Arizona credit unions are reaching out to professional colleagues in the former British colony of Antigua, offering instruction, training and guidance to help credit unions on the tiny Caribbean island expand and modernize.
Working through the World Council of Credit Unions (WOCCU), the Arizona Credit Union League & Affiliates has established a partnership with the Credit Union League of Antigua. The term partnership indicates joint interests and benefits, and that’s the nexus of what the industry calls its financial cooperative concept.
Credit union experts from Arizona have traveled to Antigua, which is in the eastern Caribbean north of the equator, to share ideas and strategies for improving services to their members and becoming more sophisticated in the making of loans.
Antigua has an estimated population of 85,000 and was granted its independence in 1981. The largest of the English-speaking Leeward Islands, Antigua is about 14 miles long and 11 miles wide. The island has a handful of credit unions, the largest of which has assets of approximately $24 million, compared to one of Arizona’s largest, the Arizona State Credit Union, with assets of $1.1 billion.
Scott Earl, president and CEO of the ACULA, says the partnership was formed last year to enable Antigua credit unions to see what drives the industry in the United States.
“Typically, partnerships are established with developing countries,” Earl says. “It goes both ways. We send folks to Antigua who did some training there, and they have come up here. We learn from them as well, focusing on the roots of providing services to our members. The exchange helps rejuvenate our industry as well.”
Robin Romano, certified chief executive and CEO of MariSol Federal Credit Union, recalls a trip to Antigua last year. The focus was on bringing Antigua’s credit unions up to today’s standards.
“No matter what country you are in, credit unions pretty much operate in the same basics,” Romano says. “Members are members, and uniformity is comforting. Since Antigua got its independence, credit unions have been trying to improve their regulations and become a little more modern. When I say modern, I don’t mean technology. Most of them are computerized. But, they operate similarly to the way credit unions here did 30 years ago.”
What has changed in the past 30 years? Antigua credit unions were only offering signature or auto loans and savings accounts.
“Many had not ventured into checking accounts, certificates of deposit or money markets,” Romano says. “Few were doing any form of real estate lending.”
Because Antigua has no credit reporting system, much of the training dealt with how to determine the credit-worthiness of potential borrowers.
“We talked about different methodologies,” Romano says. “It’s a small island. You can call around for shared information. We talked about the evaluation of credit to make better decisions. In modern times, more people default. They were having issues with defaults and weren’t quite sure how to handle that. I have expertise in lending and I went to six credit unions, making presentations to staff and board members on how to do things better. We also talked about different collection methods. Collectors there have the same issues we have here. We were able to relate to one another.”
The trip did provide sort of a return on investment for the Arizonans.
“Going back to smaller institutions was a way of refreshing yourself on one-to-one operations,” Romano says. “Somebody comes in and they know that person’s entire life history. That intimate relationship was very rewarding.”
Mary Lee Blommel, a member services consultant for the ACULA for 27 plus years, went to Antigua last year with representatives of three Arizona credit unions. One of the Arizonans visited five Antigua credit unions, conducting sessions onloan underwriting and emphasizing the importance of doing a check with creditors. Another visitor focused on how best to provide services to members.
In addition to the face-to-face exchanges, the league arranges conference calls and Webinars to keep the lines of communication open with Antigua credit unions. Topics have included risk management and asset liability management — making sure they have adequate funds to lend.
“We did a one-hour Webinar on risk management — investment risk, loan risk, and credit union risk in these trying times,” Blommel says. “It went very well. They had the opportunity to ask questions. I could count at least 20 people in that room.”