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Choosing a credit union career in 1965 was not something Dennis Cutter did on purpose. In fact, he said, he never thought he would land that first position as manager of a small credit union in Washington State.

"I a joke," he said. "I really did not think that I would be selected since I had no previous experience in finance."

Cutter said he took the position at Clark's Employee Credit Union, but was so unsure about his future in the industry that he kept his other full-time job as swing shift manager and machinist at the SP&S Railroad in Vancouver, Wash.

"I would work from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the credit union and then go to work at the railroad,' he said. "I did this for 10 months until another opportunity presented itself at a larger credit union."

Cutter hasn't looked back since. What started out as a shot in the dark has turned into a passion for economic fairness nationally and internationally, said supporters of his most recent acknowledgement-winner of the 2006 Herb Wegner Award for Lifetime Achievement. This award given by the National Credit Union Foundation is the highest national honor available in the CU movement.

"I'm pretty excited about it," Cutter told The Credit Union Journal. "This honor tops the list of lists."

Cutter said he has enjoyed every aspect of his work for the credit union movement and couldn't pinpoint a favorite experience. "I really, really, really like what I'm doing," he said. "I like to be able to see the end result...talking to people and seeing people whose lives have been affected by the work we've done gives me a lot of energy."

Contagious Enthusiasm

A common thread in the nomination letters submitted to the NCUF called Cutter honest, friendly and dedicated and said that he had an uncanny ability to bring people together and have fun in the process. One supporter said his enthusiasm was "contagious," while another said "his affable personality, easy sense of humor and personal diplomacy skills made him a welcome addition to any gathering."

David E. Maus, CEO of Public Service CU, Denver, even went so far as to call him "Mr. Credit Union." "Dennis' passion for our credit union industry is obvious to everyone," Maus wrote. "He lives, breathes, eats and drinks credit unions."

Cutter didn't deny it.

"I have long said that we are so fortunate in the credit union movement that we don't need to reinvent the wheel," he wrote to the nomination committee. "People are willing to share ideas and programs that work. I have spent my credit union career trying to make changes that benefit the members and to learn from others."

He named other industry leaders as mentors who helped fuel his passion for the CU movement, including CUNA chairmen and committee members both past and present.

"One of my most cherished mentors was Al Williams," he said, crediting the former WOCCU president who has since passed away, with "helping me understand how the game was played and also kept me well informed about what was happening on the inside of World Council."

Cutter said one of the major highlights of his career has been serving as the first VP/Secretary and later board chairman of the newly formed CUNA Foundation (now NCUF), which was instrumental in raising awareness of the movement's "people- helping-people" philosophy.

"I am very proud of the progress that the foundation has made over the years and the huge contributions that it has made nationally and internationally," Cutter wrote. "Many states now have their own foundations and are represented on the NCUF board of directors. On the international level, other countries have started their own foundations, too."

Cutter was also involved in establishing:

NCUF's People-to-People Program, which included the creation of a partnership between the Georgia Credit Union League and the Polish Credit Union Movement. The program served as a catalyst for additional partnerships between U.S. leagues and other movements.

On behalf of WOCCU, Cutter visited and established connections with several countries, including Togo, Kenya, Korea, Nepal, Malaysia, Indonesia, The Philippines, Jamaica, Trinidad, Tobago, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Great Britain, Ireland, Poland, Austria, The Netherlands, Canada, New Zealand and Australia.

The Credit Union Empowerment and Strengthening program created a partnership between WOCCU, USAID and Freedom From Hunger to help selected credit cooperatives provide safer savings and loan options to residents of the Island of Mindanao, Philippines.

A second part of this effort, called Savings and Credit with Education, provided financial services along with nutritional education to poor women at 18 cooperatives on the island. The project won the 2002 Herb Wegner Award for Outstanding Program.

"Through the World Council of Credit Unions, I hope that in some small way, my participation has helped change the world for the better ... particularly where it has helped provide people of modest means access to affordable financial services," Cutter wrote.

"His outgoing and personal, likable, open and honest style exemplifies the characteristics needed to build successful collaborations," said John Annaloro, CEO of the Washington Credit Union League and Affiliates, in his nomination letter to the NCUF. "Whereever he goes, Dennis Cutter always brings people together, and always shows outward evangelical enthusiasm for economic democracy-domestically and internationally-conducted in a manner that brings pride in the global credit union concept to everyone involved. His friendships, like his interests, are many and worldwide."

Spanning The Globe

Not only has Cutter worked in leadership roles at several credit unions including Boise Cascade CU, U.S. Employees CU in Vancouver, Wash., and today at Numerica CU, Spokane, Cutter's volunteer efforts through the years have spanned nearly every segment of the CU system, Annaloro said.

Among them: Chairman Emeritus of World Council of Credit Unions, vice chairman and member of the Executive Committee of CUNA, chairman of CUNA's World Affairs Committee, distinguished chairman and league director of the Washington Credit Union League, and chairman of the National Credit Union Foundation.

"Without question, his good work and volunteerism have set standards that define credit union development success for all of the movement's professionals," Annaloro wrote.

And, while his work on the national level has been impressive, Cutter's dedication to the international credit union system is most notable, Annaloro said.

"He has never lost sight of the importance of WOCCU's work proving that financial self-sufficiency can lead to global advancement...or that by achieving world economic development, peace becomes more possible," he said.

Cutter's long list of honors includes being named Credit Union Person of the Year from his chapter, the Washington Credit Union League's Mark of Excellence for 25 Years of Sustained Leadership, and Distinguished Credit Union Professional of the Year, the NCUF's Friend of the Credit Union Foundation and one national publication's Top 10 outstanding CEO's in the United States.

With a schedule as busy as his, supporters said, Cutter even finds time to be involved in local events and fundraisers such as Habitat for Humanity and various food and school supply drives. His credit union also participates in fundraisers for CUPAC/CULAC and the industry's charity of choice, Children's Miracle Network.

"His dedication and reliability is reflected in the fact that his involvement always leads to leadership positions," wrote fellow Washingtonian Richard C. Brandsma, CEO of Sound CU in Tacoma.

Brandsma said Cutter has always been there when he needs assistance. "His philosophy of working together has certainly strengthened the credit union system in our state."

David L. Chatfield, CEO of the California Credit Union League, said Cutter was "broadly heralded for his outstanding leadership during his lengthy tenure as chairman of NCUF. He served during a time when that organization experienced significant growth and success in providing support for critical credit union activities."

At Numerica Credit Union (formerly Railway CU), where he has been CEO since 1971, Cutter has overseen growth from a local credit union for railroad workers with $2.1-million in assets to a regional credit union with $560 million in assets and 63,000 members in two states.

"I have been very fortunate to have had, and to currently have a board of directors that for the last 34 years has been very progressive and interested in providing superior service to our members," Cutter said. "My philosophy has always been that everyone should have access to credit union services and the board shared that philosophy."

Cutter also said the board and his staff has been extremely supportive of his involvement at the local, state, national and international levels over the years.

"I couldn't have done this without a very, very supportive board of directors and staff that are able to keep the wheels moving while I'm gone," he said.

Leading Through Change

"Dennis has done a remarkable job leading his credit union through decades of significant change," wrote Gordon Dames, CEO of Mountain American CU in West Jordan, Utah. "Today, his credit union is a leader in its area of operations."

Ronald Hance, CEO of Heritage Family FCU in Rutland, Vt., echoed the sentiments.

"I observed his extraordinary leadership skills on the CUNA Board, National Credit Union Foundation and World Council of Credit Unions," Hance wrote. "Dennis is widely known and highly respected throughout his state, country and worldwide."

Hance credits Cutter's "insights and understanding of the CU systems" for the success of the foundation and the WOCCU. "His approach to credit unions and the people-helping-people philosophy are deeply rooted and intertwined into his everyday activities."

When WOCCU honored Cutter with a Distinguished Service Award, it said that his most "treasured accomplishment" was the formalized partnership between the Philippines and his home state of Washington.

His efforts have helped many Filipino CUs become safer places to save and borrow money and offer financial education support to its members.

"Dennis has served as an example to me and to many others in the credit union movement," wrote Pete Crear, CEO of WOCCU. "He is the ideal person for the Herb Wegner Award."

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