Facilitator of Renewal Reflects On CUs, Personalities

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In a room filled with people seeking to protect their turf and people seeking to get some of that turf for themselves, there was one man at the table with nothing at all at stake: the facilitator.

Dr. John Odom served as the facilitator for the original CUNA Renewal Steering Committee. Although he was and still is a member of two credit unions, like most CU members he knew very little about the cooperative movement and was the only one in the room without a direct stake in the process.

"I was probably selected by [then CUNA CEO] Ralph Swoboda and the leadership at the time because I had facilitated some other sessions for them," Odom told The Credit Union Journal. "You're asking me to think back a lot of years, but I think my goal was to maintain a sense of order and forward motion."

And forward motion was something CUNA desperately needed a decade ago when its elected membership was comprised of 50 members (each of the state leagues) and there was a growing sense within the movement that a relatively small and self-propagating group of people had something of a stranglehold on the leadership of the entire CU community.

Painfully Slow

Odom didn't necessarily see that-but he did see an industry that was loathe-and painfully slow-to change.

He chuckled when told that Renewal Committee Member and Westerra CU CEO Alan Peppers said that one of the things that Odom said 10 years ago that has stuck with him all this time, was the fact that in the same amount of time the credit union panel had been studying reorganization, Kraft Foods had already reorganized one time.

"I haven't done a lot with CUNA per se since then, but my guess is that they probably still aren't transforming as quickly as others in the private sector," he commented.

Odom offered The Credit Union Journal a unique look at the historic Renewal process from the perspective of an outsider who was invited in.

"[Then CUNA Chair] Pete DiSylvester took this very seriously. He was very credible. He was low-key and amiable, and he brought credibility to the table," Odom recalled. "Then there was the change in (CUNA) CEO right in the middle of all of this, and a swelling of opinion that there was a real need for this to occur.

"We had a lot of different kinds of leaders that had a stake at the table, and there was no one screaming that any one segment of the movement wasn't being represented," he continued.

'A Real Character' Blows The Whistle

But while there seemed to be a groundswell of support for change, not everyone believed it could actually happen, or that it could be done successfully.

"There was a guy from North Carolina or South Carolina, a real character," Odom struggled to recall the name. When asked if that character might just be State Employees CU CEO Jim Blaine, he replied, "That's it, Jim Blaine! Jim Blaine kept predicting a train wreck. That became his mantra, this is a train wreck, this is a train wreck. He was sure this would be a catastrophe. In the end, Jim did a mea culpa of sorts. He bought everyone at the table a carved wooden train whistle. I still have mine, as a matter of fact."

But Odom recalls more than just some of the "characters" on the Renewal Steering Committee. He also remembers some of the most controversial topics that were discussed, including:

* The tension between small credit unions and large. "Large credit unions wanted greater representation in the movement," he observed. "They felt like the red-headed step child of the movement and felt like because of their size, they felt they were due some attention and power. The larger credit unions had more money, more staff and were more cutting edge than the leagues to which they belonged and who represented them at CUNA. The small credit unions felt like the movement was created with them in mind and that it was the ma-and-pa credit unions to which the movement owed its sympathy from Congress."

* Madison, Wis. versus Washington, D.C. "There was a perception that credit unions were inadequately represented in Washington," Odom offered. "Madison was Ground Zero for the credit union movement, but it's not close to D.C."

* Erosion of support for the leagues. "The leagues were going to be the losers because they would have to share power," he recalled. "People were very deeply concerned about losing power, and others were concerned with gaining it, increasing their voice and power. And the small credit unions just wanted to make sure they didn't get lost in the process."

* Maintaining tradition versus maintaining relevance and integrity. "It was evident that everyone was deeply concerned. They didn't want an overarching structure that would render the movement irrelevant," Odom explained. "Tradition was hamstringing the movement's ability to respond to the competition, i.e. banks. There was concern that large credit unions would say, 'go ahead and tax me, just let me do what the banks do,' so there was great concern about keeping the movement intact, maintaining the integrity of the movement."

While Odom helped facilitate much of the Renewal Committee's initial efforts, he left before the committee turned its recommendations over to the board and long before the board decided to adopt them, but the facilitator said he left the group confident that the process had been both positive and useful.

"I am confident that the whole process of change-whether you agree with all of the elements that came out of it or not-that the process was cathartic, and it was good. I was so impressed with their sincerity. I was impressed that they were doing it."

Along the way, Odom, who like most credit union members couldn't have said what a credit union was other than to say, "I do my banking there," learned exactly what is was to be a member.

Now, when asked what a credit union is, he replied, "A credit union is a federally or state-recognized cooperative designed to assist average Americans in financial literacy and being an owner in a financial repository where they are owners and members. How did I do?"

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