SAN DIEGO - As the National Association of Federal Credit Unions convenes its 28th annual convention here this week, Ken Robinson is sitting pretty.

The trade group's president has convinced admiring regulators and members that he wears a white hat. What's more, the group's chief rival, the Credit Union National Association, is being viewed as the bad guy.

"Ken is freer to take positions that reflect credit union interests," said the industry's chief regulator, Norman D'Amours, chairman of the National Credit Union Administration. "CUNA doesn't represent credit unions. CUNA represents leagues dominated by professional league managers who have their own political agendas."

Ron Snellings, president of Pentagon Federal Credit Union, said Mr. Robinson's group appears not to make "to make the mistakes that our bigger association seems to make."

Karl Hoyle, the regulatory agency's executive director, has worked at both associations; he said the one thing CUNA has over its rival is size. But he added that a plan by Mr. Robinson's group to open its membership to state-chartered credit unions could change that.

"This initiative to allow state charters could well put CUNA on the run," Mr. Hoyle said. "The one thing NAFCU has lacked is critical mass. State charters, that's their ticket."

Mr. Robinson, who at 66 has run the association for 11 years, doesn't talk in terms of his group ever eclipsing CUNA. Besides even if its increasing clout is coming at the expense of the long-dominant CUNA, it is still a comparison between a gnat and an elephant.

However, Mr. Robinson does relish pointing out the differences between the two groups.

"I think of them as the meat ax and of us as the scalpel," he said in an interview.

Mr. Robinson said his group tries "not to pick fights with CUNA, because we think we work best when we work together." But he acknowledges that on most of the big issues "we are 180 degrees opposed to them."

For example:

*While CUNA is suing the NCUA over its regulation kicking trade group leaders off corporate credit union boards, NAFCU is cheering the change.

*CUNA supports legislation to add a state regulator to the NCUA board. NAFCU opposes it - much to the delight of the federal regulator.

*And while CUNA is hemming and hawing over endorsing a bill that would crack down on corporates and state credit unions, NAFCU is embracing the measure.

This last position is particularly interesting, considering that Mr. Robinson's association may soon accept state-chartered institutions as members.

The president is unapologetic for his group's decision to back - "100%" - legislation giving the NCUA power to limit the products state-chartered credit unions can offer and the assets they can invest in.

It is the price that must be paid to calm the people who are predicting disaster for the credit union system, he said.

"I think we have to go the extra mile, pay the extra pain in order to assure that the public will continue to have confidence in us," Mr. Robinson said.

CUNA president Ralph Swoboda said his group is just going along to get along with the regulators and Congress.

"They've avoided controversy," Mr. Swoboda said. "They've been basically followers rather than leaders. It's really fallen on us to do some of the tough work."

Mr. Swoboda added: "If they agreed with us 100% of the time, who'd need them?"

But Mr. Robinson said more and more institutions need his group.

It now represents 803 federal credit unions with $102 billion of assets and 21 million members. That's 29% more groups than in 1984, when Mr. Robinson took the helm. The association's staff has grown to 43 from 18, and Mr. Robinson has tripled the annual budget - to $6 million.

"There is no question that Congress is very impressed with 50 tons of postcards - and CUNA is very good at that," he said. "They can muster strength.

"We, on the other hand, prefer to look for the pressure points."

In addition, Mr. Robinson's group doesn't sweat out every twist and turn in Washington. For example, he is not worried that credit unions will be called on to help bankers shore up the undercapitalized thrift fund.

"We're kind of like ants at the bankers' picnic," he said. "Having us involved in the fund would be more trouble than the $3 billion is worth.

"The bankers like to have us around to beat on us," he added. They'd miss us if we were gone."

This sort of folksy talk is not what you'd expect of a man who spent 33 years with the U.S. Marine Corps. Though he wore the two stars of a major general, Mr. Robinson is anything but gruff. In fact, his calm demeanor and white hair make him appear downright grandfatherly.

Mr. Robinson chooses his words carefully. For example, when asked if he is worried about the growing number of credit unions that are competing with one another, he said: "I think competition is the face of society. And we have to deal with that face."

His connection to credit unions came early: Mr. Robinson was born in Lynn, Mass., home of the retailer Edward A. Filene, who fostered credit unions.

But it was 1970 when Mr. Robinson first volunteered. The chairman of Marine Corps Recruit Depot Federal Credit Union in San Diego asked him to serve on the board of directors.

He moved to Washington, D.C., a couple years later and joined the board of Navy Federal Credit Union.

Mr. Robinson retired from the Marines in 1983 and took the reins of NAFCU the following year.

It was a rocky time for the trade association. NAFCU Federal Corporate Credit Union had been seized by the NCUA in 1983, the first time the agency exercised its conservatorship powers.

"They went through a low point and ... would have lost any meaning whatsoever if it hadn't been for Ken Robinson," said Edgar Callahan, president of Patelco Federal Credit Union and a former NCUA chairman. "He's built a trade association that has a great reputation. I don't hear any of his members complaining."

It doesn't hurt to have influential allies, either. Mr. Snellings and Tom Hughes, president of Navy Federal Credit Union, both serve on NAFCU's board. Both Pentagon and Navy quit CUNA this year.

Roger Jepsen, who served as NCUA chairman for nine years, summed up Mr. Robinson's tenure this way, "Ken has given very professional leadership to that organization. ... Its impact has increased each and every year."

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