CU Heroes

Standing Up for CU Values

Four exceptional leaders share their passion for CUs and their vision for the movement.

March 1, 2014

Each year, Credit Union Magazine honors the credit union movement’s heroes—those individuals who go above and beyond to promote credit union philosophy, dedicate themselves to credit union principles, and make a difference in their communities.

Through these profiles, you’ll see the exceptional leadership and dedication of this year’s Credit Union Heroes.

A pillar of wisdom and knowledge

Now approaching age 90, William Armstrong helped found Elizabethton (Tenn.) Teachers Credit Union in 1952—Northeast Community Credit Union since 1996—and has volunteered ever since as a board member, serving on nearly every committee for the $96 million asset institution.

He even served as a part-time bookkeeper at the credit union when needed. CEO Kathy Campbell calls Armstrong a true hero for the credit union movement.

“He’s eager to adopt new technology, has an open mind for new products and services, and stands as a pillar of wisdom and knowledge for our credit union,” she says. “On a personal note, I’ve worked at the credit union for 34 years, serving under his leadership, and I have never heard him be critical or say an unkind word.”

Armstrong volunteers because “when something is important to you, you’ll find the time for it,” he says. “Also, we’ve been fortunate to have great, family-oriented managers who work closely with me and other volunteers to schedule meetings and training around our family lives, jobs, and other responsibilities.”

In 1952, Armstrong was a young teacher, married, and like his fellow educators, struggling financially. A visitor from the Tennessee Credit Union League talked to him and several other teachers about starting a credit union, and they approached the superintendent of schools.

“I could envision a need for all of us to have a trusted place to borrow money and to save when possible,” Armstrong remembers. “The superintendent not only approved of the idea, he offered us the services of his secretary as our first credit union bookkeeper and manager.”

The credit union improved the quality of life for educators and was beneficial to the entire community. Elizabethton’s industrial plants had grown considerably during World War II, leading to a population increase and a need for more teachers. The benefits of credit union membership proved to be a good recruiting tool for local schools.

Armstrong and the other founding members developed a mail-order catalog system that allowed teachers to borrow money to buy goods at discounted prices and make payments through payroll deduction.

“This was a very important benefit of membership, as few teachers could afford up-front expenses for things their families needed,” Armstrong explains. “Also, it would have been difficult, if not impossible, to find a loan source with a payback schedule built around teacher paydays.”

What began as a ledger-card operation in the school administration building’s basement now has four locations and nearly 40 employees. While Northeast Community and the credit union movement at large have grown and evolved based on members’ needs, the original mission hasn’t changed.

“At our most basic level, credit unions are still focused on one person finding ways to help another person as part of the cooperative relationship we maintain with one another,” he says.

That involves using all available resources, including financial counseling, to help members succeed. “Our volunteers and staff have respect for our members and we try to understand their particular circumstances,” he says. “Then we can constructively work with them toward good solutions.”

Many times, Armstrong says, the credit union comes up with “a plan to help keep someone’s head above water. Other times, it’s looking for a loan product with terms uniquely suited to their financial challenges. We really are a people’s credit union.”

NEXT: A fighter for small CUs

A fighter for small CUs 

The movement’s smallest credit unions also are strongly people-focused. But too oft en they face challenges that divert them from this aim, particularly the continuous onslaught of regulatory changes, says Dan Morrisey, CEO/treasurer of $2 million asset Queen of Peace Arlington (Va.) Federal Credit Union.

“It’s like an avalanche,” he says. “It’s one of the reasons—maybe the top reason—many small credit unions have shut down or merged.”

Although his credit union has limited hours— the first Thursday of each month, a few weekend hours, or by appointment—Morrisey spends much of his precious time keeping up with NCUA regulations and staying active in state and national associations.

Now retired from his career at two data processors, Morrisey continues to devote hours to keeping the credit union on track. Even while working full-time, he spent nights and weekends volunteering for the credit union, which still has a niche field of membership: parishioners, employees, and families of a local Catholic church.

“In 1976, I was a church member, but not a credit union member,” Morrisey recalls. “The credit union’s board wanted to shut it down, but our pastor gathered a new group of volunteers. I joined the supervisory committee and became assistant treasurer. My wife was treasurer.”

The credit union processed manually at the time, with a ledger book for handwritten transactions. “Then we converted to a batch computer system and mailed transactions for processing once a week,” says Morrisey.

Except for a hiatus from 1983 to 1987, Morrisey has been with the credit union ever since, volunteering until two years ago when he became a part-time employee. Around 1990 the credit union converted to in-house core processing—a big change—allowing it to offer an array of transaction accounts, consumer loans, and prepaid debit cards.

He and his team encourage children, however young, to have accounts and perform their own transactions—something they probably couldn’t do elsewhere. “What bank would allow a six-year-old to conduct transactions?” he laughs.

“We provide service to members that they couldn’t get otherwise,” he adds. “We don’t take the cookie-cutter approach of automated lending like so many financial institutions do. We don’t just look at credit scores; we look at the entire picture, the member’s history with us, and see what we can do to approve loans.”

The credit union approves nearly all loans, sometimes with modifications. “We make loans to people who have been rejected elsewhere, at affordable terms,” says Morrisey. “It does take time and effort, but it’s worth it. Virginia is an island of predatory lending.”

He speaks out in the community and at the state capital against such unjust practices, letting people know they don’t have to pay exorbitant rates and fees for financial services.

Morrisey also advocates nationally on behalf of small credit unions, recently writing to NCUA to express his displeasure with its proposal to ban home-based credit unions—and he encourages colleagues to do likewise.

“Make it known how regulations affect small credit unions,” he says, admitting that efforts to educate regulators can be discouraging. “You might feel like they’re not paying attention, but oft en they do and we have to keep up the fight.”

NEXT: A winning attitude

A winning attitude

On the other end of the asset spectrum, William J. “Bill” Rissel has steadfastly pursued excellence during more than two decades as president/CEO of Fort Knox Federal Credit Union, with headquarters in Radcliff, Ky.

That focus explains why Fort Knox Federal has grown from a $125 million asset credit union on a military post in 1991, to a $1.2 billion asset, full-service financial institution serving 80,000 members throughout central Kentucky and around the world today.

The credit union continuously receives superior safety and financial strength ratings from independent financial services evaluators such as Bauer Financial Inc., and Weiss Ratings, and consistently ranks in the top 10% of all credit unions in the country.

“My mantra for all 23 years I’ve been at Fort Knox Federal is ‘Win, Win, Win,’ ” says Rissel, who will retire on July 1, 2014

“We must always win for members in order for our organization to be successful; otherwise members won’t do business with us. The credit union itself must win; otherwise it won’t continue to exist. And our employees must win, because they make the organization work.”

Yet Rissel’s contributions to the credit union movement extend far beyond Fort Knox Federal’s walls. He has defended credit unions’ principles in the political arena, advocated for military communities, lent his expertise to the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, and spearheaded support for fellow credit unions during large-scale emergencies.

A longtime member and former chairman of the Kentucky Credit Union Political Action Committee, Rissel led grassroots letter-writing efforts to support the historic Credit Union Membership Access Act of 1998 (H.R. 1151).

In 2011, Dr. James Bullard, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, appointed Rissel as one of 12 members to the newly formed Community Depository Institutes Advisory Council.

During two national tragedies, Rissel and his staff embodied the people-helping-people spirit of credit unions.

Immediately after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, Rissel organized a group of volunteers from Fort Knox Federal to travel there to help rebuild member data for Federal Employees Credit Union, housed in the ravaged Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. Rissel knew both credit unions used the same computer system.

The team retrieved and rebuilt data for members of the credit union (now Allegiance Credit Union), helping it reopen just two days after the blast that claimed 18 of its employees’ lives.

When Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, Fort Knox Federal extended $1 million in interestfree loans to $79 million asset Gulf Coast Community Federal Credit Union in Gulfport, Miss., restoring its liquidity so members could access their money. 

NEXT: A fierce collaborator

A fierce collaborator 

Such efforts go hand in hand with Joni Senkpeil’s approach to serving credit unions: Together we’re better. Her passion for credit unions, especially small ones, is evident in her every activity.

Senkpeil is director of small credit union development at the Illinois Credit Union League. She started the Small Asset Size (SAS) Credit Union Advisory Group, which aims to foster a stronger small credit union community.

Senkpeil launched a regional “lunch and learn” workshop series designed for small credit unions. The workshops are formatted strategically to minimize travel, time away from the office, and hotel expenses for participants.

Believing credit unions needed a single source for resources, she also was instrumental in developing content for the league’s Small Credit Union Center website, including best practices, information on grant funding, strategic planning services, and common business templates.

Through her work, Senkpeil has given small credit unions a vital forum to network and help each other. “We hold these workshops all over the state to build awareness of what’s happening in different areas,” she explains. “We listen to what issues are important and bring in experts at workshops to address them.”

The SAS Credit Union Advisory Group holds conference calls to identify opportunities for collaboration, she adds, such as having larger credit unions serve as mentors for smaller credit unions. “We promote success stories about innovative concepts and share best practices.”

Senkpeil can’t envision a life without credit unions. “When I think about this industry built on a foundation of people helping people, run by volunteers, on a not-for-profit model, I can’t imagine turning my back on it. It’s absolutely my passion.

“When I walk into a smaller credit union, it’s amazing the effort, time, and devotion folks have for helping members,” she continues. “It’s difficult for them, but their desire to help members is so much more important. It provides so much inspiration to help credit unions where I can.”

It saddens Senkpeil to see the number of credit unions decrease, with smaller institutions more likely to disappear. The regulatory burden, growing sophistication of technology, and pressures of daily operations make it difficult for small credit unions to carry on. “But they’re still needed,” she says. “Having fewer doesn’t make them less viable or important.”

Small credit unions play a big role in the financial lives of their members and add to the cooperative strength of the movement, notes Senkpeil. “The majority of credit unions are small and they’re a very powerful tool for lobbyists. But most important, they tirelessly serve their members.”