Speaking Their (Computer) Language

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Kathy Chartier credits her training as a World Council of Credit Unions development educator (DE) with ultimately leading to the relationship between the Connecticut Credit Union Association and the Trinidad-Tobago Credit Union League.

Chartier, CCUA chairman and president of Members Credit Union in Stamford, Conn., made the longer term goal of her DE training one of greater international involvement with development of credit unions in emerging nations. When she talked to Kevin Stewart, former president of CCUA, and Mike Beall, formerly of the World Council and the new president of the Maryland league, about her goals in late 2000, it seemed natural to use the support the league could offer to help satisfy Chartier's objectives.

Chartier had gotten to know Virgil Patrick, former general manager of the Cooperative Credit Union of Trinidad-Toabago, which drew her initially to the island nation. Trinidad-Tobago also was a natural choice for CCUA for several reasons, she said.

"English is the country's primary language and they use Computer Marketing Corp.'s FLEX system, the same system we use, to run the credit unions in Trinidad-Tobago," said Chartier. "We could communicate on a variety of levels."

Trinidad-Tobago also is one of the most prosperous of Caribbean principalities and a banking center for the region, which helped strengthen its credit union movement and the people it serves, she said.

Like many other state associations, CCUA also was looking to partner with a mature credit union system that would allow CCUA and Connecticut credit unions to make meaningful contributions to the growth and development of the country's credit union movement. Trinidad-Tobago's movement had been around some 30 years, Chartier said, and faces challenges similar to small credit unions in the U.S.

"Trinidad-Tobago isn't too far away when it comes to travel, either," said Chartier. "We felt they wouldn't be too foreign to us and that we'd all have a better chance of benefiting from the relationship."

Chartier would have her first opportunity to fulfill her long-term DE mission in 2001, when she was invited to speak at the leadership conference sponsored by the Trinidad-Tobago Credit Union League. Along with Joanne Todd, executive vice president of Northeast Family Credit Union in Manchester, Conn., Chartier then spent two days visiting area credit unions.

There was no formal agreement between the two organizations yet, but Chartier said things were well underway toward that when CCUA took the next step.

"We invited a delegation from their league to attend our state leadership conference, scheduled for Sept. 14, 2001," said Chartier.

That visit never took place, thanks to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, she said. But that didn't deter spirited support of the growing relationship among credit union leaders both in Connecticut and Trinidad-Tobago.

"We all knew we wanted to do this, so a formal agreement seemed to be the next logical step," Chartier said.

A partnership agreement was drafted between the Connecticut CU Association, the World Council, and the Trinidad-Tobago Credit Union League. Chartier signed on behalf of CCUA and Winford Jones, then chairman of the Trinidad-Tobago League, signed on behalf of his credit unions. The one-year self-renewing partnership agrees, among other things, to the following goals and objectives:

* Continued exchanges of thoughts, ideas and enthusiasm through communications and personal visits.

* Commitment to principals of safety and soundness for the benefit of credit union members.

* Mutually beneficial information exchanges on operational and marketing techniques.

* Development of "best practices" for trade associations to improve and expand member service.

* Promotion of cooperative principals to all audiences, including governmental bodies and officials.

* Advocacy on behalf of credit unions before officials in Connecticut as well as Trinidad-Tobago.

Three representatives of the Trinidad-Tobago movement, including Patrick, attended CCUA's leadership conference in September of 2002. This was followed by a joint presentation by Chartier and Stewart at the Caribbean nation's meeting early in 2003. The exchanges of visits and information, in accordance with the agreement signed, continues to this day, she said.

Credit unions in Trinidad-Tobago operate much the way old-fashioned savings and loans did in the U.S., said Chartier. The institutions lack electronic transfer capabilities, a service gap CCUA and their league are working to bridge.

"They want to move into credit and debit cards, " Chartier said. The credit unions also are working toward becoming more successful on the legislative front, a challenge in the face of the islands' powerful banking lobby, she said.

"Most of the country's 120 credit unions are very small and ATMs are few and their systems proprietary to their sponsoring institutions," Chartier said. "The credit unions need to provide more services to members if they're going to survive."

But survive they will because of the strength of the people of Trinidad-Tobago, said Chartier. "They're a proud people with a vested interest in democracy," she said.

Most citizens of the country vote in all general elections and volunteer support of credit unions is very strong, said Chartier. Progress is slow, however, as it is with all efforts to change society. The impact of credit unions in Trinidad-Tobago is as much social as it is economic, she said.

Some of Chartier's best lessons in credit union philosophy have come since she became involved with Trinidad-Tobago, she said.

"Their philosophy is more fore-front and their sense of 'people helping people' is very strong," said Chartier. "I want very much to see this continue because we can all learn so much from them."

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