SOPOT, Poland — Unified back-office services and a single nationwide brand have helped even the smallest of Poland's credit unions thrive during difficult financial times. Additional changes to broaden services and outsource them to a management group led by the country's largest credit union are on track to further grow the system, as well as extend Poland's credit union success story.
Credit union collaboration remains the driving characteristic among these strategies, and credit unions of all sizes are growing as a result. This was the lesson U.S. credit union league and association executives learned last week during a study program arranged by World Council of Credit Unions (WOCCU) in Poland. A single brand, developed and supported by the National Association of Cooperative Savings & Credit Unions (NACSCU), Poland's credit union trade association and WOCCU member, has brought success to a system considered the largest locally owned financial entity in Poland.
"I'm very impressed with how the Polish movement in a very short time has taken the best from credit unions worldwide to create a system that is efficient, cooperative and exerts a major influence on Polish society," said Joseph Bergeron, president and CEO of the Association of Vermont Credit Unions. "I wish we could emulate that cooperation back home."
Bergeron was one of nine U.S. executives studying Poland's credit unions, which operate under the brand acronym SKOK, during an exchange visit led by WOCCU President and CEO Brian Branch. Other participants included WOCCU Second Vice Chair Anne Cochran, president and CEO of the Louisiana Credit Union League; Diana Dykstra, president and CEO of the California and Nevada Credit Union Leagues; Anthony Emerson, president and CEO of the Credit Union League of Connecticut; Michael Mercer, president and CEO of Georgia Credit Union Affiliates; John Radebaugh, president and CEO of the North Carolina Credit Union League; Patricia Sowick, vice president of league relations with Credit Union National Association and the American Association of Credit Union Leagues; Troy Stang, president of the Northwest Credit Union Association; and Dennis Tanimoto, president and CEO of the Hawaii Credit Union League. Victor Miguel Corro, vice president of WOCCU's Worldwide Foundation for Credit Unions and head of the International Partnerships Program, also attended.
As part of its week-long study of cooperative systems, the group met with NACSCU executives at the association's headquarters in Sopot and with SKOK Stefczyka, Poland's largest credit union named for Franciszek Stefczyk, who introduced financial cooperatives to Poland in the late 19th century.
Poland's original cooperatives disbanded during World War II. They were not revived until the Solidarity movement freed the country from Communist rule in 1989, when NACSCU helped reestablish Poland's credit union movement in partnership with WOCCU. The movement has since grown to one of the most successful in the world. Currently, Poland's 59 credit unions support 1,852 branches and serve 2.2 million members nationwide.
In addition to maintaining a unified market presence, which enables even small credit unions to compete on even footing with larger institutions, NACSCU's services to its credit union members include maintaining a centralized data processing system that supports a payment cards program; providing deposit insurance; managing credit bureau relationships; and raising capital for the system. In 2010, NACSCU established the Stefcyzk Credit Union Group, a management group headed by SKOK Stefcyzk that provides many of the marketing and technology functions for its seven member credit unions.
"Poland's credit unions continue to innovate within the framework of their collaborative model in new and effective ways," Branch said. "The winners in this strategy are the members of those credit unions."
Continued collaboration between institutions also enables the system to grow and for small credit unions to maintain their identity while providing competitive services. It is a lesson from which credit unions everywhere can benefit, according to Emerson.
"It's refreshing to see the compassion, the hunger and the true cooperative spirit with which Polish credit unions operate," Emerson said. "They know how to stick together, and they know that's what makes it all work."
World Council of Credit Unions is the global trade association and development agency for credit unions. World Council promotes the sustainable development of credit unions and other financial cooperatives around the world to empower people through access to high quality and affordable financial services. World Council advocates on behalf of the global credit union system before international organizations and works with national governments to improve legislation and regulation. Its technical assistance programs introduce new tools and technologies to strengthen credit unions' financial performance and increase their outreach.
World Council has implemented more than 290 technical assistance programs in 71 countries. Worldwide, 56,000 credit unions in 101 countries serve 200 million people. Learn more about World Council's impact around the world at www.woccu.org.