For CEO of One Small Credit Union, Legislative Advocacy Not An...

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Dean Wilson has a poem taped to his computer that he reads every day to remind himself that there is still work to be done to protect and preserve the credit union movement.

Written by German activist Martin Niemollar, the poem goes like this:

"In Germany they first came for the Communists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a trade unionist. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn't speak up because I was a Protestant.

Then they came for me - and by that time, no one was left to speak up."

Wilson is the president of $32-million Wauwatosa Credit Union in Wisconsin and is proud to call himself an activist in the credit union movement. Compared to many long-time credit union CEOs, Wilson is somewhat of a new comer. He's been president of Wauwatosa for eight years, has been in the industry for 13 years and is actually a convert from the for-profit banking business.

One of Wilson's first jobs in the financial services industry was as an employee for Ford Motor Credit. Before he interviewed for his first credit union job at Land of Lincoln Credit Union in Illinois, he said he had to go to the library to research what a credit union was.

"I couldn't believe there was a financial institution anywhere who would offer a lower rate than they had to," he said.

He admits he wasn't completely sold on that idea, either. Before accepting that job, he sat down with the credit union's CEO and chairman to discuss what he was getting himself into. Wilson said the credit union philosophy was a big jump for someone working in the for-profit side of finance.

"They did an unbelievable job of selling what it feels like to do the right thing. They told me credit unions were trying to do the right thing by all people," he recalled.

Convinced, Wilson took the job, and since then said he hasn't looked back. When he landed the job at Wauwatosa Credit Union, he made the credit union movement his personal crusade, taking pointers from the people he considered the experts - executives from larger credit unions.

Admittedly wet behind the ears when he became the president of his credit, Wilson watched and learned from the passion of other credit leaders. Their drive and commitment inspired him to come out of the shadows, so to speak, and take ownership of a movement in need of as many advocates it could find.

Believing In The Movement

"The leadership at any credit union, which is not only management but the board, are the ones who drive whether their credit union is involved or not involved, and whether they believe it truly is a movement," he said. "I saw how passionate some of these leaders were about preserving the credit union movement. I learned how important it is that our voices are heard clearly and heard often."

According to employees at his credit union, that is the kind of leader Wilson has become. He gives legislative updates at every board meeting and every staff meeting and encourages employees to get involved, even if it's something simple like showing up for the league-sponsored legislative night. He also budgets for his board and management team to attend CUNA's GAC in Washington, D.C.

"Dean's support of the credit union movement is definitely contagious. That is evident by the number of credit union representatives we have at so many legislative functions, like the meet-and-greets that we host for Wisconsin legislators," said Patrick Basler, vice president of Wauwatosa credit union. "From day one, Dean has stressed the importance of supporting the political efforts of the movement, and his expectation is that WCU will treat these efforts with as much importance as any other business function of the credit union."

Wilson is now the chairman of the Wisconsin Credit Union League's Government Affairs Committee, and he is very committed to keeping himself, his credit union and ultimately the credit union movement fresh in the minds of his state and federal legislators. Wilson takes a trip to Washington, D.C. twice a year to hike the hill and talk to lawmakers "about what's important to credit unions back home in the district."

Back in Wisconsin, he visits lawmakers in his district, helps support bills being sponsored by individual lawmakers and even tries to have dinner with them privately from time to time.

"It's our job to foster relationships with our legislators even when we don't have things to push for. If we only show up when we need something, they might not be sympathetic to our cause. Then, when there's legislation that's being put forth we have the opportunity to be sure our friends in government understand our viewpoint," he said. "You know you're making an impact when they can call you by name or recognize your face."

One of the things his Government Affairs Committee works on is face time with freshman legislators. During Wisconsin's GAC, which took place recently, they organized special visits to freshmen senators and representatives. Realizing that there are paid lobbyists on the opposing side of the field whose facts regarding the credit union movement are not always correct, the committee believes it is important to counter that information with the truth as early as possible, ultimately before that misinformation ever reaches the freshmen lawmakers.

The Taxing Message

"Quite often, a legislator will be told by a lobbyist that credit unions don't pay taxes. That's not true. I pay every tax except for corporate income tax, because I'm non-profit," he said. "The ideas in the credit union movement are different than banking. It gives me great pleasure to walk into the office of my representative with someone from an $800-million credit union and show him how that larger credit union helps me with services that I wouldn't be able to offer my members without our movement's cooperative effort."

Within his own credit union, Wilson is not afraid to get his hands dirty to be sure legislators know what he and his members think is best for his credit union. Taking advantage of the fact that he leads a smaller credit union and has a very personal connection with his members, Wilson has launched letter-writing campaigns among his members and has even asked them to call legislators.

"Politically, I can call five or 10 of my members and say, 'I need you to call this senator today and tell them this,'" Wilson said. "The one thing that worries me is every credit union should be doing that. It's about doing the right thing. I really feel strongly about that. It goes back to that quote by Niemollar. We all have to do our part to make sure the movement survives. If we don't, who will do it for us?"

Wilson believes so passionately in the need to stay involved that he's almost become a personal cheerleader for his staff. While it's human nature to want to slow down when things are quiet in the newspapers and on the senate floor, Wilson reminds them that the quiet times are often the most valuable for them.

"What's intriguing to me is that when we get over a hurdle, they want to stop. I tell them we can't. As long as there are going to be banks and credit unions and other financial institutions, we're never going to get to the goal line and spike the ball," he said. "If all of the legislators understood what credit unions do, we would never have to worry, but they don't understand. Our job is to see that they get the information."

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