I Tried To Retire From Credit Unions, But Just Got Board

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So here I am retired to a place called Waco, Texas and figuring that my life includes nothing more complicated than a growing affection for rooms with lots of porcelain fixtures. Retirement is a different place. There is no commute and every day is Thursday. As one who thinks the state of inertia is a great place, this sudden inactivity is welcome. My bride, Rose, is a different case. She has to be busy all the time, was president of our tiny church board twice and is now board treasurer. I have told Rose that she is a very religious driver because every time I ride with her, I see Christ. I was approached by a church board member in December 1997 to feel out my interest in service. I quickly explained that this person was speaking to the wrong Hartley.

Being a spouse and thusly ineligible, I thought I was safe-until the president of our local credit union asked me to submit a "bio" and throw my hat into the ring for their board elections. I figured "bios" were out of my life when I retired in late 1997. Like the dozens of silk ties and the matched set of Monte Blanc pens I got rid of, I never expected anything from those days when I had a life to matter any more. Now I have a feeling that my life is going to continue to change. All those old passionate feelings about credit unions are quickly coming back.

And I really like my life too. Each morning I get up from 4 a.m. on (I dunno why), visit our bathroom, let the dogs out and make a pot of Gevalia. While the stuff brews, I go into my "room" where I have a computer, a wingback chair, cable TV, and a couple of cheap tables loaded with oil painting gear. As Mr. Coffee gasps out his last few drops, I turn on the computer, nuke the daily ration of spam and answer the occasional real e-mail. At 6 a.m., the daily paper arrives and I look at it and then play computer games. Rose is ready to do the morning's crossword with me by 7:30. The uniform of the day usually includes shorts and sandals.

It didn't take long for the two of us to forget those 20 and 25 years when we got to work at 7 a.m. and left at 6 p.m. Those memories began to return, however, the moment I was asked to throw my "bio" into the ring. Even though board service is only about setting policy and won't involve anything like a commute, caring has returned. I know my "bio" was a couple of squeezed pages long. But that was several hard drives ago so I had to start from scratch. I ended up with just one page that wasn't so squeezed. Since I can't remember what's missing, who cares?

So how did being in senior management of one of the larger credit unions (Mission Federal, San Diego) prepare me to be a board member? It really did because I knew the culture of a financial cooperative right off. Being used to a myriad of reports for board meetings, it was nice to still know what I was reading. The major shift in thinking that had to happen is that I could no longer think just about marketing.

Being a retired CEO would probably have been best, but being a retired marketer was next best. During the days of yore, I endlessly pontificated as to how a marketer should reflect the view and vision of the CEO while other senior management types could concentrate mostly on their own disciplines. I'll explain. The CFO has to think bottom line, not necessarily what details drive the lending asset side. The chief lending oficer has to focus on whether the lending assets will continue to happen, in addition to the pricing. The HR exec has to focus on whether new people can do the job, whether seasoned staff are properly trained and motivated, and if the credit union is adhering to the gillion legal requirements that keep changing every day. The data chief is up to his or her proverbial armpits in everybody's wants, equipment changes and modifications and long-range data planning. The chief operations person has to think about whether service delivery units are properly staffed, trained, supplied and motivated. If your credit union has a person in charge of such lovelies as checking, credit cards, an incoming call center, whatever, that person's plate is loaded too. A good marketer, however, has to know as much about what drives the bottom line as how to get business to happen. Naturally, I thought I was ready.

It would've been easy to think being a board member of a CU with 1/35th the assets of my old shop would be like riding a tricycle after zooming along on a multi-geared racing bike. But what kept me from that really stupid attitude was a couple of things. First, when I was doing an article on credit union marketing a dozen years ago, I learned that the average U.S. credit union asset size back then was $5 million; and second, when lobbying Congress, our pros don't trot out multi-billion dollar credit union chiefs. What our Congress- people see are humble, freshly-scrubbed managers of credit unions that are as charming as new puppies.

Having attended board meetings for 20 years, I already knew the two main rules: stay out of operations and no hidden agendas. My brother and sister board members are teaching me more. Not only do these folks care about the credit union members and its staff, they care about good fundamentals. Because I have experience, I recognize and understand quickly what I am seeing in the reports; but ultimately, because the board cares for the members and the credit union, they make good decisions that don't require 20 years in the field. What I am most taken with is that it just doesn't matter how large or tiny your credit union is. If it cares about each member, it shares a common bond with virtually all credit unions. The credit union story will always be safe in the hands of people who really care about the people served.

Dick Hartley was Senior VP-marketing for Mission FCU in San Diego for 20 years until retiring in 1997. In May, 2003, he joined the board of First Central CU. Mr. Hartley can be reached at 254-662-1929 or at rori flash.net

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