Taking Names and Kicking The 'Buts' Out Of Conversions

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They stood in the cold and the rain and the misery on wet, gray sidewalks as traffic splashed by, indifferent to their mission when surely, even they had to wonder what in the world were they doing out here. Indeed, they had little idea what they were doing, a seat-of-the-pants organization that subscribed to the Latin motto, 'Do-is now, plan-is later." The police hassled them, even threatened arrest. It seemed the whole world's mind was on the upcoming holidays and getting Christmas shopping done, perhaps making travel arrangements-certainly not on a tiny group of credit union members pleading with them about something called a "conversion."

And still they managed to talk more than 3,000 perfect strangers into signing their petition demanding that a special meeting of members be held to turn back plans to turn Columbia Credit Union into a mutual savings bank.

In the process the little-group-that-thought-they-could has forced regulators and credit unions across the country to rethink lots of questions related to how conversions are conducted, what is proper disclosure, who stands to profit in the short term and lose in the long term, and about the whole abstract question of where does the value lie in a mutually owned, financial cooperative?

Whether they succeed or not, this group of Columbia Credit Union members fighting to stop the board and management from converting it into a bank deserve a lot of credit for what they managed to accomplish in a very short time. It's hard enough to get people to buy Girl Scout cookies even when they can see the tangible, tasty reward right there in front of them; imagine standing alone outside a branch of a credit union and having to explain to eye-contact-avoiding member after I'm-really-in-a-hurry member why they ought to care enough to put their names on your petition, especially when most never bothered to vote on the conversion attempt in the first place, and when they do think about their credit union it's over whether they have sufficient shares on hand to cover the drafts they're writing.

Certainly none of those members have any idea there's a connection between their checkbook and the group struggling to keep the Credit Union in Columbia's name. Yet 30 years ago consultant Tony Ward-Smith, then working for CUNA when the industry was in a dogfight to get approval to offer checking accounts, came to Washington State to visit Columbia Credit Union, which was participating in the share draft beta. He joined the credit union, and struck up a friendship with its CEO, Steve Straub. Twenty-seven years and new careers later, the two have been joined again by a shared passion that what is happening at Columbia Credit Union isn't right. And so they met with less than a half-dozen others in a scenario tougher than any fourth-and-20 with three seconds on the clock and trailing by four situations faced by the innumerable bowl games that were on TV at the time.

"I was surprised they did it," said Ward-Smith from his office in Seattle. "It was a daunting task. Just to get (the 2,000 names required) we knew we'd have to get at least 3,000. We could see even at that point that there wasn't much time. We didn't know if we were even allowed to stand in front of the credit union. We didn't know if it was a futile effort, but then what option did we have?"

Ward-Smith, who put together the website at www.saveccu.com, is the first to credit others for gathering the petitions in "the worst weather they've had in 15 years," especially activist Lloyd Marbet, who organized the group that calls itself Save Columbia Credit Union. But he did make the drive three hours south to a hastily arranged meeting of the handful of folks who wanted to fight the conversion-including splitting the thousand bucks it cost to run a week's worth of small newspaper ads that sought to raise awareness.

"We got enough people out of those thrown-together meetings to go to the branches and collect signatures on the petitions," explained Ward-Smith. "Nobody knew the rules or what they were even allowed to do, but they did it." Columbia Credit Union initially called the police, who responded, but then backed off on that threat. "I figured that with 11 branches, even if you got two people per branch for perhaps three or four hours and they gathered 30 signatures per hour, that it would still take a couple of weeks. I thought it was doable, just not very probable. But the opposite thing happened. In the first week and a half they had half the signatures. And then the damn thing is, they did it."

And yet all their passion and effort and standing in the cold rain could be for naught if NCUA, which is investigating how the narrow vote in favor of the conversion was conducted, upholds the vote.

"I honestly believe this is going to go in favor of the group trying to stop the conversion," opined Ward-Smith, who believes that regardless there is a larger issue at hand. "The broader question is the failure of leadership in not asking what credit unions are in today's marketplace. What is frosting me is that nobody is coming forward and saying this should not happen."

Frank J. Diekmann is editor of The Credit Union Journal. He can be reached at fdiekmann cujournal.com.

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