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The Credit Union Movement in Vermont: A Brief History

Introduction Background Early Years 1945-1954 1955-1960

 1960-1968 1969-1982 1982-Present Conclusion Notes

The Charles E. Howe Era, 1969-1982

Text Box:  Charles Howe at the Credit Union National Association Annual Meeting, 1977.
Courtesy AVCU.
Like Rosegrant before him, Charles Howe had accumulated extensive experience within the Vermont credit union movement before he was asked to become managing director. After serving the Vermont State Employees Credit Union in numerous roles over the course of the 1950s, he'd become the president of the Vermont League in 1962 and had taken to the responsibilities of that position with gusto (as evidenced by his extensive and in-depth reports to the League annual meetings throughout his tenure). Thus, in 1969, the League was fortunate to be able ensure a smooth transition by tapping for the job the one Vermonter whose knowledge of the state's movement was roughly equal to that of the retiring Rosegrant.

Such seasoned leadership soon proved to be essential as an array of issues seriously challenged the credit union movement both nationally and in Vermont. Many were trends that had been identified by forward-looking credit unionists in the 1960s, such as the need for innovation to counter increasing competition from other financial institutions. Additionally, the economic problems that emerged in the early 1970s and continued intermittently for the next decade proved to be a serious impediment to the movement's growth. Though credit unions in Vermont were able to meet these challenges and grow their memberships and assets, they nonetheless had a major impact upon the character of the movement, which experienced fundamental changes over the course of Howe's thirteen-year tenure.

Indeed, 1969 was something of a watershed moment for the credit union movement overall. Up to that point, much of the movement's expansion had been driven by the establishment of new credit unions. However, the number of credit unions in existence peaked that year at 23,761, before commencing a steady decline that has continued to the present day. Conversely, the total amount of assets in the credit union movement and the number of credit union members continued to grow apace, meaning that the movement was transitioning from many small organizations to a smaller number of large ones. Vermont was not immune to this trend, with the number of institutions falling from seventy-seven in 1969 to seventy-three in 1982. By contrast, the number of members more than doubled from 38,616 to 94,356, and inflation-adjusted assets grew by 231%.

This consolidation of the credit union movement that began in the 1970s was driven by several factors. First, as competition in the consumer credit market continued to intensify, credit unions were expected to provide increasingly complex services to their members. Such services were often beyond the abilities of the part-time and volunteer staff who had run credit unions for the previous half-century; instead, full-time, well-trained professionals were quickly becoming essential to success (or even solvency). However, the expense of such professionalization was well beyond the means of many small credit unions with a few hundred members, and some institutions sought to merge as a strategy by which they might achieve the economies of scale necessary to meet the challenges of the newly emerging world of financial services.

A second reason that was more obvious to many observers at the time lay in the era's economic troubles. As the relative prosperity of the 1960s was replaced by the recessions, inflation, and oil shocks of the 1970s, many small credit unions struggled. This reality was reflected in the increasingly gloomy tone of League annual reports as the decade wore on. While the VCUL's leadership expressed optimism that economic conditions would soon right themselves in the early years of the 1970s, by 1975 President Asa Randall declared that "The coming year will throw us many challenges to test the spirit and strength of unity in our credit unions. Our economic climate, for sure, will be much more difficult than what we have enjoyed in the past."1 Furthermore, Joseph A. Bickel, the managing director of the Connecticut Credit Union League and that annual meeting's keynote speaker, emphasized that credit unions "are entering a new period of economy and it will be a fight for survival."2

This uncertain economic environment was especially problematic for credit unions for which the common bond of their members was an employer; if that company went out of business or closed a plant, its credit union could find itself with virtually its entire membership unemployed and unable to pay their debts. This scenario unfolded several times in Vermont, including in North Troy, when the closure of the Weyerhauser plant led to the liquidation of the Weyerhauser credit union in 1971. In other cases, in lieu of being liquidated, troubled credit unions merged with larger, more stable institutions or were taken over by the Vermont Central Credit Union.

While providing a quick fix in the short term, this latter practice ultimately served to undermine the sustainability of the VCCU. Two troubled credit unions merged with Central in 1972, and another followed suit in 1973, the same year that the VCCU became legally independent from the League. Unfortunately, the influx of bad loans from failed credit unions and a scattered, disengaged membership took its toll on the previously successful institution. After several years of difficulties, its liquidation was announced at the VCUL's 1982 annual meeting, at which it was noted that, thanks to a bailout from the League totaling $20,500, depositors had received a payout of 100 cents on the dollar.

Text Box:  A young Joe Bergeron graduates from CUNA summer school, 1979.
Courtesy AVCU.
Another credit union movement institution that failed to survive the troubled years of the 1970s was the New England Credit Union School. After having been established in the middle of Rosegrant's tenure, the school had been attended by a steady stream of Vermont credit union people, many of whom received the support of the Bergengren Scholarship Fund. However, the school experienced its first deficit in 1969, and it struggled with declining attendance and funding issues throughout the early 1970s. In 1974, the weight of such problems had become too great, and it was decided that the best course of action was to discontinue the school. Though some Vermonters would, in coming years, attend the CUNA summer school in Madison, Wisconsin (notably, future VCUL managing director Joseph Bergeron), the closing of the New England school certainly narrowed the range of educational opportunities available to Vermont's credit union people.

In spite of, and, in some ways, driven by, the challenges and set-backs of the 1970s, the Vermont credit union movement also achieved a number of successes and introduced several new programs and innovations during Howe's time as managing director. In particular, one new path that the League pursued with great gusto was that of the movement's public promotion. A perennial concern for the leadership going back to the earliest years of the League was ensuring robust growth in the number of credit union members. From the 1940s to the 1960s, the growth strategy primarily took the form of promoting the establishment of new credit unions. However, as the number of credit unions stagnated and declined in the 1970s, the mission changed from convincing existing groups to organize new credit unions to convincing new individuals to join existing institutions.

To direct this new strategy, the League Publicity-Promotion Committee was constituted in 1970, and immediately began to break new ground by purchasing advertising in mass media. That year, it obtained a regular thirty-second spot on the local evening T.V. news, and in 1971 it undertook an ambitious radio campaign intended "to highlight basic credit union service advantages: low-cost loans, good savings dividends, convenience and added benefits from life savings and loan protection insurance provided at no additional member costs. Ad subjects will also reflect operational practices - Democratic membership control and member benefits derived from participation in their non-profit financial organizations. Other material will present information on credit union functions and philosophy."3 Other promotional activities were added to the mix in subsequent years, including sponsoring Christmas music on the radio, hiring an education and training consultant, and convincing  the Governor to declare October to be "Credit Union Month."

Another innovation came in the form of the establishment of the Vermont Credit Union League Services Corporation. Over the previous decades, the VCUL had experimented with providing a wide variety of services, from management training to delinquent loan collection, to its member credit unions. However, as the desired services became increasingly complex in the early 1970s, the League's leadership felt that the movement as a whole would benefit from an organization that's sole purpose was the professional provision of those services. With additional prompting from a change in the IRS code that reclassified the tax status trade-group income, they founded the VCUL Services Corporation in 1973, and it began offering data processing services the following year. The Corporation continued to grow steadily for the rest of Howe's tenure, adding such services as traveler's checks and cancer insurance, and was doing about $50,000 per year in business by 1982.

Legislatively, the Howe years were characterized by a number of new developments that, in combination with technological advances, radically changed the way in which Vermont credit unions did business. Though the political attacks from the banking lobby that had gotten underway in the 1960s intensified, the movement was able to fend them off through a combination of skillful lobbying and grass-roots mobilization. In 1970, the State of Vermont decided in favor of credit unions when it declared them to be exempt from the sales tax, and Vermont credit unionists put meaningful pressure on their Congressmen in 1978 as part of a national campaign to oppose the imposition of a Federal credit union tax.

As important as those victories were, they paled in comparison to the struggle over the implementation of "share draft" (or checking) accounts. Credit unionists had long contemplated the possibility of offering checking accounts to members, and that vision became a reality in 1974, when the National Credit Union Administration (NCUA) authorized a share draft pilot program in thirteen credit unions. The experiment successful, the NCUA officially authorized share draft accounts for Federally chartered credit unions in 1977, and the New England IBM Employees Federal Credit Union became the first to offer the service in Vermont. Their program was short-lived, however, since the NCUA decision was quickly challenged in Federal court by the American Bankers Association, and the judge ordered the program suspended until Congress had a chance to consider the issue.

Text Box:  Wanda Baril, the first woman to chair the VCUL board of directors, presides at the 1981 Annual Meeting.
Courtesy AVCU.
The movement in Vermont responded to this situation in two ways. Locally, they ensured the passage of a bill in the legislature the following year which granted share draft privileges to all state-chartered credit unions. On a national level, Vermonters participated enthusiastically in the grass-roots "Save Our Share Drafts" campaign, which aimed to generate 100,000 letters to Congressional representatives in support of credit union checking accounts. As a result of this flood of communications and intensive lobbying on the part of CUNA, share draft privileges were permanently enacted into law on March 31, 1980, the same year that the credit union that had pioneered share draft in Vermont installed the state movement's very first ATM.

Also in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the movement faced another challenge that required legislative action: inflation. As the spending power of the dollar declined at an increasingly alarming pace, many Vermont credit unions found themselves caught in a bind. The legislation under which credit unions were chartered limited the rate of interest a credit union could charge to 12%; however, starting in September, 1979, the rate of inflation was higher than that. As a result, credit unions found them legally required to operate at a loss, which severely tested the solvency of many institutions. They petitioned for relief, and, in 1980, the Vermont legislature raised the ceiling to 15% for state credit unions, and the Federal credit unions saw their ceiling increased to 21% the following year.

In sum, when Charles Howe passed away in 1982, he left an organization and movement that was fundamentally transformed from what he had inherited from Robert Rosegrant in 1969. That year, the average credit union had 502 members and $271,000 in assets; by 1982, those numbers had grown to 1,293 members and $1,743,000 in assets, and many of those institutions were offering services, such as share drafts and ATMs, that would have been inconceivable a decade before. Some institutions of long standing, such as the VCCU and the New England Credit Union School, had fallen victim to the winds of change that were sweeping the credit union world, while others, like the League Services Corporation, had been established and thrived in spite the troubled economic environment. Even the League itself had changed; several staff members had been added over the course of the 1970s, and the first female chair of the board, Wanda Baril, began her tenure in 1980. As he prepared to turn over the leadership of the movement to the next generation, Howe concluded his long service to credit unionism by observing in his final report to the League that:

Roy F. Bergengren left us the League as [a] legacy and we have attempted to provide our Vermont credit unions with information, assistance and the protection necessary for cooperative financial institutions to survive and prosper. ... The decade ahead will present new challenges to credit unions. The challenges can become opportunities for credit unions willing to provide the services their members expect. To take advantage of the opportunities, we must have a return to traditional credit union unity, solidarity and philosophy. ... The late President John F. Kennedy stated ... our purpose eloquently when he said: "United there is little we cannot do in a host of cooperative ventures. Divided, there is little we can do, - for we dare not meet a powerful challenge at odds and split asunder."4

1 1975 VCUL Annual Meeting Report.

2 1976 VCUL Annual Meeting Report.

3 1971 VCUL Annual Meeting Report.

4 1982 VCUL Annual Meeting Report.

 

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