senior staff who can operate on their own with minimal guidance. "My people get e-mails and voice mails from me from all over the country at all hours of the day and night," he said.

About The Job

So what is it like to be CUNA Chairman?

"It is an extreme honor, but it is not an honorary position. You had better be ready to put in a tremendous amount of time and energy," he said. "It is a rare day when I don't put in time. You have to have a real drive for it."

Jolette is stepping down from the CUNA board to pursue other interests.

"I've had a great run with CUNA, but it is time to move on. I have been active with the World Council of Credit Unions for the past 10 to 12 years. I am on the board now. I want to shift the time I put into CUNA into WOCCU."

CUNA will elect its new officers at its Future Forum this week in Reno, Nev.

For reprint and licensing requests for this article, click here.