When Denny Heck joined $1.3 billion asset Columbia Credit Union in Vancouver, Wash., nearly four decades ago as director of marketing, he rotated through multiple departments as part of his training. It didn’t take him long to see the difference between credit unions and banks.
“Day one, I realized the term ‘member-owned cooperative’ speaks for itself,” he says. “The emphasis on member service, and how that translates to lower rates and friendlier products, was a whole new world to me.”
To this day that lesson sticks with Heck, who is now a democratic representative for Washington State.
Credit unions are fortunate to count the majority of the 115th Congress as supporters. Among that majority, several members of Congress know the ins and outs of member-owned financial cooperatives first-hand, either as former employees or volunteers.
During Heck’s tenure, Columbia was one of the first community-chartered credit unions to actively solicit membership.
“My job was to sell the benefits of membership, and it wasn’t a hard sell,” he says. “Once, I was at a factory speaking to the employees during lunch hour. After my pitch I was handing out cards, and one guy came up to me and said, ‘Did you really mean what you said about credit unions?’ I told him ‘yes.’
“He said, ‘Well then, why wouldn’t I sign up?’ And he set up his membership on the spot.”
Rep. Pete Aguilar, D-Calif., was a lifelong credit union member before working as the director of government affairs for $1.1 billion asset Arrowhead Credit Union in San Bernardino, Calif.
But in that position, and in his legislative career, the credit union difference has become much more apparent.
“As a policymaker, we expect a certain level of accountability out of our financial institutions,” he says. “They need to be responsive to the communities they represent, getting to know their customers and feeling invested in their future success. That’s the credit union difference.”
Since being elected in 2014, Aguilar has sponsored a number of credit union-friendly pieces of legislation. He also helped credit unions achieve a major victory in September by offering a successful amendment to a House appropriations bill.
His amendment, offered with Rep. Mark Amodei, R-Nev., stripped a provision from the bill that would have placed NCUA under the appropriations process.
“There’s a lot of goodwill on Capitol Hill for credit unions,” Aguilar says. “People there know about their local credit unions, what they do, and who is in their field of membership.”
He also has seen up close how credit unions help communities in need.
“There were some fires in San Bernardino County, and the credit union mobilized to raise funds and help community members give philanthropically,” he says. “That’s where a credit union is able to help a community where it’s needed the most.”
Aguilar appears regularly at the CUNA Governmental Affairs Conference (GAC), where he addresses attendees, including a group of young professionals at the 2017 conference.
“I love talking to young people, whether credit union professionals or in my district,” he says. “It’s exciting to get them involved, to get them aware of advocacy and the role the industry plays in the community, and the common tie with public policy.”
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