Cheney Takes the Reins

June 30, 2010
Bill Cheney brings broad experience to CUNA's top spot.

William “Bill” Cheney officially takes the reins as Credit Union National Association (CUNA) president/CEO on July 5. He replaces outgoing President/CEO Dan Mica at the helm of the nation’s largest credit union trade association.

Mica served in that role for 14 years and announced his plans to step down in August, 2009. Mica will be available to Cheney for counsel through the remainder of 2010.

Cheney, 49, previously was president/CEO of the California/Nevada Credit Union Leagues. Before that, he served for nine years as president/CEO of Xceed Financial Federal Credit Union in El Segundo, Calif., and for 10 years as executive vice president at Security Service Federal Credit Union in San Antonio.

Cheney was quick to acknowledge the work of his predecessor during a recent interview with Credit Union Magazine: 

CU Mag: How would you describe your vision and priorities for CUNA?

Cheney: I don’t come in with any specific preconceived notions. My vision for CUNA has to do with helping credit unions help their members. The process of defining the vision in more detail requires board involvement. The board’s primary responsibility is to establish CUNA’s vision and broader direction.

Anytime there’s change, especially when you’ve had such a great leader as Dan Mica there for 14 years, it’s an opportunity to step back and look at what we’re doing as an organization and see how we want to improve for the benefit of credit unions going forward. I look forward to working with the board and management team on those types of issues.

In terms of priorities, the top priority is to ensure a smooth transition. We can’t miss a beat, either in Washington or Madison, as we represent and serve credit unions. Credit unions are facing serious legislative, regulatory, and financial challenges. Some credit unions—especially those in the ‘sand states’ and in industrial areas—have been hit hard by this recession.

We’ve seen it firsthand in California and Nevada. In California, we’re still dealing with over 12% unemployment and over 13% in Nevada. In some pockets, it’s closer to 17%.

So, perhaps now more than ever, credit unions need a strong, responsive trade association. Our top priority is to ensure a smooth transition so CUNA can continue to represent and serve credit unions well. 

CU Mag: How would you describe your leadership style or philosophy?

Cheney: I’d say I have a participatory leadership style. I’m not a command and control kind of leader. I like to involve all the stakeholders when determining the best course of action.

Having said that, there are certainly times when tough decisions have to be made—that comes with leadership. The CUNA board and management team have demonstrated their ability to make those tough decisions. When they need to provide leadership to the credit union movement in terms of weighing alternatives and picking the appropriate course, they’ll do that. But when time and circumstances permit, I prefer a participatory style of leadership. 

CU Mag: Has there been one defining moment or experience that shaped your leadership style, or has it been a compilation of many experiences?

Cheney: I wouldn’t say there’s any oneexperience. I’ve had a lot of strong mentors and informal advisers from credit unions and trade associations. I wouldn’t want to start listing people who’ve made a difference in my life because there are many and I’m afraid I’d overlook someone. But there have been a number of people—Dan Mica included—who have been extremely helpful in my career.

I did spend six years on the board of the National Association of Federal Credit Unions (NAFCU), which tends to raise a few eyebrows every now and then. But that was valuable experience. I gained a lot of advocacy and trade association experience in that role. I had the opportunity to testify a couple of times in the House and once in the Senate. Those were valuable experiences at an important time for me and for the credit union movement.

Before going to work full time for credit unions, I worked for what was then Andersen Consulting, now Accenture. I worked in the consulting division with credit unions and with a number of other financial services firms, including USAA. So it’s a compilation of all those experiences that shapes my leadership style. 

CU Mag: There has been a lot of talk about a merger between CUNA and NAFCU. Do you think that will ever happen?

Cheney: That’s something neither trade association will be able to force or decide. It’s something credit unions will have to decide. I think that day will come, but I have no idea when it will come.

The important thing between now and then is for us to work together on issues where we agree and work behind the scenes when we have differences of opinion. That’ll be my goal. The consolidation—if and when it happens—will ultimately be driven by credit unions. 

CU Mag: What can credit unions expect from CUNA under your leadership?

Cheney: Advocacy will remain our top priority. That became clear in my discussions with the search committee and with the CUNA board when they decided to hire me. Advocacy will remain the first priority. That doesn’t mean it’s our onlypriority, but it’s our firstpriority.

In addition to advocacy, we want to maintain excellence in all the educational products and services CUNA provides to credit unions and leagues. It will be important to keep those strong.

I look forward to expanding CUNA’s educational offerings, and to do more to engage volunteers at both the league and CUNA level. As the financial services marketplace has become more complex, it is increasingly important to build staff and volunteer skills and resources to ensure the future viability of the credit union movement.

One of the perspectives I bring to the table for CUNA is over 20 years of experience working in credit unions—as a CEO for nine years and in almost every operational area. I think that perspective can be helpful and it can make a difference.

If you ask credit unions in California and Nevada, I believe they’d say that my credit union experience helped the league understand their needs, and it helped the league stay focused on meeting those needs.

I do understand, however, that running a trade association is different than running a credit union. The last four years have certainly been an education for me along those lines. But like any association, your primary focus has to be on meeting your members’ needs. I know CUNA has been successfully representing credit union interests for over 75 years. My experience just brings a slightly different perspective to the table.

As a league president and an executive board member of the American Association of Credit Union Leagues, I’ve worked closely with league presidents, league service corporations, and league staff from across the country. That brings valuable experience to the table and an understanding of how the leagues, CUNA, and CUNA Strategic Services work together arm-in-arm to help credit unions.

Without such a strong state presence, what we do in Washington would be much less meaningful and effective. Leagues can do so much to communicate with lawmakers when they’re home and coordinate Hike-the-Hill visits, not to mention representing credit unions in state legislatures and with state regulators. The leagues and CUNA really do enjoy a symbiotic relationship. 

CU Mag: Where do you think the credit union movement’s greatest potential lies?

Cheney: Outside of advocacy, I think the greatest potential lies in education. As a movement, we need to educate consumers and small businesses about the credit union difference. I’ve been saying for more than 20 years that credit unions are the best-kept secret in the financial services industry.

If consumers really understood the value that credit unions bring to the table, we’d have a much larger market share. We haven’t grown our market share appreciably during the past 20 years primarily because people just don’t understand credit unions.

Another opportunity has to do with collaboration. Most credit unions are smaller entities. That doesn’t mean they’re any less capable, it just means they’re smaller and they don’t have some of the economies of scale larger institutions have.

Perhaps CUNA and the leagues can help credit unions find ways to collaborate more effectively, both in terms of their operations and their service delivery. We’ve made some significant progress in this area with services like shared branching and ATM networks, but we have a long way to go. 

CU Mag: Given the current pace of mergers—200 to 300 credit unions a year being merged primarily into larger credit unions—what do you think the movement will look like in another 20 years?

Cheney: We’ll certainly see fewer but larger credit unions. I also believe strongly that there will be many successful small credit unions, even though “small” credit unions will be larger 20 years from now.

The small credit unions that survive and thrive will be those that know and serve their members well. There currently are a lot of strong small credit unions serving a targeted field of membership in an effective, meaningful way.

Idon’t see those credit unions going away. In fact, those credit unions will thrive. We’ll continue to lose small credit unions faster than we lose large credit unions, but there will be a point at which we’ll see the consolidation slow down, and we’ll have a strong base of very successful credit unions.

The fact that we’ll have fewer credit unions, however, doesn’t mean we’re any less successful. In 20 years, credit union membership will grow by many millions of consumers and assets will grow by many billions of dollars, and that’s a better gauge of our success.

In 20 years, we will have worked our way through capital reform and regulatory relief and will have an even stronger presence among consumers, in the nation’s capital, and in state capitals. I’d like to see the day when it becomes feasible once again to create new credit unions on a much broader scale. Part of the problem is that the chartering process is so cumbersome, and the other part of it is the capital structure. It’s difficult for a start-up credit union to raise sufficient capital to become a viable entity in a reasonable amount of time. 

CU Mag: How would you describe a healthy  relationship between CUNA and the National Credit Union Administration (NCUA)?

Cheney: I think there is a healthy relationship between CUNA and NCUA today. I’d want to preserve that. CUNA and NCUA are two different organizations with different roles, so there will always be different points of view between the two.

The relationship today is characterized by open lines of communication with respectful and professional dealings at both the staff and board levels. There are times when we’re pretty closely aligned on things and times when we’re not. As long as we’re professional, respectful, and understand each other’s points of view, both organizations can continue to be productive.

The recession and the situation with the corporates have created stress. And any time organizations are under financial stress, or other types of stress, it creates challenges. I think we’re seeing some of that now. Despite that, the lines of communication are open and the dialogue is productive. Yes, there has been some tension, but that’s to be expected when people are under stress, as everyone is in this environment. 

CU Mag: What will be your biggest adjustment when moving from California to Washington?

Cheney: Both areas have a unique appeal. It’s hard to beat the climate and the outdoor experiences of California, from the coast to the mountains, from the desert to the Redwoods. Our kids grew up there and we formed lifelong friendships in the West. But now my wife and I are excited about this next chapter.

 If all goes on schedule we will move into our  house on Capitol Hill over the Fourth of July weekend—our 29th anniversary. We hope to have time to explore all that the nation’s capital has to offer. On a nice day, I will be able to walk to work—quite a change from my Southern California commute. Our biggest adjustment may be giving up the Dodgers games—so I guess we will have to become fans of the Nationals or the Orioles. But it’s all good.

CU Mag: