Alliance of women CEOs aims to save small credit unions

Small credit unions, which are largely run by women, are quickly being merged out of existence.

The coronavirus pandemic has added more challenges, exposing deficiencies at smaller credit unions that include insufficient infrastructure and staffing issues.

To deal with those issues, 13 female CEOs from credit unions with less than $300 million of assets have created a support group to share best practices, offer mentorship opportunities and improve how they support the communities they serve.

The Credit Union Women’s Leadership Alliance aims to provide a way to preserve and sustain smaller credit unions while leveraging economies of scale within their organizations, the group’s founders said.

“At the smaller credit unions, we get very creative on ways to stretch our income to compete with the larger institutions,” said Maria Martinez, president and CEO of the $197 million-asset Border Federal Credit Union in Del Rio, Texas

“Coming out of the pandemic, smaller credit unions will be focusing on generating income to invest in making lobbies and building premises are safe use by staff and members,” added Martinez, who is one of the group’s founders. She said there will also be a focus on increasing membership and “getting our teams back in sync.”

About 52% of credit union CEOs are female, and many of those executives lead small credit unions, according to a 2018 study by the Credit Union National Association.

While Border FCU is a member of many other groups that represent credit unions, Martinez said the Credit Union Women’s Leadership Alliance will address unmet needs for the women who are running smaller institutions.

“What sets CUWLA apart from other organizations is that not only are we all bringing our leadership skills and experience together, but we now have a network where we feel supported and can talk about just about anything while also mentoring future women leaders,” Martinez said.

The alliance’s founders believe having an inclusive network and safe space for female CEOs is crucial to the future of the credit union movement. Martinez said the group identified some unique needs of female CEOs; now it wants other women to join and feel free to discuss any topic.

Consolidation is an issue that is top of mind for many of those leaders.

The National Credit Union Administration approved 37 mergers in the fourth quarter, according the latest data available. Of those merging institutions, 24 had less than $50 million of assets.

Many small credit unions had net losses in 2020, and some are projecting the same this year, said Jan Page, president and CEO of the $162 million-asset Community South Credit Union in Chipley, Fla.

There will likely be more mergers because of the pandemic, added Page, who is another founder of the new organization. The big question is how long smaller credit unions can stay independent if earnings remain under pressure.

“To find out how other credit unions handled specific challenges can be a game changer,” Page said. “A safe space means that no one is looking for your weakness or for a merger opportunity.”

Heather Walter, CEO of the $149 million-asset Advanz Credit Union in Louisville, Ky., and another founder of the alliance, is active in the Kentucky Credit Union League, but said the new group is different because it offers networking and collaboration with female CEOs who may share some of the same struggles. In many cases, those leaders have found solutions to their problems.

“The founders felt this group was necessary to keep smaller credit unions alive and thriving and not closing and merging,” Walter said.

CUNA, because of its relationships with small credit unions across the country, had a hand in getting the group started by identifying several of the founding members, said Jessica Hrubes, the association’s vice president of strategic credit union relations.

CUNA worked with CUNA Mutual Group to help facilitate planning sessions for the founders to help them clarify their goals and bring the vision to life.

“We know that the majority of small credit unions in the United States today are run by women,” Hrubes said. “Therefore, it makes sense to support an organization that is specifically geared toward helping women CEOs of small credit unions, as that is such a large cohort of our members.”

By sharing their experience, the new group’s founders will provide enormous benefits to other participants.

“The industry, our communities and ultimately consumers are better if small credit unions survive,” Page said. “We have to try to help smaller credit unions not just survive, but thrive.”

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