A ‘credit union nerd’ with a cause
New CUNA Board Chairman Maurice Smith believes in the credit union mission of empowering people and communities.
New CUNA Board Chairman Maurice Smith is a self-professed credit union nerd, and it's a label he wears loudly and proudly.
"I might not get an Olympic medal for credit administration. I’m sure there is no Oscar for best asset/liability modeling," Smith says. "I’ve got something better: I have the gratitude of members who tell me how we have changed their lives. We give every member an equal opportunity to thrive. This is our reward for a job well done. A bit nerdy? You bet it is."
Smith, CEO of $1.9 billion asset Local Government Federal Credit Union in Raleigh, N.C., discusses his goals as CUNA chairman, his commitment to the credit union movement, and his proudest achievements as a leader.
Q: What issues will you address during your term as CUNA Board chairman?
The chairman’s agenda depends largely on the collective consensus of the entire board. The CUNA Board chairman’s role is to ensure the governance process works as it should. This means each director receives fair and ample opportunity to contribute to the dialogue on policy, strategy, and CUNA’s direction.
I see the chairman’s responsibility as a facilitator for effective governance. During board meetings, the chairman furthers the agenda by calling upon subject matter experts to testify on important issues.
The chairman opens the floor for proposals from staff and committee representatives on matters that require the board’s action. The chairman should keep a watchful eye on fellow directors to encourage engagement from all.
Outside of board meetings, the chairman represents the will and shared direction of the board. This is an important point to emphasize.
The chairman does not pursue a personal agenda. Like all directors, the chairman is committed to a fiduciary duty of loyalty to CUNA. Expanding on this idea, this means I am beholden to the board’s verdicts. It would be unsuitable for the chairman to act in a manner contrary to the board’s course heading.
As for my personal goals, I want to pay homage to the rich history of CUNA and the chairs that have preceded me. I remember my first CUNA Governmental Affairs Conference in 1993. I was captivated by the display of credit union philosophy on such a grand stage. I thought to myself how impressive it is to see so many credit union professionals and volunteers from every walk of life.
I have goose bumps just reminiscing about the experience. That’s how I continue to feel today. If I’m able to represent CUNA with the grace and skill of my predecessors, I will be satisfied.
Q: How can credit unions remain relevant in the financial services arena?
I don’t think relevance is the right standard for the future of credit unions. Credit unions should aspire to be the leading financial services provider for all consumers and businesses.
Credit unions represent everything consumers are hungry for today. If we listen closely to the growing calls for fairness, affordability, inclusion, equity, and opportunity, we quickly find a tone familiar to the credit union way.
Here’s what’s nagging at me these days: We know credit unions hold the moral high road for financial services. We know that cooperative credit is the best model for empowering communities to create economic development. We work hard every day to show members how to be confident financial consumers.
The challenge we have is, how do we supersize our model so every consumer realizes what we already know?
In economic terms, when credit unions operate at less than our market potential, we’re actually rationing our services to the public. I don’t know about you, but credit unions should find rationing a repugnant notion.
To think that some members, or eligible members, should be denied the benefits of credit union services because of market forces that restrain our potential should be unsettling to us all. I believe we have a philosophical destiny to pursue the expansion of credit union thinking to consumers desperate for a fighting chance to live better lives.
NEXT: Lessons from starting as a loan officer
Q: You began your career as a loan officer. What did you learn from that experience that still guides you today?
I remember when I left my small hometown for the big city of Raleigh to become a loan officer with State Employees’ Credit Union. This was 38 years ago. I was a mere 22-year-old kid.
My father, rest his soul, gave me some advice that I will never forget. He said, “Son, you will have the opportunity to meet people from all walks of life as a loan officer. People will put their lives in your hands and trust you will make fair decisions.”
My father encouraged me to look beyond the numbers and listen to the stories that accompany every loan application. My father said, “This is how people know you care about them as human beings and not just an account number.”
I spent the formative years of my career as a loan officer. That job shaped who I am today.
I can hear my father’s voice in my ear. I often recount the conversations I’ve had with members sitting across my desk in the branch office. I remember moments of great joy when the loan made it possible for them to buy a new car, home, or other meaningful purchase. Then there are the interactions that haunt me, when I encountered members struggling to feed their children.
I don’t ever want to lose perspective on what credit unions do every day for members in every state. So often, credit unions are the lifeline between despair and family security. We must not lose our humanity and concern for others.
Credit union operatives should maintain a line of sight to the needs of our members and community. This is what gets me out of the bed every morning.
Q: What beliefs or behaviors led you to proudly label yourself a 'credit union nerd'?
One should not take oneself too seriously. Look, life can be hard. We see it every day. There is so much sadness in the world. So, if a little slapstick humor can make my message more approachable, I welcome the levity.
I really am a credit union nerd at heart. Who else would go bonkers about everything credit union?
I remember reading a book entitled “Credit Union Movement” when I was studying for my Certified Credit Union Executive (CCUE) designation in 1986. This book opened my eyes to the historical origins of cooperative credit and how the idea migrated from Europe to North America.
Today, while we don’t have a potato famine to contend with, the same ambitions of working-class people to build sustainable communities and businesses persist.
I might not get an Olympic medal for credit administration. I’m sure there is no Oscar for best asset/liability modeling. I’ve got something better. I have the gratitude of members who tell me how we have changed their lives.
I see the difference we make with honest, transparent pricing and policies. I am proud of our record of fair lending, to give every member an equal opportunity to thrive. This is our reward for a job well done. A bit nerdy? You bet it is.
NEXT: Engaging in grassroots advocacy
Q: How do you engage in grassroots advocacy?
I believe advocacy truly begins at the local level. Consider the field of membership for Local Government Federal Credit Union. Our members include all municipalities, counties, and other local government institutions in North Carolina.
In addition to serving local government employees, our membership includes elected and appointed officials. Every mayor, county commissioner, municipal official, elected sheriff, register of deeds, fire chief, and other public policymakers are within our target market. These are the folks who make decisions that affect our local communities. We are proud to call them members.
I suspect that most state and national public officials got their start at the local government level. If this is so, then the future leaders of our state and federal government are in local government today.
Now is the time to engage them with a close viewpoint about credit unions. We can show our local leaders a first-hand account of what it means to be a member of a cooperative that celebrates and supports community achievement.
We try to get our local leaders on board with credit unions at the beginning of their political careers. This is a great time to tout the ideals of membership and cooperatives.
I can’t imagine any local politician not being moved by the power of the credit union spirit in his or her own communities. And when they rise to statewide and national offices, we remind them from whence they came with credit unions.
Q: What story do you tell your representatives?
There are two types of messages that we can deliver to our representatives in Raleigh, N.C., and Washington, D.C. When it comes to the inside baseball operations of credit unions, our staff is adept at bringing a message. We can talk all day about regulatory relief, fair legislation that helps consumers, and new powers for serving communities. Our professional staffs know the technical issues to a T.
If we want to connect with a congressional legislator on a personal level, we prefer to let our members do the talking. When it comes to relaying a message to our elected representatives about real hometown issues, consumers bring a credible voice to the debate. Small business owners and entrepreneurs know the struggles of operating a business in a stagnant local economy.
Members who reflect the dreams and ambitions of their neighbors bring a powerful message to our statehouse and the nation’s capital. This is especially relevant to our local government members. They truly understand citizenship rights and engaging with their government.
NEXT: Proudest credit union achievement
Q: What are your proudest accomplishments at LGFCU?
I don’t like reflecting on any unilateral accomplishments. I would like to brag about a decision our LGFCU board made a few years ago that is having a big impact in our state.
North Carolina has 545 municipalities and 100 counties. If you spend some time in our state traveling about, you will quickly observe that most communities are small to moderate in size. For many, economic development has been a struggle.
The young people are moving away to the urban markets for better-paying jobs. The influx of industry bypasses many communities. The flight of textile and manufacturing jobs has hobbled many small towns. Our credit union heard the cries of members and took steps to make a difference.
Five years ago, our credit union single-handedly funded an initiative to help North Carolina communities pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. We created the Development Finance Initiative to spearhead local projects perfectly fitted for a community’s needs.
Our investment of $5 million has been leveraged into an aggregate $1 billion dollars in economic development projects in North Carolina communities. These projects have created local businesses, local jobs, and local opportunities that wouldn’t have happened without the credit union. Don’t tell me we can’t make a difference.
We are just one little ol’ credit union in North Carolina trying to help our communities improve the lives of their citizens. I get jazzed up when I realize we’re just getting started. Just imagine the movement of every credit union rowing in the same direction for the benefit of all our members.
Q: You’re also a board member of the African-American Credit Union Coalition. What role can credit unions play in attracting and uplifting diverse and often underserved audiences?
Thank you for recognizing my involvement with the African-American Credit Union Coalition. The AACUC shares an ambition with all credit unions that members deserve fair, affordable financial services. AACUC’s contribution to the credit union movement focuses on bringing a diverse perspective to the conversation about professional growth, economic development and inclusion of all communities.
There is a practical side to diversity. Let’s start with a few incontrovertible notions.
First, the credit union movement is most powerful when all communities contribute to our common causes. Second, the best way to engage all communities is to know all communities. Third, the most effective way to know all communities is to participate in all communities. Finally, engagement with a community requires a reciprocal dialogue. This is the essence of diversity.
So, let’s think about diversity as we would an investment or loan portfolio. We recognize that concentration risk—when we don’t have enough variety in our holdings—can be bad.
Diversity introduces variations to our focus. Diversity of thoughts, ideals, business models, and philosophies expands our perspective. Our collective DNA is enriched when we seek the contributions of all audiences to further our mission of member service.
The credit union movement has become sophisticated with advanced techniques and technology. I celebrate our prowess and know-how.
But at the core of who we are is the need for addressing the needs of all communities, particularly the underserved populations. From the very beginnings of cooperative credit, the movement has been motivated to help disenfranchised people create gains. Those needs persist today in every community credit unions serve.
I am a member of AACUC for what it represents. I support AACUC because the credit union movement needs its perspective.
NEXT: Faith and credit unions
Q: What does your role as a deacon have in common with your position as CEO?
Now you are going to get me to preaching. So here goes.
Regardless of your faith, convictions, or beliefs, you probably believe that the church serves an altruistic purpose. We go about showing compassion and charity to all we reach. Ultimately, church is about the redemption of people toward a better life.
Let’s analogize the role of faith and the purpose of credit unions. Each institution has at its core the conviction that people deserve understanding and compassion. Both have a commitment to serving a wider community, one individual at a time. Credit unions and faith followers respect people for their present conditions while working to find a better solution.
I don’t think one can be successful in credit unions without caring for others. If you remove people from the equation, the movement is reduced to merely peddling commodities. This is neither sustainable nor inspiring.
I’ve seen a passion for service in the faces of volunteers and professionals from various credit unions. I’ve listened to countless success stories about credit unions rescuing families from financial illnesses.
Regardless of field of membership, designations, and delivery models, we all share a craving to improve mankind. This is the true promise of the credit union ideal. For me, the credit union thinking restores and reinforces my faith.
Q: What’s one thing people might be surprised to learn about you?
This could be a dangerous admission. I think people know I am a credit union fanatic. I hope they know I am a friend when needed.
I suppose people might be surprised to learn that I’m trying to kick a workaholic habit. It’s true. I have a difficult time winding down. Call it a personality flaw. My wife and my mother are working on me. Our kids have given up on the idea that I will ever change. But I’m really trying.
It does not help my cause when I see so much to be done in terms of financial education, services, and advocacy for members. I keep thinking a breakthrough innovation that will eliminate poverty exists just around the corner.
Yep…I said that. As far-reaching as that might sound, I honestly believe we can improve the lives of whole generations. I figure, to tackle big challenges, it takes lots of elbow grease. In other words, keep working.
One day, I will achieve work-life balance. In the meantime, charge!
Q: As you begin your role as CUNA Board chairman, what other thoughts come to mind?
I’d like to give a shout-out for my fellow CUNA directors. Most folks don’t have access to the inner workings of the CUNA Board.
In other words, no outside audience witnesses how the board performs its responsibilities. So, take my word for it: This group of men and women are stalwart credit union servants. The dedication, preparation and commitment to the credit union movement is truly inspiring.
I have the privilege for seven years to watch this governing body work. It’s a thing of beauty to see representatives from different corners of the credit union world come together for the betterment of all members.
While we are elected based on class distinctions of size and geography, no such tribal issues come into the board meetings. When one speaks, there are no constituent-based selfish motivations at hand. Each director holds as his or her mandate the good of all credit unions.
Finally, it is a pleasure to work with the CUNA management team and staff. Professionalism does not begin to describe the skillset of each person I have encountered at CUNA.
Their command of their respective subject matters and technical know-how gives me comfort knowing that credit unions are being well-served. I‘ve had the opportunity to talk with enough staffers to determine they are not in this just for a paycheck.
The CUNA team feels the credit union fever just as much as we do in the field. In fact, I believe the CUNA folks are credit union nerds, too.