League Presidents Pass the Torch

These leaders have helped their member CUs stay true to their original mission.

December 8, 2013

When Steve Fowler, Jim McCormack, and Dan Egan joined the credit union movement during the 1970s and 1980s, there were more than 21,000 credit unions, NCUA was a new federal agency, and credit unions had just been granted the authority to offer share drafts and mortgages.

Today, there are far fewer credit unions (about 6,900) but far more members (about 97 million) and an impressive $1 trillion in assets—thanks in part to the efforts of these longtime league CEOs, who will retire at the end of this year.

While they took disparate paths to their ultimate destinations, they were singular in their mission to help credit unions expand their products and services, achieve legislative and regulatory aims, and bring about exponential growth—all for consumers’ benefit.

Prosecutor turns to economic justice 

One constant in Dan Egan’s career has been justice, first as an assistant district attorney and then as legal counsel for the Massachusetts Police Chiefs Association.

When a law enforcement friend joined CUNA Mutual Group, he told Egan how much he enjoyed working with credit union people. So when an opening for general counsel at the Massachusetts Credit Union Association presented itself in 1981, Egan applied for the job and got it.

Less than three years later, the league’s president died of a heart attack—and the board named Egan his successor. He’s been helping member credit unions provide economic justice for their members ever since.

Egan immediately sought to leverage the cooperative foundation of credit unions to maximize the league’s limited resources.

“At the time, credit unions were declining in numbers and few were being formed,” says Egan, who also leads the New Hampshire Credit Union League and the Credit Union Association of Rhode Island through a management agreement. “I thought the more we could centralize resources, the better we would be in the long run.” 

His multifold accomplishments over the years bear this out. They include:

Egan admits the act wasn’t perfect because Congress had to adopt the Senate version of the bill to ensure passage to obtain the president’s signature before the end of the legislative session. “But many issues that were proposed that would have been detrimental to credit unions were omitted from the final bill,” he says. 

Looking ahead, Egan sees a great future for the credit union movement, but one that will not lack significant challenges. “As credit unions continue to merge, there’s bound to be a greater demand for efficiency on the CUNA/league system. It’s gratifying to see the evolution of the management agreement concept we implemented in 1985 [lead] to a merger of leagues in the Pacific Northwest, the Southeast, and the Mountain states.” 

One challenge demanding quick resolution is the need for one national trade association to represent the interests of all credit unions, he says. “The division of scarce resources and potentially conflicting messages to Congress and federal regulators is detrimental to the best interests of credit unions and only helps the bankers in their efforts to lobby against us.” 

Next up for Egan: “I hope to be involved in organizations that address the needs of people in relation to food, housing, and jobs. I’ve learned from my experience in credit unions that cooperation is a powerful tool in getting things done. I hope to participate in organizations that utilize cooperation to better the lives of people throughout our communities.” 

He says the best characteristics of credit unions are embodied in the many people who run credit unions and related organizations each day. “The thing I will miss most aft er retiring will be the daily interactions with the many individuals who have become my close friends in credit unions, leagues, CUNA, and CUNA Mutual Group over the years. 

“I’ve benefited from great advice and counsel from many exceptional people in the credit union community. I will cherish the memories of those great people for the rest of my life.” 

NEXT: ‘Not my thing’ 

‘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’ 

‘Keep it a movement’

Jim McCormack couldn’t agree more. “First and foremost, keep it a movement, not an industry,” he says. “And ensure that young people are involved and grasp the credit union philosophy.”

The longtime Pennsylvania Credit Union Association CEO took a circuitous route to his current role in the Keystone State, deviating from his initial career goal: a buyer for a large New York City department store.

McCormack’s first exposure to the credit union movement came as a volunteer for a credit union in northeast Pennsylvania, where he became involved in the Pennsylvania Youth Involvement Board and the National Youth Involvement Board.

A job with CUNA Mutual Group in the 1970s soon followed, first in the company’s Pittsburgh office and then in Madison, Wis.

“I was involved in the early days of what is now called asset/liability management under Richard ‘Doc’ Heins,” McCormack recalls.

“I joined the Pennsylvania Credit Union League in 1981 as a vice president and used my experience at the national level to form companies and partnerships through its credit union service organization [CUSO], giving credit unions the tools to compete in the marketplace.” 

That wasn’t an easy prospect. The national economy was approaching the darkest days of a recession, when unemployment rose to 10.8%, the federal-funds rate hit a staggering 20%, and the prime interest rate approached its eventual high of 21.5%.

Managing a league or a credit union in this environment was no easy task. But McCormack, who took over as the league’s CEO in 1992 following the retirement of Mike Judge, embraced collaboration as a way to help credit unions succeed.

“Achieving economies of scale relevant to your locale enables credit unions to remain competitive with large banks,” McCormack says.

He recalls the 1999 merger between Educational Credit Union, under CEO Lee MacMinn, and Fischer & Porter Federal Credit Union, under CEO John King, to form what’s now Freedom Credit Union.

“This strategic merger was in part due to the costs of preparing for Y2K, but more importantly to gain efficiencies of scale to better serve their members,” McCormack says. “Now, the credit union is thriving under the leadership of both men. I wish more credit unions would explore strategic mergers.” 

Some other accomplishments from his storied career:

McCormack will turn more of his attention to family when he retires on Dec. 31. “Throughout my career, I’ve been described as a workaholic. I routinely came in the office on Saturdays and Sundays to ‘catch up,’ ” he says. “So in retirement, I want to relax and take better care of my health—I seriously owe that to my family.”