By Ray Birch
WINSTON-SALEM, N.C.–A CEO who was at the center at one of the most historic periods in credit union history and who plans to retire at year-end says it won’t be that battle he ultimately looks back on and remembers. Instead, he’ll remember most how the credit union helped so many members build financial “foundations.”
But first, before too much reflection takes place, there will be some adjusting to do, as Marc Schaefer says he doesn’t know what it’s like to not be working.
Schaefer, who said he’s been steadily working since he had a paper route and grass cutting jobs when he was 14, carried that hard-working ethic throughout his 35 years in the CU movement—starting as a controller at U.S. Postal CU in Washington in 1982, and finishing after leading $2.5-billion Truliant for 25 years. And in the middle of all that he was at the center of a piece of credit union history that it’s fair to say significantly altered the course of the movement.
As CUToday.info reported here as part of a series that marked the 20th anniversary of that historical turning point, Schaefer was a key player in the battle for the Credit Union Membership Access Act, better known as HR 1151.
“It's been a good long career, but what stands out the most in my mind from the earlier days is the existential threat to credit unions, as bankers tried to put the industry out of business,” said Schaefer.
Schaefer was referring to the American Bankers Association lawsuit that contended NCUA had misinterpreted the Federal Credit Union Act in allowing credit unions to serve more than one sponsor or “group.”
“And, of course, we were the credit union in the crosshairs then because we had that furniture factory in Asheboro, North Carolina, and the ABA sued the NCUA for allowing us to serve them,” said Schaefer. “That ended up being a nine-year slog through the district courts, the U.S. Court of Appeals and eventually the Supreme Court.”
Schaefer joined Truliant in 1995 when it was known as AT&T Family Federal Credit Union. Five years earlier, First National Bank & Trust in North Carolina had filed a lawsuit against AT&T Family, alleging it had violated the Federal Credit Union Act by expanding to serve non-AT&T-related businesses. Eventually, the state bankers association, several other banks and the American Bankers Association signed on as plaintiffs, and NCUA replaced the credit union as the defendant.
The case worked its way through the courts for nearly a decade before the Supreme Court stunned credit unions by announcing on Feb. 25, 1998 that it had ruled 5-4 against NCUA–and credit unions–on the issue of field of membership.
But, as history shows, the movement was able to turn the situation around with a united national grassroots campaign—the Campaign for Consumer Choice—which led to the passage of HR 1151, the Credit Union Membership Access Act.
“That was a seminal moment in the development and the history of credit unions, and one I will never forget,” said Schaefer.
While the fight to expand credit union services was historic, it does not define Schaefer’s career. He was long active in work done in conjunction with the World Council of Credit Unions, for instance.
“I grew up in Latin America,” said Schaefer. “It has been really rewarding to see how credit unions around the world are helping to improve the lives of the members they serve.”
Today, what the outgoing CEO said what he now gives a great deal of thought to is how Truliant is positioning itself for the future.
“If you have a legacy—what you've done at the credit union—and feel like it's been worthwhile, you think about how's that going to carry on after you leave,” said Schaefer. “I'm very proud of the people we have recruited, including Todd Hall, who will succeed me. I am proud of the team that he's built and of the team that came aboard before him.”
Schaefer emphasized the importance of technology in carrying Truliant, and any credit union, forward.
“Since we came out of AT&T Bell labs, we've always been technologically advanced, but obviously you have to work hard to stay there,” said Schaefer, who added that just as important as the technology that drives delivery channels is what’s behind them. “As Todd Hall has said, we have ‘Truliant-ized’ all of our delivery channels to put our members front and center in all that we do. This has been very gratifying, and I feel very good about our future built on our technology, our team and our mission.”
But Truliant FCU hasn’t just been about growing in digital channels. It has made a major commitment to growing in the Charlotte Metropolitan area, and has added 10 branches in the competitive market in just three years.
Veteran of Bank Battles
A veteran of bank battles–especially in a state with a strong bank presence and which is home to headquarters of Bank of America–Schaefer understands the conflicts between banks and credit unions will always exist. As credit unions get larger and larger, Schaeffer expects the banking industry will only increase its attacks, particularly on the CU tax exemption. In recent years, especially at the state level, bankers’ groups have begun to say they only want to have the tax exemption revoked for “large” institutions.
“But the argument about size is disingenuous,” said Schaefer. “It's not about the size of the institution, it's about what they do, what’s their structure. I know at Truliant we have focused on serving low-income people, and we are a low-income designated credit union. Large credit unions actually serve a large number of middle- and low-income families. The banking industry has been very disingenuous trying to separate the small and the large credit unions. It's just a ploy to try to eliminate credit unions, and I don't think most consumers and Congress believe what the banks are saying.”
And the focus in Washington should always be on what credit unions are doing, insisted Schaefer, who—as he prepares to step away from his career at Truliant, which uses the tagline, “Life Improved”—is satisfied with what the organization has done for its members.
“All the people that we've helped—it's difficult to quantify,” he said. “We have 240,000 members, so somewhere along the line tens of thousands of members of Truliant got a better deal and had a better situation in life because of what we did. They were able to buy a car and pay less interest, get a better CD rate, got some guidance from people that care about them, send kids to school and buy homes. We’ve helped them build their foundation for the future, and in retirement, that is what I will remember.”
With Washington having played such a pivotal role during Schaefer’s career, the credit union is hosting a retirement party at Art & Soul in the District on Monday Sept. 9 from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m.