For Whom the Bell is Tolling: Lessons From the End of the Road

By Frank J. Diekmann

Diekmann 2.0 Vertical

KEY WEST, Fla.–Sometimes, you have to go all the way to the end of the road if you really want the best view of the road you and your credit union’s members are traveling.

That was never more true than last week when credit unions met where the road literally ends (but also begins for a few) in Key West, Fla., where U.S. Federal Highway 1 terminates (and starts) and long lines of tourists line up all day long to pose next to the red, yellow and black concrete marker signifying the Southernmost Point in the continental United States, before heading to the bars along Duval Street, trundling over to Mallory Square to watch the sunset, and then falling back into the bars they had just fallen out of. 

For much of its existence after Henry Flagler extended his railway to the last Key in the chain, Key West was also the figurative end of the line, where outcasts and hippies and folks of all sorts burned out on what life on the mainland had to offer, found a home with a laid-back island life and a freedom to be themselves. A local resident of some renown, Ernest Hemingway, once wrote, “The world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places,” and Key West became a palm-treed dustpan with the collected sweepings of the strong and broken alike.

At one point all the people who had seceded from life even tried to secede themselves, and although the Conch Republic never succeeded in secession, it remains with us and apart from us to this day. 

Even if deep down you know you know “someday” isn’t coming and that you’ll never unbolt yourself from that desk job and the 9 to 5, just the It’s 5 O’clock Somewhere dream there is such a paradise to which you might retreat and soothe your bare feet in warm waters offers a bit of a refuge in and of itself, doesn’t it? And that brings me to the part where the author is supposed to say, hey, don’t tell anyone, and then reveal it’s all still there for the taking, that it’s a world so untouched if you’re there on the right ocean breezy night, you might just find Hemingway himself elbowing the bar at Sloppy Joe’s. 

The Bell Has Tolled

I’m sorry to say, the bell has tolled—and it’s ringing a loud reminder for any credit unions paying attention.

America’s growing population and surging real estate market have found Key West (and the rest of the Keys as you island-hop all the way back to Miami). When a few-hundred credit union reps arrived here for NAFCU’s CEOs and Senior Executives Conference last week, they witnessed an island being strained. 

Forget People Helping People, it’s all about People Helping Themselves to Other People’s Money. Most big brand name hotels generally start at $300 a night (for the NAFCU meeting it was more than $400). Credit unions were staying at the Margaritaville Hotel, and while Jimmy Buffett the entertainer sells a low-stress, forget-about-the-money vibe, Jimmy Buffett the businessman is estimated to be worth more than $500 million.

Old Florida bungalows that were once part of the seedy island charm are now refurbished as  “charming” B&Bs. Air fares often begin at RIDIC and end at ULOUS. Nearly every day, cruise ships far larger and taller than any building in town arrive and disgorge thousands of soon-to-be-sunburned tourists and their soon-to-be-credit-limit-burned plastic cards. Sloppy Joe’s? Now, it’s mostly just a buncha Joe’s getting sloppy. 

The Subtle Lessons

At all trade associations, including credit unions’, conferences and meetings are all included under the umbrella of “Education,” and while content is important, as any meeting planner in the Education Dept. will tell you after a few drinks, the first lesson you learn is location reigns supreme to everything else if you want the budget to finish with black numbers. That’s why CUs so often gather in San Francisco and Las Vegas and New York—and Key West. 

I’m pretty sure it wasn’t intended, but NAFCU bringing CEOs and senior execs to the Keys proved to be a wise location selection for obvious reasons (it was the largest-ever attendance at the conference, which had plenty of great content) and more subtle reasons (that few noticed, but you’ll see why below). 

During the direct educational sessions, the always captivating Dr. Eliot Eisenberg (the personification of the oxymoron “entertaining economist”) shared his bullish view on the economy and the forecast for what’s ahead–even if there’s a recession, it’s more than a year away, and it will be minor, he said, as reported here.

On the last day of the meeting, the latest jobs report numbers were released and they showed unemployment hitting a 50-year low. That was no surprise to attendees at the NAFCU meeting, who during a poll conducted via the conference app two days earlier had identified staffing problems and finding people as the number-one challenge they are dealing with right now. 

A Different Disruption

But that was the macro stuff, the big, national, across-the-USA datapoints. To get a better understanding of the micro issues and the day-to-day datapoints, you need to go to a much smaller point, say, perhaps, a tiny speck of land where the Gulf of Mexico meets the Atlantic Ocean. 

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You’re in violation of NCUA regulations if you stage a credit union conference where Uber isn’t cited as an example of a market “disruption,” and the NAFCU meeting was in compliance. But Uber hasn’t just disrupted/crushed the taxi cab industry, it’s also disrupted consumer focus groups. Credit unions have indirect lending, but there is also indirect learning, and it’s the most powerful form of feedback in which you can invest. Today, if you really want to hear what’s going on, do a focus group with your Uber driver. 

As I wasn’t staying in the conference hotel, I rode in eight different Ubers in Key West with eight different drivers in what was something like the octopuses on local menus—eight different legs to the same narrative.

A Surge in Rent

In the macro view shared by the economists, the job market is robust and wages are beginning to improve. In the micro view inside an Uber, drivers say they need the second or even third job, which is why they’re driving your butt around town. One driver worked in the bakery at the Publix supermarket in town, but said the company limited him to part-time work and few benefits.  Another driver told me when he moved to Key West 15 years ago, his rent was $925 a month. Today, he’s in that same 2/1 apartment, but the rent is $2,750. That B&B you may have stayed in, or second home wealthier people from up north bought to use a few months out of the year—those are the places the Uber drivers of the world used to rent before what the economists like to call “housing inventory” disappeared from the shelves. 

I should add, by the way, that one women who Uber’d me from my hotel to the NAFCU meeting was a staunch advocate of Keys Federal Credit Union. 

Before you say it, yes, I get it; Key West is a literal and figurative outlier in the economy. You pay a premium for the island lifestyle; even when you’re trying to get away from it all, you don’t really get away from it all. But there are thousands of other places just like it across the U.S. where the kinds of people who formed credit unions in the first place are looking for an island of their own that can help them stay afloat, and maybe even help them to save a little for a refuge of their own someday. 

What Trust is All About

Credit unions are fond of talking about how consumers find them more trustworthy than banks, so it would be good to not forget that Hemingway once also wrote, “The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.” 

Trips to resort locations on the CU dime are nice; but what’s much nicer is never forgetting there are a heck of a lot of people at the end of their own financial roads who very much could use a place to put their trust right now. 

Frank J. Diekmann is Cooperator in Chief at and can be reached at Frank@CUToday.infoor followed at FrankCUToday. 

Section: Standard
Word Count: 1762
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Copyright Year: 2019
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