With banks' deep pockets and aggressive investments in technology, it's easy to lose sight of the fact that the very first financial institution to not only have a web presence but to actually transact business on the Internet was not a bank but a credit union-and it wasn't even a billion-dollar credit union, at that.
It was Stanford FCU in Palo Alto, Calif. And even today, nearly 20 years after the CU sent its first e-mail, former CEO Warren Marshall suggests that really, Stanford FCU was about the only credit union-perhaps even the only financial institution-where such a thing could happen.
"I really couldn't have done it anywhere else," Marshall told The Credit Union Journal. "Our board was made up of Stanford people, so they were already familiar with e-mail and the Internet. I didn't look to do this, it wasn't my notion to do this, they pushed us to do this."
Marshall, who today is VP-North American marketing with Southland, Mich.- based CGI shared his perspective on being part of the Internet's history as part of The Credit Union Journal's series marking the 10th anniversary of the the first graphical web browser, Mosaic, which made it possible for the general public to access the Internet.
Right Place, Right Time, Right FOM
Stanford Federal's pioneering efforts on the nascent public Internet had much to do with its field of membership and location near Silicon Valley. Until Mosaic came along in 1993, the Internet was reserved for academia and the military, with content mostly limited to scholarly and highly technical data. A number of universities were tapping into it, with students and teachers alike swapping e-mail and posting information and queries for information on simple bulletin board sites.
Stanford University, SFCU's primary sponsor, had an even greater "in" to the Internet, and the credit union, without even realizing what it would eventually mean for the financial industry as a whole, was in the enviable position of having a direct link to the World Wide Web.
"Our computers literally had a direct line to the university's network, and the university was the West Coast node of the Internet, and there we were," recalled Marshall. "Even as far back as 1969, Stanford University was a pioneer. There were three universities that tied their networks together as a precursor to the Internet, and Stanford was one of them. When I got to the credit union in 1985, it was already doing a lot of stuff. The university wanted us to start using e-mail, so we did."
By 1987, the credit union installed lines to have e-mail accounts that members could send messages to in order to transact credit union businesses. Those first credit union e-mail accounts were loans@sffcu, deposits@sffcu.
"We had quite a bit of traffic with many, many e-mails every day," Marshall related.
In 1993, the same year that Mosaic began bringing the world to the wide web, the university asked the credit union to get off the Stanford University Network and transfer over to the Cello browser. What initially seemed a painful and time consuming procedure actually became a boon for SFCU, as all the credit union's data no longer had to be entered each day and hard coded. The credit union also got a hand from someone who wasn't applauding.
Marshall recalled that one day he received an e-mail from an engineer with the university. "He said, 'Look, what you've got is really kind of ugly and unwieldy. I've put something together that I think you'll like, why don't take a look at it,'" Marshall said.
When Marshall went to the URL the member had provided, he found what looked like a browser-based site that asked for the visitor's name and account number. When Marshall typed in his own name and account number, he was more than a little surprised when his account information popped up on the screen like magic.
The First Credit Union Webmaster
"So, of course we hired him," Marshall laughed. And the first credit union webmaster was born. "It was all ascii-based, and it wasn't real secure, but we didn't know the difference o one knew the difference," he said. "But we even had a loan application on the site. We were really doing this."
That's about the time the credit union realized it had something to offer to the CU movement as a whole.
"We put a lot of development dollars into doing this programming, and the board said, 'Let's leverage this and give it to other credit unions,'" Marshall said.
Stanford Federal had already worked with a couple of credit unions, including Boeing Employees CU in Seattle, to get them on the Internet, but now it was time to try to get many credit unions onto the web.
The result was Cardinal Services Corp. The CUSO has helped countless credit unions create an Internet presence. CUNA Mutual Group further helped the CUSO with a successful launch by buying some 100 licenses and then reselling them.
Like the credit union that spawned it, Cardinal Services would make history, becoming the first CUSO to be sold to a public company.
The Right Conditions
"I couldn't have done it anywhere else," Marshall said of his role in making Internet history. "I didn't look to do this. It wasn't my notion to do this. During those days, I was make 18 speeches a year, talking to my colleagues, trying to tell university credit unions to get e-mail, and some of them just didn't get it. They would say things like 'We're here in Wyoming, and we don't need it.' But we had an opportunity to take over what the banks should have been doing and are doing now."
And today? "I think today most people really do understand that this is important, but I know we still have some credit unions out there who don't think they have to provide services over the Internet," Marshall sighed. "What they don't understand is that by standing firm on that, all they're doing is making themselves irrelevant. The people whom you really want as members are the ones who are using this stuff. You've got to do it."