From Dairyland to Down Under

A Wisconsin CU CEO on sabbatical in Australia finds clues for dealing with challenges facing U.S. CUs.

October 02, 2010
KEYWORDS australia , board , credit , unions
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Be a sponge.

That’s the best way to approach a leadership sabbatical in another country, says Kim Sponem, CEO of $1.5 billion asset Summit Credit Union, Madison, Wis. In other words—learn from your hosts, don’t offer unsolicited advice, and don’t be judgmental.

Sponem spent three months in Australia in 2010. She first worked with Abacus, Australia’s credit union trade association, then with mecu, a $2.2 billion asset credit union based in Melbourne. This was all part of a pilot exchange program launched by the World Council of Credit Unions (WOCCU).

Dairyland to Down Under


In Australia, CUs are taxed, there’s one regulator for all financial institutions, and board members often are paid.
Successful CUs in Australia have a clearly articulated vision and brand.
•  Board focus: Australian CUs have experienced many challenges now facing their U.S. counterparts, including reduced interchange income and accelerated industry consolidation.

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Australian credit unions have experienced many issues now facing U.S. credit unions, including challenges to their tax-exempt status, reduced interchange income, and accelerated industry consolidation.

“This was an opportunity to step into the future and see how Australian credit unions have been able to survive and thrive in a very bank-like environment,” Sponem says.

She tells Credit Union Magazine about what makes Australian credit unions successful, key differences between U.S. and Australian institutions, and what U.S. credit unions can learn from their counterparts Down Under.

CU Mag: How did your sabbatical come about?
Sponem: I was talking to Dave Grace [WOCCU’s vice president of association services] at a meeting, and asked if WOCCU had a sabbatical exchange program because they’re fairly prevalent in other industries. He said no, but they’d been thinking about starting one.

He contacted some folks in Australia, including Louise Petschler, CEO of Abacus. I proposed it to Andy Faust [Summit’s former CEO] and the board, and everyone thought it was a great idea.

I spent two weeks at Abacus and met with regulators and industry leaders. Then I joined mecu’s senior management team. I went to board and committee meetings, attended all senior management meetings and board planning sessions, led a project team, and met with community leaders. It was great.

Next: What did your family think about moving to Australia?

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