‘Not my thing’
Steve Fowler’s path to the credit union movement was typically atypical. Aft er college, Fowler assumed he’d pick up a sales or management position somewhere— but Uncle Sam had other plans.
After a stint on active duty with the U.S. Army Reserve, Fowler resumed his job search. It so happened that his neighbor at the time worked for the South Carolina Credit Union League, which needed an auditor.
“I accepted, thinking it would be easier to find a job when I had one,” Fowler recalls, “because accounting was not really my thing.”
That was in 1971, and he hasn’t had to polish his résumé since.
More than 40 years later, having held multiple positions at the league—including administrative assistant to the CEO, vice president of correspondent services, and executive vice president of advocacy—Fowler will retire as CEO at year’s end.
Fowler moved into that role in March 2010 on a day that proved bittersweet, as his friend and longtime South Carolina Credit Union League employee Tommy Strange passed away. Since then, there have been many challenges that Fowler, the league, and member credit unions have had to contend with—including the crushing regulatory burden and the declining number of credit unions, due in many cases to the retirement of those credit unions’ leaders.
Succession planning continues to be a crucial issue that can be a hard sell for busy CEOs, Fowler says. “Some credit unions have long-range planning on a back burner while they wrestle with daily issues and ongoing regulatory constraints.
Despite these and other challenges, the league has made substantial progress during Fowler’s time there. The South Carolina League was the movement’s first to establish its own infrastructure for share draft processing, “much to the surprise of the for-profit institutions we first approached about it,” he says.
“We also have been leaders in accounting services for credit unions, and our member-to-district matching was the precursor to CUNA’s Project Zip Code,” Fowler continues. “It has been rewarding to know that our risks and forethought panned out not only within our state, but also well beyond, because that proves we were doing the right things. Our league has proven itself a service and advocacy leader many times.”
Fowler deflects credit for these initiatives to his staff and league partners, and cites his deep faith as his main motivator. “I do not see myself as an innovator,” he says. “I simply have been fortunate to find and be surrounded by those who care enough for members, the movement, and each other that they challenge themselves and others to do great things for all involved.”
Although Fowler plans to spend more time serving his church and exploring public speaking opportunities during retirement, he won’t stray from the credit union movement. He’ll provide expertise to an advisory group of the Carolinas Credit Union Foundation and, with his wife, will continue to be active in the three credit unions they’ve joined over the years. “We are certain to be plugged in through them.”
Fowler’s parting advice to credit union colleagues: Remain true to credit union philosophy and roots.
“Never lose sight of your mission to better the lives of members and potential members in the communities you serve,” he says. “We need to remain united as a movement and to present a unified front to elected officials, our membership, and the public.”
NEXT: ‘Keep it a movement’
Bill Merrick is deputy editor of Credit Union Magazine. Follow him on Twitter via @CUMagazine.