The 'Diplomat' Who Left A Changed Trade Organization At CUNA

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WASHINGTON — Beginning with Herb Wegner, who left CUNA in November 1978 and after whom the highest awards in the U.S. CU movement are named, each of the national trade association's CEOs in the modern era brought to the office unique skills and management styles that were needed for their time in history.

A charismatic leader admired by most—if not all—of his staff at Filene House in Madison, Wegner brought credit unions into the modern, electronic age. Jim Williams, a no-nonsense individual, was the CEO of a large Texas credit union and brought a business-like sensibility to the office. Ralph Swoboda, a Madison attorney and outside legal counsel for CUNA, successfully fought many of the organization's legal battles and brought a keen legal mind to the position.

But what is to be made of Dan Mica, the Herb Wegner Award winner for Individual Achievement and the only CEO of this time period who left on his own terms and was not shown the door like his predecessors? As chief of staff to Florida Rep. Paul G. Rogers for 10 years and then, beginning in 1979, a five-term congressman succeeding his former boss, Mica carried with him the easy polish of a Washington insider, who had entrée to the private places of Congress.

Watching him on stage for the first time, Georgia League CEO Michael Mercer recalled, "He was polished, making points by starting with, 'As your leader'… And the cufflinks glittered under the stage lights. So I thought this is what a DC insider looks like!"

An Individual of Substance

"All that glitters is not gold," William Shakespeare's observation in The Merchant of Venice, It is a fitting description of a few lawmakers, but not the former Democratic congressman from Florida, whose brother, John, is still a Republican representative in the House. Dan Mica proved to be an individual of substance who accomplished a great deal during his 14 years as CUNA's head, especially in the political arena.

Before his Washington years, his start in politics can be traced back to high school and college debate clubs. Born in Binghampton, N.Y., he worked in local campaigns in Miami, including one of his teacher's husband's. At Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, where he received a BA, Mica was student body president and got a chance to meet the leaders that visited the campus.

After leaving Congress, Mica began in 1989 with the American Council of Life Insurance, where he was EVP specializing in federal affairs. It was from there that Mica, a surprise hire to many because he was not a credit union insider, was hired.

Mica's first year in office was a troublesome one for both CUNA and the new CEO. For reasons too numerous to list here, CUNA Service Group and Card Services were both money-losing organizations. Mica often recalls the story of his first days on the job, when he was told, "Oh, by the way, we may not make payroll." Mica performed due diligence on CUNA with the assistance of a law firm. He was told that Card Services would be sold, but it wasn't when he assumed office.

"Cards was not sold and it almost brought us into bankruptcy," says Mica. "It took many months of 15- to 18-hour days and working with the CSG board to resolve."

Card Services was eventually sold and the situation with CSG was remedied. Mica moved the legislative and regulatory staff to Washington, which was both a symbolic and practical move for the largest trade association for credit unions. But the fiscal issues weren't the only trouble brewing. At the time Mica joined CUNA a lawsuit filed by a single banker in North Carolina against what was then known as AT&T Family FCU was on its way to becoming a Supreme Court case.

All of it was the start of a transformation that turned CUNA from bit player on the national political stage to one that is today considered influential and respected among the nation's lawmakers.

'Right Person For The Job'

Dan Mica was the right person for the job during challenging times, according to John Deese, President/CEO of the $97-million PBC Credit Union, West Palm Beach, Florida, which was Mica's home when he served in Congress. Deese was a former chairman of the Florida League and member of the board that selected Mica.

"Dan is the ultimate diplomat and consensus builder; he was the right man at the right time, he brought value to the position," says Deese. "He brought credibility and respect to CUNA when it was needed."

What was needed, CUNA would find, was someone who knew the ins-and-outs of Congress at a time when credit unions were desperately pushing the Credit Union Membership Access Act, better known as HR 1151.

"During HR 1151, he could go back to the private rooms because of his position as former congressman," Deese noted. "During the hearings on the bill, he was actually up on the platform talking to members of Congress, one on one."

Crowning Achievement

One of the crowning achievements of Dan Mica's career was his leadership in the passage of the Credit Union Membership Access Act of 1998, which passed overwhelmingly in both the House and Senate, and was signed by President Clinton. Had the bill not been signed, helping to reverse a field of membership decision from the Supreme Court that went against credit unions, the fate of many CUs and their members would have been in jeopardy.

Over those two years, credit unions went from being a minor player with little influence on Capitol Hill to making many of the Top 10 lists of most effective lobbyists.

Credit union growth has slowed substantially during the past 10 years, though, despite the passage of the Act. The promise of opening the floodgates for increased membership has remained unfulfilled. "There was a major spurt of growth from 1996 to 2000, but other events like the tech boom and bust in 2000 and the economic and financial crisis had an effect on growth," says Mica.

When asked to name the accomplishment he derives the most amount of pride from, it is "assembling a great management team that brought CUNA to a new level of effectiveness in legislative and regulatory affairs," Mica said. "In the past, CUNA did not have the awareness or influence. We had risen to the occasion to the specific challenge."

CUNA continued to face fiscal issues in the new century, and Mica oversaw layoffs in both CUNA's Madison and Wisconsin offices. After several years of red numbers, CUNA has since returned to the black. (Editor's note: the author of this piece was in an editorial and management position at CUNA at the time and was among those who was laid off.)

"Like all credit unions, CUNA suffered a reduction in revenues that was dramatic," says Mica. "Some credit unions were unable to pay dues; there were a record number of dues waivers, credit unions were financially strapped. In my 14 years, my number one-goal was not to do lay-offs. I did not accept my bonus."

"I made it a priority that lay-offs would be the last option," he says. "We tried to make it as minimal as possible. In 2010, as a result of our activities, we exceeded our budget."

The Value of Credibility

In looking ahead to the political battles of the future, what will make CUNA successful in the political environment?

 

"You need credibility; your integrity has to be intact, information has to be correct," Mica says. "You need to provide high quality data and high quality information. Today, financial writers will call on us because of the quality of our information."

Political involvement will always be a challenge, since credit unions will likely not match the dollars amassed by banks. The transformation of CUNA into a political player pivoted on funding, according to Mica. "When I took over, there was just $200,000 in our political action committee. Today there is $4 million," he says. "You need to give money to those that support you."

The Grassroots

Solid grass roots support is the second ingredient to the political action mix, especially for fighting the key battles. "We need to have more pressure on the districts and local level with CUNA acting as the field general and each league must maintain a strong presence in their state."

There has been criticism that CUNA could have done more to alert credit unions to the problems at the corporates and U.S. Central, especially since the trade association had a board seat at the latter.

"CUNA and the leagues did what they could; our board seat was more of an informational one, we didn't sit on the important committees like the finance committee; special issues go to the finance committee," says Mica. "I do think the regulator should have had a better handle on it; they had the people and the expertise. As a trade association we have an opportunity to hear about the general activities, the regulators have the technical knowledge."

Avoiding Surprises

Leadership is a nebulous skill; one can point to those who possess the skill and those who lack it, but it is more difficult to quantify. As the Herb Wegner Award for Individual Achievement honors leadership, what makes a good leader?

"It's important to have no surprises for your people," says Mica. "It's necessary to have open, direct and honest communication to credit unions and leagues. There was not a time during my tenure when everyone didn't know what was going on. During CUNA's early years, it was like information was locked in a vault in Madison."

Integrity is a word that many of those who wrote nominating letters for the Herb Wegner award used to describe the former CEO of CUNA. "Dan Mica has high integrity; he exuded his values and this was evident in the way he acted, the way he spoke and his expectations," says Yvonne Evers, owner of YME Coaching & Consulting, Madison, Wisconsin, who has worked on consulting projects with him.

This quality is perhaps reflected in Dan Mica's comments about his next venture, a consulting business located in Washington, D.C. that he has created for credit unions, boards and leagues. "I will not accept any consulting business that is contrary to credit union values. I'm a true believer in credit unions."

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