Cathie Tierney

The Biggest Leap of Faith

‘You can’t always lean on someone else to fight your battles.’

June 1, 2008

When people question Cathie Tierney why she has spent her entire 32-year career in one place—Community First Credit Union, Appleton, Wis.—she doesn’t view it as a putdown. She views it as a chance to share her faith in and love of a movement that does so much to help others.

“My being here,” the CEO says, “is truly a calling I’m extremely proud of. I know in my heart this is where I’m supposed to be. And because I’ve grown up in credit unions, I believe so strongly in what they stand for and I’m committed to making a difference.”

That commitment inspired her to jump into the fray to help others on many occasions. Her most recent, and perhaps biggest, leap of faith came when she approached her board and management team to challenge the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) on its determination that certain insurance products offered to members fall outside the credit union’s main mission and are subject to unrelated business income tax (UBIT).

“Community First is focused on meeting our members’ needs, and we need to offer credit insurance and other wealth management products to meet this core purpose. When the board and senior management team first heard about UBIT becoming an issue, we disagreed with the IRS but figured someone else would take care of it. It never occurred to us Community First would be that ‘someone,’ until we heard the talk about litigation.

“In situations like this, you need to look inside your heart and think, ‘if we’re able to help, why not?’ The board voted unanimously to move forward. We basically decided if not us, then who?  UBIT will ultimately impact us in a big way, so we need to stand up and fight. You can’t always lean on someone else to fight your battles.”

Community First filed a complaint Jan. 15 in Wisconsin U.S. District Court. (The trial date currently is set for May 11, 2009.) Since filing, Tierney says it has been “scary, exciting, and educational. At first you’re scared: You don’t know what members will think or what the banks will do.”

Tierney has been pleasantly surprised by the reaction of her “phenomenal” members.  “Members I’ve talked to have incredible stories about how insurance services from the credit union made a difference in their lives.

“There’s the father whose daughter had a $20,000 car loan that he wasn’t sure he could pay off. Imagine his relief when he finds out there was credit life insurance on the loan. Another member found himself in a tough situation because he no longer could work. Imagine his relief when he realizes the disability insurance from the credit union will help.

“Then there’s the couple who traveled the country on their Honda Gold Wing motorcycle. Now widowed, the wife is grateful for the credit union’s credit life insurance that paid off the loan, enabling her to keep the motorcycle. Riding that cycle, she said, keeps her connected to her husband.

“Even members who didn’t take the products tell me how not taking them had a negative impact on their lives.

“Because we’re a cooperative, what impacts one member impacts all members. This action is about helping protect the collective membership. We’re focused on prevailing here.”

Tierney’s also proud to be helping the credit union system as a whole. A humbling public moment came when she and the credit union were acknowledged at the Credit Union National Association’s Governmental Affairs Conference. “It was moving to be recognized as the credit union willing to fight for members’ rights,” she says. “It makes my heart glad to know how much our fellow credit unions care. Their response underscores that we made the right decision.”

In addition to doing the right thing, Tierney maintains you need a positive attitude to be successful in business and in life. “I’ve learned how important it is to persevere and look at challenges as opportunities.”

That philosophy created another proud moment for Tierney and her team: On Feb. 29, the credit union passed $1 billion in assets. “This is a strong measure of members’ commitment to the credit union.

“We’ve worked diligently to explain the credit union difference and to be a significant presence in the community,” she continues. “I’ve heard others say, ‘People don’t care that you’re a cooperative. They only care about rates and convenience.’ I disagree. If people don’t care, it’s because they don’t know. We remind members that when you belong to Community First, you’re a member-owner and the profits come back to you. They know membership makes a difference. They tell us, ‘Wow, you guys really live your name.’ ”

Tierney’s impact on the community—and now on the movement—is a direct result of her love of and commitment to credit unions and her job. “I can’t remember a day when I looked at the clock and said, ‘When is this day going to be over?’ ”