Even in' easy times, being president of an the largest credit union trade group would be a hard job.

And with legal attacks from bankers, splits within the industry over chartering and lending practices, the price tag of new regulations and the feared costs of health reform, these are challenging times for the industry.

Nobody knows this better than Ralph S. Swoboda, president of the Credit Union National Association, which is holding its annual convention Oct. 9 to Oct. 13 in Cincinnati. Working through state leagues, CUNA represents 90% of the industry.

Asking for Problems?

But to hear him tell it, it seems he wants a few problems.

"We've got a whole pile of challenges," said Mr. Swoboda, who grew up in a house with a credit union mortgage but didn't join an institution until he started working for CUNA in 1975. "There's a lot of good stuff to deal with. I'd get bored there weren't challenges."

By training a lawyer, Mr. Swoboda says the lawsuits filed by bankers over credit union customer base expansions is the most dangerous threat to the industry right now. Bankers in North Carolina, Michigan, Montana have sued the National Credit Union Administration for widening the customer bases of credit unions in their states.

In Utah, bankers have sued the state regulator and some state-chartered credit unions over the field of membership issue.

Sees ABA Role

Mr. Swoboda said he foresees more fights on the horizon. He attributes them, in part, to the encouragement of the American Bankers Association.

"A minority of smaller banks are having a hard time competing and the association sees this as a way of getting support," he said.

But concern over fields of membership isn't limited to banks. A small credit union in Nebraska, and several small institutions in Massachusetts, joined bankers to oppose the expansion of credit unions in their states during hearings before their regulators.

Small Credit Unions Complain

The smaller credit unions complained that if the larger institutions' widened customer bases would create membership overlaps and put them at a competitive disadvantage.

In Nebraska, Alliance-based Western Heritage Credit Union was allowed on Sept. 20 to serve people living or working in the state's western panhandle. The Massachusetts regulator is currently considering whether to allow G.E. Employees Credit Union, Pittsfield, Mass., to serve people who live or work in Berkshire County.

"I don't see it [the opposition] as reflecting a major split in the movement," Mr. Swoboda said. "Clearly, some small credit unions are unhappy about it [the expansion of larger credit unions]. But credit unions should focus on serving their customers well."

Another internal controversy is indirect lending, whereby credit unions work out arrangements with, say, car dealers. In exchange for the credit union customers' business, the dealer lets the credit union handle the financing.

"In concept it's certainly legitimate for credit unions to realize people want one-step financing," Mr. Swoboda said. "But there's concern with indirect lending philosophically. Some credit unions feel indirect lending can pose temptations that would cause a credit union to sacrifice the interest of members, where they wouldn't be getting the best deal they could."

"In both areas you have a significant challenge in maintaining the unity of the credit union movement," he said.

Maintaining that unity requires the ability to listen to both sides and weigh their arguments. And that's something he's good at, says Doug Duerr, president of the National Association of State Credit Union Supervisors, which represents state regulators.

Mr. Duerr has a working relationship with Mr. Swoboda that goes back to his term as CUNA's vice president of political affairs from 1979 to 1988. He, along with Kenneth Robinson. president of the National Association of Federal Credit Unions, says Mr. Swoboda has helped the different trade groups cooperate

"Ralph is a consensus builder," Duerr said.

As to be expected CUNA also differs with the regulator on issues. The most recent example of this is the regulator on Sept. 9 and is effective Jan. 1, 1995. Meeting the disclosure and other compliance requirements of the final rule is expected to cost credit unions $180 million a year.

The act also banned "rollback" accounts, which calculated interest on the lowest balance during a period, and required all credit unions to compute interest on a daily or daily average basis.

CUNA opposed the outright elimination of rollbacks because they offered high yields to customers who kept deposits in their accounts, Mr. Swoboda said.

"Disclosure wasn't the issue," he said. "It's just not clear to me whether the consumer was served."

But now that Truth-in-Savings is law in the credit union world, CUNA's mission is to help credit unions that will find complying difficult.

"There are 1,400 to 1,800 credit unions that don't use data processing to calculate interest," he said. He said some institutions may not be able to afford to hire staff or pay for computer systems in order to calculate daily interest.

"Some small credit unions are going to have to go out of business," he said. "We're making a heavy effort to make sure that that number is as small as possible and hopefully we'll be able to minimize losses."

Along with the state leagues, other trade groups and regulators, CUNA is holding seminars on how to comply with the new regulation. It also is designing educational software.

Mr. Swoboda said the split with the NCUA didn't damage their relationship. Roger Jepsen, the agency's chairman, concurs.

"We don't always agree -- we agree to disagree after in-depth discussion," he said

Weeks after Truth-in-Savings was passed, President Clinton's speech on health reform gave credit unions another cause for concern. Under the plan, credit unions may be required to pay up to 80% of the basic health care premium for all full-time employees and offer similar compensation for employees working part-time.

More than 6,200 credit unions, with nearly 19,000 full-and part-time employees offer no health insurance, a CUNA survey found. The estimated price tag of insuring workers: $38 million.

"We'll be watching how the plan develops," Mr. Swoboda said.

Besides looking at internal and external challenges to the industry, the association and its affiliates are looking at how to better themselves. The CUNA System Structure Planning Committee has recommended that the agency streamline its large governing body in order to make it more responsive and efficient. It also recommended reforms in the corporate credit union structure and service delivery.

"Every: structure needs to be changed every six to seven years," he said.

Mr. Swoboda's duties -- which include responsibilities as director of U.S. Central Credit Union. president of the Credit Union Foundation, and board member of CUNA and the CUNA Service Group -- leaves him little time for flying air-planes, one of his passions.

But in one respect, he says, his job and piloting an aircraft are comparable.

"They're both exiting," he said.

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