Sometimes What Happens In Vegas Shouldn't Stay In Vegas

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If nothing else, a few weeks on the road have taught me this lesson: Las Vegas leads the nation in people wearing sunglasses at times when both the location (inside) and time (night) would not seem to require shades. And in other news...

* The Credit Union Journal has taken particular pride in taking the lead on examining a particularly relevant issue right now and for the future: the "value of cooperatives" to consumers and CU members. Does it resonate? Can that value be quantified? Or is it just a bunch of worthless kumbaya-chanting by those CU philosophy types that has no real value in the market?

That's why it's been so interesting now to see how others are trying to get their arms around this very squishy question.

During CUNA's recent America's Credit Union Conference in Las Vegas (where that "What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas" motto ought to refer to many, many people's choices in clothing combinations), Dick Ensweiler, the president of the Texas league, chaired the first meeting of CUNA's Membership Growth Task Force. (See related story, page 2).

While the group is seeking answers to nine questions it has identified, he became animated in explaining to me what he sees as the question at the center of it all.

"As credit union leaders, here we are believing in service to members and in the credit union difference," he said. "But 70% of Americans don't belong to credit unions. Why are we so passionate and they're not? Where are we missing the boat? There seems to be this huge disconnect."

He pointed out, for instance, that credit unions talk about being not-for-profit cooperatives, yet in focus groups consumers say co-op, schmo-op.

"We have to ask, 'Are we on the wrong course?'" Ensweiler clearly doesn't believe the Raiffeisen Road is a dead-end. What he wants to learn is how to transfer that passion to the hundreds of millions of Americans who don't belong to credit unions. Which brings us to...

* Michael Hales of the Rochedale Group, who asked a attendees at a session he was leading at the CUNA meeting how many were credit unions members. Most laughed and raised their hands.

He then asked how many belonged to more than one credit union; about one-third of those in attendance kept their hands up. "So let's not talk about the credit union membership numbers," he said before moving on to discussion of "emerging operational models for credit unions."

Hale's chief point: Of the country's roughly 8,300 CUs, approximately 7,400 have assets of less than $100 million (86% of total). If those CUs want to survive and not end up as 1,000 "mega-credit unions" that are doomed to lose their tax exemption, they will have to "reduce operating expenses...and collaborate to gain economies of scale." And that brings us to...

* Stan Hollen, CEO of CO-OP Financial Services, who told the CUSO's shareholders last week at an annual meeting at the Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs, Colo. that it is focused on driving down those operating costs Hales cited.

Echoing Hales, as well, Hollen believes CO-OP Financial Services' ultimate strength is that it is a credit union-owned CUSO-one that puts up a lot of money to support credit union causes.

"A lot of companies are making a lot of money from credit unions," said Hollen. "You and I need to push back and find out how do they support credit unions? How are they investing in credit unions? I hope you challenge your vendors to give something back into the credit union movement they are making a living off of." And speaking of the CO-OP meeting...

* We would be remiss not to note that the restrooms in one part of the stately old Broadmoor were identified as the "Retirement Rooms." Talk about spending a bit too much time in the john. And that brings us to another thing that can send any CEO running to the bathroom...

* In Vancouver, B.C., an ex-member has filed a lawsuit over a 10-buck fee (and that's Canadian) that was assessed more than a decade ago. The former member of Vancouver City Savings Credit Union (VanCity) is pursuing a legal suit against the credit union over a $10 fee assessed in 1996. Former-member Marcia Lynne Smith is arguing in her suit that the amount of the fee should have been $5.

The Canadian Press reported that VanCity had responded to the court that it had already settled the matter with members who had complained about the after 1997, and that Smith should have taken legal action far earlier. But British Columbia's Supreme Court has ruled that Smith can proceed with her case under certain sections of the province's Limitation Act. Smith may even pursue class action status. And that brings us to...

The end.

Frank J. Diekmann is Publisher of the Credit Union Journal and can be reached at fdiekmann

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