It’s becoming harder and harder to find the original credit union stories. So many CUs have eliminated them from the “About Us” section of their website. But I remember the story of Portland Teachers CU. In 1932, sixteen school teachers pooled six dollars each to create PTCU (today called OnPoint). In 79 years PTCU has grown to serve 244,000 members with assets of just over $3 billion. Not bad.

Now let me be on point. We all started with about the same amount of money. I don’t know if there was a credit union that started out with $50 million dollars or anywhere near that. These were all tiny upstarts. Yesterday The Financial Brand posted an interesting article about the future of the industry – 20 years out. Like so many, the prediction is mass consolidation and the end to the small credit union.

Today I was a guest, along with Sarah Snell Cooke, on The Power of Performance radio show with Jason Dias of Eloquent Online.

The show was meant to debate a hot topic that appeared in the CU Times last week. GTE Federal Credit Union changed their name to GTE Financial. Although I applaud the fact they did not kick their sponsor name to the curb (like Portland Teachers did) – to drop the credit union moniker was a point of contention with me.

During the discussion the largest credit union in the world was mentioned. Navy Federal Credit Union. Their “About Us” page says they were founded in 1933 with seven members and today serve over 3 million members with assets of almost $50 billion – with a “B”. That makes OnPoint look small. They no longer serve only the Navy. The serve all branches of the military and yet they remain true to their founders in both the brand “Navy” and the category “credit union.” Sarah said they grew because they had tremendous resources and that most small credit unions don’t have those.

Here’s where I get confused. The 1930’s was the boom age of credit unions. The majority of credit unions still standing were founded well over 60 years ago. And if they all started with a group of wide-eyed optimists plunking down six bucks each – how is it they all aren’t huge?

To be fair – Navy has a great field of membership because every year there are new recruits. A fresh batch. Many credit unions that were founded by say, the railroad workers, didn’t have it so lucky. But in the 80’s we were allowed to expand to family members and retirees. That’s how credit unions like Boeing boomed.

And after HR 1151 passed in 1998 – credit unions were allowed to have multiple common bonds. Anyone who lives, works or worships became the phrase that pays. But did it? Credit unions began to change their names in an effort to show the world that anyone could join. And when all of the good ones were taken we shifted to synthesized or pharmaceutical names. “Ask you doctor if Aventa is right for you.”

My dear friend Gene Blishen posted a brilliant blog yesterday in response to all this madness. He cited the Financial Brand article and the “shrinkage” of credit unions in America. Here’s a quote:

“I believe the key component to losing credit unions is their own belief that they are no longer relevant to their membership based on criteria that they inherited from outside sources. They begin to drink the wrong coloured Kool-Aid.” He goes on to say “By following the Pied Piper of ‘bigger is better’ they forget the culture they have and the history they have come from. To put it bluntly, they just give up…”

I would hate to tell one of the 16 teachers in Portland that put up what was a ton of money in 1932 that their vision was in vain. It’s too hard for a small credit union to stay in business in 2012. What with all the regulation, and technology, and competition.

Because it was so easy in 1932 – right?

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