Float Like A Butterfly Sting Like A CU

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A CEO best known for his playing days in the NFL said the best strategy for credit unions actually can be found in boxing.

A.C. Cowans, president of McCoy FCU in Orlando, who played a season with the Pittsburgh Steelers and later the Washington Redskins, urged the credit union community to adopt as its operating strategy Mohammad Ali's boast that he "floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee."

It's been floating and stinging, said Cowans, that has helped McCoy FCU grow from a struggling, $19-million CU when he joined it into the thriving $380-million credit union it is today.

"Partnering with community organizations is the bankers' turf, it's their arena," said Cowans. "They've got the huge marketing budgets, the huge promotions budget, the large employee base. As more and more credit unions enter into community charters I see a slight problem in that we are treading into uncharted waters. It's a fight. I don't think many credit unions fully recognize all that is involved in a community charter. It's not just having community as part of your name or the area classified as part of your FOM. It has to be an obligation. It has to be a commitment. It has to be a responsibility. We can't just talk about it. A credit union should be viewed in [its] community as being a major player in the overall leadership of that community. Credit unions need to be a resource for their communities if they are going to partner."

Cowans cited all the talk credit unions do among themselves about how good they are in serving their communities and winning various consumer satisfaction surveys, but all that "talking the talk" now demands "walking the walk."

"I would contend we are ready," he said. "Credit unions have a very good image, and we need to be prepared to take advantage of that. We are that safe, fair alternative to the banking industry. We have a plan; we just need to implement it."

Cowans credited much of McCoy Federal's growth to the extensive partnerships ("floating like a butterfly") it has created over the past few decades.

"The key to partnering with community organizations is very, very simple: we just have to get involved," he told the Partnering And Leadership Successes (PALS) conference organized by NCUA board member Debbie Matz. "We have to reach out to the community. It requires the whole credit union. You. Your board. Your staff. It has to become part of the cultural makeup of the credit union."

Cowans said that in many ways McCoy FCU had little choice. It converted to a community charter before it was a trend in 1981; the air force base it served had closed in 1974.

"We committed to serving that community," he said. "We really targeted the African-American community, the Hispanic community, and made it part of our mission. At that time we couldn't really devote a lot of money to the cause. But we did have staff and management and board who could give time. So we floated like a butterfly. Twenty years later we're a $380-million credit union. That's because we got involved. We made it our mission to partner with the community. In 2004 we participated in 45 community activities, and spent around 280 hours with these community organizations. And it only cost us about $20,000."

McCoy Federal Credit Union is active in middle, junior and high schools, and has found a "powerful force" in numerous local churches where ministers tendto be tremendously influential. It is similarly involved in local YMCAs, voter drives, Habitat for Humanity, and the March of Dimes.

"That's floating like a butterfly; you don't have to spend a lot of money," Cowans said. "Mohammad Ali was a champion who didn't hit hard, he just hit again and again and he wore you down."

Cowans estimated MFCU has opened "thousands and thousands of accounts" as the result of its community involvement.

"But we think the most important thing we get from that time and energy is that we have lived up to our obligation as a community credit union to serve our community," he said.

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