Houston, We Have A Problem-Solver

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HOUSTON, Tex.-Curtis Collins is set to receive this year's Volunteer of the Year (CUs with more than $150 million in assets) award from NAFCU, and the 70-year-old has a fairly good idea why he's being honored: "Because I'm old," quipped Collins.

In all seriousness, Collins has more than 45 years' experience in the CU movement, having come into the fold in 1965 as a member of the credit committee at JSC FCU here. Today he serves as vice chairman of the $1.5-billion institution, and Collins explained that a genuine passion for credit unions is what has kept him involved over the years.

"When I started with the credit committee at JSC, I'm not really sure I even understood what the credit union movement was all about," he said. "But it just made sense to have member-owned organizations and be a part of that. I loved the concept and that it was one person/one vote and that it doesn't matter how much money you've got invested."

Over the years he has served not only on JSC's board, but with the Texas Credit Union League, the Houston Chapter of Credit Unions and on several committees with NAFCU. Professionally he has worked with both NASA and the Johnson Space Center, where he has held a number of different positions.

One major change from his early days in the CU movement, he pointed out, is that old federal regulations required that when a loan officer didn't grant a full loan, it was then referred to the credit committee, whereas today's loan officers have more leeway to make on-the-spot decisions and negotiate loan amounts.

But the bigger picture, he noted, is the way the global point of view has changed.

"When I began, all you had to worry about, basically, was your local credit union and the financial institutions around you," said Collins. "Now the whole financial service industry is worldwide-we have to worry about markets in Japan and worldwide as we set our investment decisions and things of that nature."

But, he noted, the concept of people helping people has not changed, and that focus on members is what has allowed credit unions to continue to be a vital part of the financial services marketplace.

Loss of Tax-Exemption

But the marketplace itself is changing, and he observed that when he started with credit unions, discussion of credit unions' tax-free status was seldom heard. But by the mid-90s, Collins estimated, that began to change, both as a result of credit unions' success, expanding fields of membership and the overall global financial picture.

"My personal opinion is that at some point in the future, credit unions are going to be taxed, and I think the feds are going to have one regulator for all financial industries," he said.

But regardless of taxable status, one thing that should not change, he said, is the credit union philosophy.

"As long as there's not a change in our particular governance model, I think there will always be some need for the credit union movement."

Collins espoused that while he firmly believes in the member-owned concept, as CUs have grown and fields of membership have expanded, some larger credit unions have lost their connection with their members. So what really invigorates him, he said, is having the opportunity to work with small credit unions, such as Houston's Lincoln City FCU, a $176,000 institution serving 180 members. That experience, he said, brings to mind a time "when we knew EVERY credit union member and their financial issues."

Looking forward, Collins said that for credit unions-and in particular small CUs-to survive, there may come a time when NAFCU, CUNA or another trade group may have to put together an organizational model wherein multiple small CUs can operate under a common board offering common back-office services and more. Additionally, he said, the CU model as a whole may need to be looked at in order to maintain long-term viability, including the possibility of compensating directors.

In the meantime, however, CUs must continue to compete not only with one another, but with the big banks-and Collins said that the key to winning that fight is the same as it has always been.

"Credit unions are heading to where they and all the other financial industries are able to offer the same kinds of services," said Collins. "We just have to offer the best service."

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