When Maurice Smith retired recently as CEO of Local Government FCU ($3.7B, Raleigh, NC), he left behind a long, diverse legacy of both service and innovation.
Smith had spent 13 years with State Employees’ Credit Union ($52.1B, Raleigh, NC) when he joined LGFCU, a SECU spinoff — a credit union within a credit union — chartered to serve local government employees across the Tarheel State through SECU’s existing branch network.
That was in 1992. In 1999, Smith was promoted from executive vice president to CEO, a post he held until he retired on Jan. 13 this year. Besides helping LGFCU grow into a multi-billion-dollar, 400,000-member cooperative, Smith also led the creation of yet another spinoff, Civic FCU ($113.8M, Raleigh, NC).
Civic was chartered in 2018 to serve the business lending and mobile technology needs of LGFCU’s existing membership. Smith also served as Civic’s CEO until his retirement.
Beyond his day-to-day duties, Smith has held senior leadership roles with CUNA, Filene Research Institute, African American Credit Union Coalition, National Cooperative Bank, and many more. He’s also found the time to graduate from law school and practice as a member of the Bar Association for North Carolina, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. Supreme Court.
He also is a court-certified mediator and a respected speaker and expert on such topics as diversity, corporate governance, law, and leadership.
Here, Smith looks back on his distinguished career and forward to what’s next.
“I would like to be remembered for the relationships I’ve come to treasure. I want to be seen as a person who valued collaboration to get things done.”
How has the credit union industry changed during your career?
Maurice Smith: As you might imagine, much has changed since President Jimmy Carter was in office. First, there’s the technical aspect of the business. In 1979, loan underwriting was a manual process. Data analytics was personal, obvious observations of what was occurring in our neighborhoods.
Today, the business is much more sophisticated. We have analytical tools that run at the speed of light. We source data from multiple platforms. We offer far more products today. We know more about our members and ourselves than ever before.
But there is a cautionary tale here. Modern advancements are not absolute substitutes for personal relationships and experience. Credit unions should be mindful of the social aspect of our business — we bring people together in important ways. We must resist the temptation to rely on the commoditization of our business as a natural evolution.
CU QUICK FACTS
Local Government FCU
DATA AS OF 06.30.22
HQ: Raleigh, NC
NET WORTH RATIO: 10.9%
Where do you think the movement is headed?
MS: Today, there are fewer than 5,000 credit unions in the wild. When I started my career, there were upwards of 18,000. The year 1943 was the last time we had fewer than 5,000 credit unions in the USA.
This is more than a novel data point. It appears the credit union movement is heading toward being an industry where size matters most. Size is important for scalability and meeting the growing complexities of financial management, but there is a place for community cooperative representation that should not be overlooked.
I don’t want to sound like a naysayer on growth. I was part of a large credit union. But we should not discount the social value of smaller credit unions that are the lifeblood of their memberships in thousands of communities around the country.
Has the importance of credit unions in serving the underserved and underbanked changed in recent years?
MS: Heck no! The mandate to serve the underserved is more important today than it ever was. Underserved communities face lots of obstacles. There are wolves in business clothing who will fleece members with predatory practices and prices when given the opportunity. Credit unions might be the last bastion of pure democratic member engagement that remains.
Every credit union story starts with some variation of this message. The credit union founders recognized the need for honest financial services for those of modest means. I don’t recall ever hearing a credit union boast it was founded by wealthy people to scratch one another’s backs. Serving underserved people is embedded in our DNA.
How can credit unions remain relevant today … and tomorrow?
MS: Stay on message. Look, credit unions can compete with any other type of financial company. We offer fantastic services, affordable prices, and good user experiences, but consumers want more. Consumers want to do business with an institution that reflects their values. They want to know they matter in the grand scheme of things.
Credit union members want value and functionality. They are socially conscientious. Credit unions have a story to tell that cannot be matched by other financial companies.
CU QUICK FACTS
DATA AS OF 06.30.22
HQ: Raleigh, NC
NET WORTH RATIO:8.3%
What would you like to be remembered for from your work at SECU, LGFCU, and Civic?
MS: I would like to be remembered for the relationships I’ve come to treasure. The friendships have been warm and enduring. I want to be seen as a person who valued collaboration to get things done.
I would often ask young people starting their career to plan their retirement party. I nudge them to imagine a time when we will gather in the breakroom wearing silly party hats, holding a cupcake, and making remarks about them. What would they want their colleagues to say?
If you want to be remembered for being kind, helpful, professional, dependable, and other positive traits, then live those qualities today. I want the same to be said of me.
What would you like to be remembered for from your work in the credit union industry as a whole?
MS: I have served on several boards in the movement. One might think I’m a busybody. Fact is, there are so many crucial works at play in the movement, I was drawn to be a contributor.
I was fortunate to be in the room when important decisions were being made. I’ve witnessed the unwavering focus on members in every decision. I’ve served alongside colleagues who were doggedly fixated on our cooperative values. I’m proud to have played a role in strengthening the movement alongside people committed to doing the right thing every time.
I want to be acknowledged as a team player. I deserve no more credit than that.
What advice do you have for someone assuming a role like yours in the industry today?
MS: With all the complex issues one will face when putting themselves in the role as a defender of our credit unions, stay grounded. It is imperative credit union leaders keep line of sight on what truly matters. Regulations, political advocacy, technology, investments, governance, operations, and the economy are important, but the members come above all.
Always keep in mind that in every state, in every community, in every home, there are members forced to make important kitchen table decisions — how to make ends meet, repair a broken-down vehicle, help an aging parent, save for the kids’ college. At the intersection of these dilemmas, our members are depending on their credit union to have the answers.
Leaders must not overlook these facts. If someone wants to make a difference, you must remember why our credit unions exist. If we pollute our focus with matters that distract us from the membership, we have lost our souls.
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What now? What are your plans for retirement?
MS: My professional coach raps me on the knuckles when I call this new season “retirement.” She says I’m not going home to sit on the front porch and count the squirrels. She’s right. I want to remain productive.
I plan to continue my law practice. My clients are mainly religious organizations and nonprofits. I find this work rewarding. I also help individuals work through some of their legal consumer issues. I find combining the spirit of credit unions with the discipline of the law prepares me to help people make better decisions in their lives.
I also am entertaining some opportunities to consult and collaborate with credit unions on strategic matters. If my experiences can be helpful to others, I’m happy to engage.
The Exit Interview series on CreditUnions.com features parting thoughts and insight from influential leaders in the credit union movement upon their retirement. See the whole series here.
What’s left on your bucket list?
MS: My wife says we’re going to have fun whether I like it or not. We’re on a trek to visit all 50 states. Four more to go. Afterward, we plan to travel and see our national treasures and appreciate all the beauty our country has to offer.
What are your final words to the credit union industry?
MS: Let’s put this in the context of a courtroom. Imagine there’s a case between credit unions and all other financial providers. The issue for debate is who is better for consumers. The jury is our members. All the evidence has been presented. The closing arguments await.
I would state underserved and underrepresented people are the victims of bad actors. There is irrefutable proof that credit unions are better for consumers than profit-driven institutions with loyalties to investor stakeholders. Credit unions remain the pure choice for consumers who want an equal governance stake in their finances.
I rest my case. The verdict is in. Credit unions are the best choices for consumers. The court of public opinion orders credit unions to take their place as the best choice for consumer justice. Popular opinion agrees the future for credit unions is enduring and bright.
This interview has been edited and condensed.