In the 75 years since the formation of the Arizona Credit Union League & Affiliates, the organization’s role has changed markedly as its membership soared. Actually, the first credit union law in Arizona was introduced, passed by the Legislature and signed by the governor in 1929. Thus, Arizona became the 29th state to enact a credit union bill.
Even before credit unions were officially recognized and regulated by the state, a mutual investment group known as Pyramid was launched in Tucson in 1925. Once the Arizona law was passed in 1929, Pyramid Credit Union received one of the first — some say the first — charter to formally operate as a credit union.
Five years later in November 1934, the Arizona Credit Union League, as it was then called, was formed. By 1948, there were 25 credit unions in the state with 3,000 members and almost half a million dollars in assets. Today, 56 Arizona credit unions represent about 1.6 million members, with assets in excess of $11 billion.
Initially, the league focused on organizing new credit unions throughout the state. In the early years, there were just a few state-chartered credit unions. Scott Earl, president and CEO of the Arizona Credit Union League & Affiliates, tells how the league’s efforts fostered growth.
“Field reps would arrange meetings with employer groups,” Earl says. “They’d be driving down the road looking for parking lots outside of businesses. If a lot of cars were parked there, they’d put credit union charter applications on the hoods of the cars. I don’t know how many organizations were created as a result during those years, but I’m sure many were.”
Gary Plank, who retired as president and CEO of the league in 2007, recalls being an organizer when he entered the credit union profession in Iowa in 1966.
“We felt the best way was to talk to the management of the company to see if we could generate interest in a credit union for the good of their employees,” Plank says.
The largest Iowa credit union back then had assets of about $7 million. Today, the assets of that same credit union exceed $1 billion, Plank says.
Plank says two factors triggered the phenomenal growth of credit unions: the addition of share-draft checking so direct deposits, including Social Security benefits, could be accepted; and a decision by the federal government to insure savings accounts.
Indeed, as credit unions grew, officials saw the need to offer more products and services, such as debit and credit cards, individual retirement accounts and first and second mortgages.
“The league was the incubator for a lot of these products and services, helping individual credit unions along the way,” Earl says. “An outgrowth of that cooperation is shared branching.”
Under shared branching, credit unions join networks that enable their members to transact business from virtually anywhere in the country where a joint operating logo is displayed.
“Shared branching addresses one of the competitive disadvantages credit unions had, which was a lack of convenient locations,” Earl says.
In the 1990s, the league’s role shifted dramatically, becoming more of an advocate for credit union legislation at the state and federal levels. In other words — lobbying.
“We put a great deal of resources into that today,” Earl says.
Services the league provides include consulting, governmental affairs activities, regulatory compliance, legal, human resources, education, communications, publications and public relations. The league works in cooperation with Credit Union National Association (CUNA), U.S. Central Credit Union, the World Council of Credit Unions and the CUNA Mutual Group.
Having the support of the league and national and international credit union organizations is helping Arizona credit unions cope with the current recession. Though a few mergers have taken place, Earl says they are not the result of the economic downturn.
“Almost always when a merger occurs it’s to provide better service to the members,” he says.
Yet, the economy is having an impact on credit unions. Many of its members — average Arizonans — have defaulted on loans or gone into bankruptcy. The good news, Earl says, is that credit unions have been reworking those loans to help their members get through difficult times.
“The challenge for the league,” says Earl, “is to find new efficiencies for credit unions to collaborate so they can provide better products and services to their members. We have to keep looking for ways for credit unions to work together.”
Credit unions, which are not-for-profit operations, have good capital and strong reserves, Earl says.
“We built those reserves for a rainy day,” he adds. “And for a lot of consumers, it’s pouring rain. But we will be around. We’ll be just fine and will continue to be of greater service to citizens.”