Tuesday, December 4, 2012

What Happens at the Credit Union, Stays at the Credit Union

It’s been awhile since I last posted on this blog of mine and I can’t say it’s because I have nothing to discuss. For several months now, I’ve been expressing my thoughts and comments through my regularly featured column on CUinsight. The Credit Union Times, too, has been running my op-eds, yet even with both of those superb media channels, I am still finding a need to express my insights and ideas on a more routine basis, particularly when I come across thought-provoking material through my work and travels, including all that I see occurring throughout the credit union system. Laskos On Credit Unions gives me that opportunity and I hope to take more advantage of it in the months to come.

I was at the San Diego Airport last week waiting to board a flight to Albuquerque where I would produce Operation Best Wishes at Kirtland Federal Credit Union for military families associated with the adjacent Air Force base. What caught my eye in the terminal was something I’m sure you have seen somewhere during the course of your travels as well.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Coopetition: The Cancer Within?

He is among the most successful producer-directors in Hollywood, best known for his comedy films Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and Bruce Almighty, to name a few. Yet, unlike so many of his colleagues whose fame and fortune has built them a mansion in Malibu, Brentwood or the Hollywood Hills, Tom Shadyac has chosen to make his domicile a mobile trailer park.

His decision to forsake a lifestyle that he once shared with a very few privileged elite occurred after a bike accident left him with post-concussion syndrome. The excruciating experience, one that took him to death’s doorstep and a face-to-face encounter with his own mortality, prompted him to make some radical life-altering choices.

Five months after the accident, Shadyac was back at work, however this time he was not directing a comedy film but rather a documentary titled, “I Am.” In it he addresses two burning questions: What’s wrong with our world and what can we do about it?

I recently watched this award-winning production and among the many messages it conveys I found one in particular to be most thought provoking. Shadyac continually points to society and our culture as being one that is profoundly tied to competition. From an early age we are taught to compete, whether it is in school, on the athletic field or later in life at our job and in our career. He suggests that the focus on competition is all wrong and posits an alternative course for happiness and success, one that forms the basis for all nature. He asks us to consider, cooperation.

Isn’t that very interesting, I thought. Here we are—credit unions and food, housing and power-generating co-ops all espousing cooperation as the foundation of our business model, and here is Tom Shadyac, a multi-millionaire who simplified his lifestyle and gave hundreds of thousands to charities now proclaiming through his documentary that the key to life is found in cooperation. Can it be that we as co-ops are sitting on a fundamental truth that is much more profound than the business model on which it is built?

I once heard a venerable cooperator explain what makes us different from others outside of the cooperative sector. He simply said, “It’s the way we do things.” Indeed, cooperation is what makes us tick. It’s in our blood and in our DNA. It explains the way we do things.

Yet, I’ve heard it jokingly said more than once, that coopetition (competition among co-ops) is the way we do things, a style of business that’s healthy for our sectors and our members. Is it, really? Last I looked, all that coopetition spawned was a tidal wave of competition among corporate credit unions, pitting one against the other, each vying to offer the most yield for a member’s investments. Like a cancer from within, I don’t have to tell you what that coopetition produced.

Maybe Shadyac is right. Perhaps life’s focus should be on cooperation, not competition and certainly not coopetition. And if so, what does that say about us and our cooperative enterprises? If he’s right, then there’s a lot more to our cooperatives than meets the eye.

You can find more information about Tom Shadyac and his documentary, “I Am.”

Coopetition: The Cancer Within was originally published in February 2012 on CUinsight.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Credit Union PR: Why Confine It To The Back Seat?

As the month of May fast approaches, we'll soon find the college graduation season upon us and the awarding of degrees—Bachelors, Masters, Doctorates, and let’s not forget honorary degrees. So it won’t be any surprise when we hear and read about such folks as the POTUS or Warren Buffet or Captain Sullenberger receiving an honorary degree. That’s part of the annual May ritual. But, did you ever stop to consider why these and other dignitaries and celebrities are being recognized in this way? Are we to believe that the degrees were bestowed in a vacuum, devoid of any strategy as to how the recipients will influence and benefit the institution? Of course not!

A lot of factors go into the nomination process for honorary degree recipients, from how they would attract publicity and foster alumni donor support, to how they reflect the values of the institution and can help open the door to new opportunities. Sometimes the rationale can be as simple as forming a relationship that will eventually develop over time to see the recipient becoming a major benefactor of the institution.

OK, so you’re wondering what does this have to do with credit unions. What is it about honorary degrees that can apply to credit unions and their business strategies? Here’s how I see it.

When we speak of an image or branding campaign that promotes the credit union difference, I can easily see the honorary degree model serving as a highly valuable template for credit unions to emulate.

However, before that can successfully occur, there are a few things we ought to assess. I’m talking about our understanding of image campaigns and from what I’ve seen just last week at the ball park, I have to wonder what’s going on. Have some of the folks responsible for image campaigns just become all too complacent in their understanding of branding initiatives, or are they unable to devote the proper amount of time to such initiatives given the workloads they carry? Not only does this pose a problem but the campaigns I saw were just downright bland in their creativity. I mean no disrespect, but that’s the impression these campaigns had on me.

Then again, maybe there’s a lot more going on that’s contributing to what I was experiencing. For instance, why is it that when we talk image and branding, a majority of credit union folks feel the compulsion to immediately think about taglines and logos, and possibly the interior decoration of branches as the only way a credit union brand is expressed? It frustrates me to see this confining attitude and misunderstanding of what “brand” actually is. It’s as if minds have become frozen, locked in a marketing-centric paralysis that only sees the importance of catering to sales and advertising.

I’m sure there are many who would disagree with my assessment, but let me be clear, my point is this: marketers must have their eyes focused on selling the credit union’s products and services as their primary responsibility. Community outreach and branding (creating a distinct experience of the credit union through all its touch points) is for them, secondary to sales and delivering the numbers. Yet isn’t community outreach, branding and the credit union’s reputation in the marketplace equally as important as sales, particularly in a cooperative business model? Are we not about “people;” people helping people?

This is why I advocate that credit unions employ a public relations officer in addition to the marketing officer, because community outreach and branding can too easily become lost in a mix of product ads, sales strategies and MCIF (Marketing Customer Information File) mining. Public relations delivers its own unique value to the overall sales strategy of a co-op, and it should not be overlooked or underestimated.

A fully-engaged PR effort is too important to load on the back of the marketing officer where it does not get the kind of attention it rightly deserves. In my opinion, by not acknowledging a PR/marketing distinction and relegating it to the back seat by lumping it on the long list of responsibilities reserved only for the marketing officer, we are all overlooking a critical deficiency in the way we manage credit union image and reputation in the marketplace, and by doing so, we continue to feed impediments to our own success!

While it’s true that my opinion vis-à-vis public relations and marketing reflects a debate that’s been going on for decades among all PR and marketing professionals, it’s also true that credit unions can benefit by thinking a little differently about the role of public relations at their shops, how they manage their image campaigns and of course, how the honorary degree model might be used to foster brand awareness.

I see three takeaways.

1) By instituting an award campaign that publicly recognizes individuals in the community for the way they exemplify credit union values, your shop can bring a whole new dimension to its reputation and image in the community. This might be a new imaging idea to many, but I believe it’s certainly an effort worth discussing.

2) Consider refining the award programs currently being conducted throughout the credit union community to go beyond recognizing one of our own. Once again, let me be very clear; there's nothing wrong with recognizing our own and the practice needs to continue. The occasional pat on the back is good, but it seems that the stories of the heroic people we celebrate never get conveyed beyond the credit union walls. They only internally energize the credit union community.

What I do recommend is that current programs also recognize others outside the credit union community with whom we should consider forming special relationships, much like the way colleges select honorary degree recipients. Imagine how the Wegner Awards might look if they also recognized, let’s say, someone like Vice President Biden for his legislation with Claiborne Pell that eventually provided funding to launch Credit Union Development Education—which is now an international program—or someone who cherishes the principle of cooperation over competition, like Hollywood producer Tom Shadyac has demonstrated in his current documentary film, “I Am.”

3) Let’s re-evaluate our understanding of public relations and the strategies that flow from it. They are not intended to sell products and services. PR is not slick marketing or advertising but a tool for building relationships through brand awareness and positive publicity. In doing what it does best, PR helps to cultivate the sales process by serving as a catalyst for marketing and advertising to then engage customers in the business of the organization. While PR and marketing may exist as separate disciplines, let there be no doubt that they are aligned as partners for the same goal—the success of the organization.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012


Ever have an experience that found you tethered to home while all your buds or peeps were off on a school trip or a semester-break vacation? Did you find that all your thoughts were focused on them; what they were doing and the kinds of activities they were experiencing? That’s how I felt last week during the 2012 GAC.

Due to circumstances beyond my control, I couldn’t make it to DC this year for the GAC. Since I’ve attended the event a number of times in past years, I’m quite familiar with each day’s agenda, from the annual CUDE gathering at Michael Ray’s home the Saturday before the conference kicks off to the Embassy Reception, Wegner Dinner, Trailblazer Awards, and Hill visits, to name a few. Well, as you might guess, last week, all my thoughts were on my colleagues and friends in Washington, and everything I was missing!

As I followed the tweets, slide shows and the day-to-day reporting in the Journal, Times, News Now, and on CUinsight, I began to think about the way we use social media including the traditional news communication channels that served us for generations. Something was missing!

You know what I’m talking about. We could look at family photos and read letters from relatives all day long but nothing beats those old 8mm movies and VHS videos of family gatherings. We’re a people who have been conditioned to turn to TV as our primary source of information when major events are breaking. Let’s face it, we are conditioned to get information LIVE—as it is happening, not the next day from a newspaper or after the event has concluded. So you could imagine how I felt last week, keeping up with the numerous streams of communication that still left me feeling worlds apart from all the action.

So, what can be done about it?

I’m keeping my fingers crossed that someone will read this blog post and take it back to the committee for action, or forward it on to people who can. The pizzazz of Twitter is fading. Slide shows are good but they present the info after the fact and without names. While columns in the trades offer an accurate summary, they are word-based and lack the energy that comes with seeing and listening to an event as it unfolds.

In an era that finds both audio and video ruling the Internet, I found no one tapping that medium in a LIVE format. The only one I saw who came the closest to doing so was my friend, Mike Bridges at the League of Southeast Credit Unions. Take a look at the great job he did for his members. (LSCU Web-TV).

Mike shot, hosted and produced his video reports, and then posted them to the league’s website for access on the following day. Randy Smith shared them as well with his audiences via CUinsight.

However, as good as this effort is, it still falls short of seeing a daily LIVE roundup of all the activities those of us at home had to miss. With people like Mike Bridges and the many credit union techies already producing a wide assortment of LIVE webcast presentations for their members, we wouldn’t have to look far for experts skilled in producing this new “Credit Union Web-TV” service.

If what goes on at the GAC is vital to our movement and important enough to merit the attention and participation of all credit union aficionados, then the time has come for CUNA or someone else in the communications arena to give serious consideration to offering LIVE Web-TV coverage of such activities.

After all, why should the credit union system view itself any differently than the many others who are tapping video to further expand their audiences? The annual E-3 (Electronic Entertainment Expo) offers LIVE Web-TV coverage of its conference (E-3 Web-TV). The same is true for the investment services company, Morningstar. It offered LIVE interviews with panelists participating in its 2011 ETF Invest Conference (Morningstar Web-TV). And let’s not forget the Big East Conference. They, too, offer LIVE Web-TV coverage, albeit more of the sporting variety.

And, here’s yet another; pushing the envelope directly to the mobility of my Blackberry. On Tuesday night of last week, I received a tweet with a link to LIVE video coverage as it was unfolding of Mitt Romney claiming victory in the Illinois Primary. All I had to do is click the link on my Blackberry and I would have been connected LIVE to Romney and his message, even though I was miles from my home in Temecula.

As you can see, what I’m proposing is nothing new. It does not have to cost an arm and a leg to produce. Charge a subscription fee if need be, to help offset production costs. Include commercials to attract sponsor support. As for attendance levels, I don’t see it diminishing attendance because the best form of networking will always be person to person. In fact, I’d be willing to bet it would help increase attendance by showing everyone what they’re missing.

Most important, LIVE Web-TV coverage would inject new energy into the credit union community, heightening conference agendas and enhancing the way our cooperative system educates and motivates its followers. It would give everyone the opportunity to participate and become engaged in the agenda.

I see it as a primary communications channel we can no longer ignore.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012


I recently read an article in CUNA News Now reporting on the national coverage credit unions are receiving as major financial institutions continue to raise fees and add others for their services. The article illustrated how credit union membership is expanding as a result of consumer disillusionment with their banking institutions, noting, “Credit unions added 1.3 million new memberships in 2011, bringing total membership to a record 91.8 million by the end of 2011.”

Certainly, the silver platter continues to be presented to credit unions and I’m willing to bet that most shops are adding these new members to their rosters simply sitting down and doing nothing extra about it. Sounds like an easy come, easy go scenario to me.

On the other hand, there are shops actively engaged in exploring new ways to capitalize on the newfound popularity they are attracting among American consumers, looking for every possible way to entrench the new members in their products, services and culture so they’ll remain active users of the credit union for many years to come.

In support of that effort, I propose credit unions consider an initiative far different from what they may have ever done before, well, at least to my best knowledge. As I see it, credit unions could slam dunk the ball right now in building their brand reputation and member loyalty if they were to seize the financial stage by launching a national campaign which I am calling, America’s Credit Unions: Our Pledge to You.

I propose that we as a movement deliver a pledge that clearly and concisely states what a consumer can count on experiencing from any of America’s 7,500-plus credit unions.

Whether it’s called a pledge, a guarantee, a creed, or a promise, such a commitment from credit unions would certainly drive home the difference between their cooperative business model and the shareholder model governing the banking community. It’s a great way of being proactive; underscoring the distinct value consumers will receive in return for placing their hard-earned money into a credit union’s hands.

Offering a pledge at this moment in time also demonstrates that credit unions are just not sitting back as consumers move their money from the banks, but are seriously paying attention to what consumers are expressing by their actions—a burgeoning dissatisfaction with the way they continue to be treated by the banking community. It’s a frustration fueling not only their lack of trust with the bankers but the Move Your Money initiative as well.

I believe the time is ripe for credit unions to draw a line in the sand and boldly communicate their set of beliefs and principles to the American public. It would launch a move that could elevate the banking relationship in this country to a whole new level, one that a shareholder model could never approximate.

So, what would such a pledge look like?

Starbucks says,
“If your coffee isn’t perfect, we’ll make it over. If it’s still not perfect, make sure you’re in a Starbucks.”

The Malcolm Baldrige Quality Award-winning Ritz-Carlton Hotel expresses its pledge as:
“The Ritz-Carlton Hotel is a place where the genuine care and comfort of our guests is our highest mission. We pledge to provide the finest personal service and facilities for our guests who will always enjoy a warm, relaxed yet refined ambience. The Ritz-Carlton experience enlivens the senses, instills well-being and fulfills even the unexpressed wishes and needs of our guests.”

Others like Hawaiian Air, Jiffy Lube and even the Long Island Railroad have distinguished their reputations for service through a customer pledge and are reaping the benefits because of it.

For America’s credit unions, the pledge must imbue the cooperative philosophy and principles that distinguish its business model in the financial services marketplace. The pledge should include statements on treating members like owners with personalized service, respect and courtesy, and providing them with the best possible yield and lowest fees. It might also include a commitment to social responsibility, member education and the local community.

Drafting such a pledge would need to be a collective and collaborative effort. To be successful, the pledge must resonate will all credit union executives and be something all of us would be proud to see included in advertisements and communications, as well as after our names in every e-mail we’d send out. I can see the many talented folks at the Filene Institute leading the charge in drafting the initial version for us all.

Of course, once drafted, the pledge would earn its legitimacy from an endorsement of credit unions throughout the country. Could you imagine having the thousands of attendees at the GAC or America’s Credit Union Conference voting on and ratifying such a pledge? What a legacy it would establish for that annual gathering!

But why stop here? A similar pledge could be drafted for any of the other cooperative business sectors in the United States, further associating the cooperative identity we all share in common with the United Nations celebration of the International Year of Cooperatives.

Take a moment with your senior staff or board members to consider the influence such an initiative could have on your credit union—your employees, your members, their loyalty, and your reputation and perception in the marketplace.

America’s Credit Unions: Our Pledge to You. Maybe it’s our turn to present the silver platter to America’s consumers?


Originally published on CUinsight

Friday, February 17, 2012


I came across these two videos today, both are on YouTube and both provide excellent information on the value that comes from the cooperative way of doing business.

The first features Howard Brodsky, NCBA board member and CEO of CCA Global Partners. Howard talks about the value of U.S. purchasing cooperatives. 

The second video features Adam Schwartz sharing his extensive knowledge about the different kinds of cooperatives that exist in the U.S.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012


I often wonder how the role of independence and autonomy, one of the seven principles of cooperation, applies to the credit union business model. I’m of the belief that any sacrificing of autonomy and independence would mean that credit unions cannot truly be “cooperatives” in the strictest sense of the definition, well, at least perhaps in the way the Rochdale cooperators envisioned. Maybe that explains the continuous struggle between credit unions and any outside agency vying to regulate its “cooperative” model.

Now, don’t get me wrong, if credit unions are to participate fully and legally in the U.S. financial services system and offer their members the protection of the federal government, then, of course, I see no other way than to expect that credit unions play by the rules of the game.

But, here’s the challenging observation I have. Should credit unions be doing more for one another—cooperatively—to protect the independent and autonomous nature of all credit unions?  

Here’s what I mean.

Given our cooperative nature, does the credit union system have to rely solely on NCUA to take prompt corrective action or conserve a failing credit union? Why should a credit union be forced to stand face-to-face with a government entity responsible for overseeing and rating its performance without first having the benefit of review by a resource that let’s just say, is less threatening; a resource that could point out compliance deficiencies and help set a corrective course of action? Is it really possible for credit unions to exercise a greater role in overseeing the performance of one another, stepping in to offer guidance, resolve problems or shore up inadequacies before it becomes necessary to have the regulator step in and place a shop into conservatorship?

I say make the regulator’s scalpel the last resort by designing innovative ways to first rely on one another for guidance in staying compliant with all those endless regulations.

Well, there may be such programs already in place. If so, are they affordable to all? Let’s hear about them. Or, can it be that working with one another to resolve performance shortcomings on a balance sheet is more dreadful and painful than having the regulator come walking through the door and us facing the consequences of their judgments and decisions? There has to be a better way.

What do you think? Share your thoughts and hopefully we’ll hear from leagues and associations as well; including some CEOs whose shops are about to go under the regulator’s magnifying glass.

The strength of credit unions is in their collective numbers. I say apply that strength to find ways to preserve any degree of independence and autonomy credit unions can muster.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012


Once again, credit unions, through no effort of their own, are finding themselves in a position of strength. We’ve seen it happen recently with the Move Your Money campaign, which as I just saw in the trades, continues to make a dramatic contribution to credit union membership levels, particularly at BECU.

This time around, credit unions are being given another great opportunity to steal the show. The United Nation’s observance of the International Year of Cooperatives is providing credit unions with an ideal opportunity to educate the masses on the fundamental difference between their cooperative business model and that of their banking counterparts who observe a shareholder-based, for-profit model.

Even more important with this observance comes the opportunity for credit unions to dramatically influence the public’s perception of who they are as financial cooperatives. I see it as an opportunity to grow and nurture the credit union brand to a level never experienced before.  

But, are credit unions willing and ready to support an effort that promotes a collective identity rather than one that focuses exclusively on their own image and business? Putting all politics and egos aside, such an effort will require all credit unions to speak with a unified voice in a common language the masses can easily understand.  

Yes, you’re correct! We’re back to the topic of a national branding campaign. Well, this time around, let’s not kid ourselves.