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Chance meetings between powerful leaders often lead to important decisions and dedicated efforts. Such was the case for credit union leaders Mike Mercer and Gzregorz Bierecki.

Mercer, president of Georgia Credit Union Affiliates, Duluth, Ga., and Bierecki, president of the National Association of Cooperative Savings and Credit Unions, Gdynia, Poland, crossed paths at a World Council of Credit Unions function in 1992. The chance meeting and a mutual interest in building the financial cooperative movement within their respective countries led to an award-winning combined effort that has become a highlight of the WOCCU partners program.

The goal of the two organizations: Create mutually beneficial opportunities that would aid Polish credit union development and remind Georgia credit unions of both the roots and importance of their movement. The 12-year effort has yielded much in the way of benefits for both parties, said Dan Denning, GCUA's vice president of knowledge development.

"Polish credit unions were looking for ways to improve their products and services, but we had the chance to actually see democracy prosper and grow through financial independence," said Denning. "We really got the better end of that deal."

While some fledgling WOCCU partnerships still rely on providing assistance on an as-needed basis, GCUA decided early to formalize the agreements between Mercer and Bierecki to create what would ultimately be a well thought-out business relationship.

After several years of discussion and a 1994 visit to Poland by former GCUA vice president Marietta Bush, the two association leaders drafted and signed a formal agreement of purpose. The agreement, approved by the GCUA board and signed at the association's annual meeting, identified seven goals and objectives, including:

* Assistance in developing new products and services.

* Training by GCUA for Polish credit union leaders through the Credit Union Internship program.

* Exchanges of information and ideas between the two organizations to further aid in credit union development in both countries.

* Direct funding of special projects in both countries.

* Technical assistance through consultancies provided by and for both organizations.

* Exchange visits by leaders to better enhance understanding of each country's credit union movement.

* Other forms of cooperation identified and agreed upon by the two participating organizations.

The agreement became both possible and beneficial because Poland's 35-year-old credit union movement is already fairly sophisticated, said Denning. The agreement was signed by Mercer and Bierecki as president of SKOK, an acronym that also is the Polish word meaning "to jump," an appropriate description of the movement as it stands today, he said.

"The Polish movement is certainly jumping into the future," said Denning.

Subsequent to the signing at GCUA's annual meeting in June, Mercer, Denning and a contingent of Georgia credit union leaders visited Poland. Individual partner agreements between credit unions in Georgia and Poland followed.

Relationship development and visits by Polish leaders to the U.S. and Georgia credit union leaders to Poland continued. In 1998, GCUA and its credit union members provided contractual models and collateral information to help SKOK establish a credit card program. In 1999, GCUA provided contract assistance to help its Polish counterpart purchase and install a new computer system, critical to the Polish credit union movement centralized processing needs.

Visits continued, including internships, and partnerships among individual credit unions grew. GCUA and SKOK officials attended each other annual meetings to solidify the operational and philosophical bonds that had begun nearly a decade earlier.

The efforts not only paid off for both organizations, but were recognized through the credit union movement as a leading model of Partners program success. In 2001, GCUA won the Herb Wegner Memorial Award for most outstanding organization or program. The award was presented at CUNA's Governmental Affairs Conference that February in Washington, D.C.

GCUA's award-winning efforts have continued to this day, said Denning, helping the Polish movement prosper and grow. The movement, which was started by leaders who also participated in Lech Walesea's Solidarity movement in the 1970s, now supports 100 credit unions with 1,300 branches, 700,000 members and the equivalent of $1 billion in assets. It is the third-largest provider of financial services in Poland, said Denning.

The Polish movement, as well as its relationship with Georgia credit unions, also has grown. Delegations from both countries continued their program of exchange and intern support. In March, another group of poles will visit GCUA for further education and training.

SKOK is the first European credit union organization to partner with Visa International to offer credit and debit cards, has developed credit union-specific software to be used by member institutions, offers share insurance to members through its own brokerage, provides education and training to credit union leaders, and is the first Polish financial institution to be granted an ISO 9001 rating.

The membership and assets also have grown faster in the past 12 years than credit union leaders on either side of the Atlantic Ocean ever imagined they would.

"The extraordinary popularity and dynamic development of credit unions observed today prove that a very significant, pressing need exists within the Polish society for the type of institution combining safe and sound financial member-oriented services with not-for-profit and self-help principles," according to SKOK's web site.

Best of all, perhaps, is that SKOK has begun its own partners program, exporting credit union ideals and expertise to Lithuania, Hungary and the Ukraine. GCUA's contributions over the past decade have resulted in efforts that could spread the credit union philosophy throughout Eastern Europe.

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