Board Recall Isn't The Real Lesson From Columbia CU

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We're guessin' that in all that decades-long talk by the banking industry about "leveling the playing field" that they didn't have in mind the kind of meeting that took place among the members of Columbia Credit Union last week.

Somewhat lost in the charges and counter-charges that were made by groups supporting the credit union and those seeking to dump its board is that the biggest issue of all isn't who is right or wrong, but that such a meeting took place at all.

I've used this space before to note that every time one of these intra-credit union skirmishes occurs, the knee-jerk reaction is to try to hide it in a drawer beneath the "Dukakis/Benson...Or Die" T-shirt that seemed like such a good idea at the time. Credit unions shouldn't be ashamed of the member revolt at Columbia Credit Union-they should have their own T-shirts made and hand them out.

What went on last week at Hudson's Bay High School, where the special meeting was held, was all that's right about credit unions. You know that "democratically run financial institution" stuff credit unions are always espousing? This is the rhetoric made real.

Unhappy as a customer of Bank of America, for instance, that you're checking account is now being packaged with a home equity line in order to help you pay the checking fees? Good luck bringing together the bank's customers for a special meeting aimed at replacing the board. Best wishes on even getting into the meeting at all.

Two weeks ago and 750 miles south in Monterey, Calif., California league President Dave Chatfield called "disturbing" the fact the general public and legislators seem to know nothing of what credit unions are. What may be more disturbing is that's not the case in Vancouver, Wash.-where the community came to learn all about its credit union only after having it nearly sold out from under them.

As The Credit Union Journal has detailed far more than any other publication-including in this issue-Columbia Credit Union was only the latest in a sad series of conversions to bank charter that have had nothing to do with what was good for the institution and everything to do with what was good for a handful of insiders who have been turning huge personal profits by selling off equity that belongs to everyone else.

It's likely Columbia would have become just another piggy bank to be broken open had it not been for a very small group of people who know the difference between a red flag and a red herring. The credit union that tried to slip one past the owners by telling them it had no choice but to convert to a mutual savings bank in order to grow has now ditched those plans. I'm betting that Columbia continues right on growing in the years ahead (although its board has also given it a prime position in the Self-Fulfilling Prophecy Hall of Fame. Should growth slow because of the broken bond of trust many members feel, proponents of the move to mutual savings bank will say there's the proof CCU should have converted).

While Chatfield is absolutely right that asking people "What is a credit union?" usually elicits responses similar to those Jay Leno "Jay Walking" moron-in-the-street interviews, it was encouraging to hear some of the insights The Credit Union Journal's Ed Roberts got when he asked Columbia CU members waiting to enter the special meeting about their thoughts (see page 24).

"I think it's (the recall) a little overblown. But the idea is right, to keep it a credit union," said Jeanette White of Vancouver, a 40-year member of the credit union. Observed 20-year member Gerry Ambrose, "It's funny to see these people wearing these, 'Friends of Columbia Credit Union' buttons. We're as good as friends as they've got. We want to save it."

Another member nailed the question that's never answered by any of these CUs moving to a bank charter. "I was never quite clear how it was supposed to be better for me to have a mutual savings bank than a credit union," said Bob Lafayette of Vancouver, a 30-year member. "I can't see any advantages in it for me."

And then there was this observation: "I hope they (the board) learn a lesson from all this. I don't know if they will or they won't," said Nathan Robertson, who voted for the recall to send the board a message.

Why highlight that? Because voicing displeasure directly to the folks responsible for running the shop is the credit union brand. Branding is all the buzz among consultants and marketers and conference speakers, inside and out of credit unions. But the brand isn't that clever logo or the catchy advertising tagline or the new name that draws upon Latin (because so many people speak it, after all).

As was keenly pointed out several times during The Credit Union Journal's recent SEG & Business Development Conference, branding is too often misunderstood to be a logo or tagline. It isn't. What a brand really is is the experience the customer or the member has. That democratic-ownership thing-even in uncomfortable scenarios such as that at Columbia-is the experience no competitor can match. That's what really makes the playing field unlevel.

Frank J. Diekman is editor of The Credit Union Journal.

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