Story Time: From Credit Union Member To Credit Union Director

I've been in business for 21 years. My last "real job" was actually in high school. Needless to say, I've been very fortunate to work for myself and build a business that I am proud of. 

Photo b y  purplebeats

Photo bpurplebeats

Over the years, I've been very focussed on shaping and reshaping my business. In fact, I can count five subtle changes in direction along the way. Fresh out of art school, I started out as an independent graphic designer creating brand identity packages for small local companies within a 75-mile radius. That was version 1.0. Versions 2.0 through 4.0 were a series of additions and subtractions that led to marketing for credit unions. Version 5.0 is the marketing firm you see now – Currency Marketing is dedicated to helping credit unions attract and retain new young adult members and we serve credit union clients all over North America. It's been an exhilarating and rewarding journey.

Somewhere between version 4.0 and 5.0, I hit my first rough patch. For the first 18 years in business, I had never had to worry about expenses exceeding revenue or meeting payroll, but all of sudden late 2008 hit and the bottom fell out of our new target market: U.S. credit unions focussed on the next generation of members. You see, with uncertainty surrounding the impending NCUA assessments, very few credit unions were in a position to commit to a major initiative like Young & Free. We had tremendous interest but I knew I would have to wait out most of 2009 before the new direction would really take off.

To be proactive, I met with my business services account manager at my local credit union branch. I presented my evolving business plan, my forecasts and signed contracts for current and future programs. The intention of this meeting was to be open and honest about what was coming up and to assure my rep that the next year may not look great, but the long-term future was looking very positive.

I received a letter shortly after this meeting letting me know that my line of credit was being pulled and I had 60 days to pay it off. I was stunned.

At the time, I felt like I had a great full-service relationship with my credit union. I had all of my business there including my personal accounts, my investments and my mortgage as well as my business relationship with a generous line of credit that I was barely using at the time but knew I would need to rely on for the coming year.

I had moved all of my business from a national bank to this credit union seven years earlier and I had always been treated like a valued member. I had become an avid supporter and believer in the credit union philosophy of people helping people. I had focussed my business to only work with credit unions. I thought by being honest and presenting a compelling business case that I would be able to work with my credit union to weather the coming year. I spoke with my account manager on the phone to discuss options but the decision was final. I had plenty of equity in my house that I was willing to use as collateral, but nope "head office" said that was that.

The irony was not lost on me. I had moved from the national bank to a local credit union because I wanted to shop local and establish a mutually beneficial relationship. When I received that cold, emotionless letter, the credit union advantages that I had grown to trust evaporated.

After catching my breath, I decided to turn to a man that I have always had the deepest respect for: Gene Blishen, the general manager of Mount Lehman Credit Union. I wasn't looking for a hand out, just advice on my options.

Not only did Gene listen to my story, he and his team believed in my vision and took the time to put together a fantastic financing plan to see me through. Within a month, I moved everything to Mount Lehman and never looked back. The branch is a 40-minute drive away, but that doesn't matter. This little, one-branch credit union (1/50th the size of my previous credit union) has better technology than almost any credit union in Canada and, with the shared ATM network, I have easy access to cash when I need it. The Mount Lehman staff are tremendous and have gone out of their way to help my family and my business. My momentary lapse in the belief that credit unions were different was immediately rejuvenated. 

Thankfully, 2010 and 2011 have gone exactly as planned and we are now in a great place with 10 active Young & Free regions that include 91 participating credit unions. All we needed was a little help from a great credit union to see us through the transition to our new business model.

After being a proud member of Mount Lehman Credit Union for a little over two years I inquired about serving on the board of directors. The timing was right since there was a vacancy that the board was looking to fill. I cobbled together a resume (thank you LinkedIn), met with the board, went through a criminal records check and I am now proud to say that I am a director of Mount Lehman Credit Union.

My interests in serving in this volunteer position are threefold: This credit union helped me when I needed help, so I want to return the favor; as a consultant to the credit union industry, I feel like I will learn a tremendous amount about the inner workings of a credit union through this role; and, most importantly, I want my credit union to survive and thrive.

When credit unions stop looking at the human side of a relationship and just rely on numbers, they stop being credit unions and simply become little banks ruled entirely by unwavering policies. In hindsight, I am grateful that my previous credit union gave me the boot – I've learned a lot about myself and my belief in the credit union movement through this process.


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