Geoff Whalan is chief executive of the Northern Territory Credit Union and is a director of his industry’s peak body, the Credit Union Services Corporation. He was formerly chief executive of Southern Cross Credit Union in New South Wales. He is a Fellow of the Australian Institute of Management.
AIM: Why did you get involved in credit unions?
Whalan: I was attracted to the credit union concept because of their democratic way of running the financial system for people. Dealing with finances is an important personal and emotional part of people’s lives.
There is a lot of pressure now for people to spend beyond their means; developing self-discipline is one of the greatest challenges in people’s lives. Of course we still have to make a profit and satisfy capital guidelines. Capital adequacy guidelines, maximum exposure to clients and liquidity guidelines are exactly the same for us as for the banks. They all emanate from Basel, the Bank of International Settlements.
AIM: How do you understand the competitive positioning of credit unions?
Whalan: We tend to have a predominance of consumers, we do not have so much in business. We have to compete on the same footing as banks. Being smaller, our advantage is our ability to maintain partnerships with individual members, but we can never have the same economies of scale as the banks.
AIM: How do you deal with that?
Whalan: Through the national body, the Credit Union Services Corporation (CUSCAL), we aggregate things like credit-card production, ATM networks, mortgage preparation and loan securitisation. It has been going on since the early 1970s. CUSCAL, in terms of size, is about as big as a medium-size bank. That is why we are able to compete on most products and still have a local flavor.
Credit unions all have a distinct personality: friendly, professional, family-orientation; a bit like a middle-aged motherly woman. Other service organisations would kill for that image.
AIM: What is distinctive about the Northern Territory?
Whalan: Territorians are a proud and parochial people who like to think of themselves as pioneers, living on the fringe, but with a sophisticated local economy. Most Territorians originally came from Melbourne, Sydney or Perth. Those who stay more than a couple of years tend to stay for good. I was born in the Western suburbs of Sydney, but I couldn’t imagine ever leaving the Territory now.
AIM: Are there distinctive management challenges?
Whalan: The Territory is a young place. The average age is 28.5, about ten years younger than Adelaide. The people like to have flexibility in everything they do.
AIM: What does that mean?
Whalan: There is virtually no unemployment; I perhaps could say there is no voluntary unemployment. My estimate in the services industry is that there are only nine employees for every ten positions.
AIM: What is your personal approach to recruitment?
Whalan: Most recruitment is done through poaching. In the finance industry you are looking for people who are service-oriented in outlook. You do need financial knowledge, but most of all you need to be good at creating relationships.
We have high female participation, all the way from top management down. Out of 60 staff, we have only six males. The senior management team is 50-50 and the board of directors is 50-50.
Whalan: I have always had a strong belief that female participation is important on the board and in senior management and that, where possible, directors should be non-executive. The reason and I often get into arguments with my male colleagues about this is that female participation adds to the strategic outlook. Female managers have a longer time horizon than males. Any business that does not seek female participation at the senior level is endangering itself; it won’t have a strategic outlook.
AIM: Are there other management approaches that you stress?
Whalan: Another reason for our success is trusting staff to make the right decisions in reversing a fee or changing a charge to satisfy a member. No one will ever be disciplined for making a decision for members.
From a manager’s point of view, the biggest challenge is to manage priorities, whether it be electronic commerce or new legislation. And I always try to put aside my personal values in decision-making. When you are managing a corporation, your customers don’t always necessarily share your personal values.