Lessons From the ‘Shoe Cobbie’

Cobblers and CUs have this in common—serving people is its own reward.

May 8, 2013
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I was in the shoe repair shop—yes, they still have those—to have new heels put on a pair of boots.

The shoe cobbler, or “cobbie” as I call him, doesn’t have a fancy store.

It’s sort of a walk-in closet, with the same glass case, light fixtures, and signs that were likely there since the 1950s.

“How’s business?” I asked.

Turns out, the current economy has offered big business to a guy who repairs shoes. He has more than he can handle.

He shared how he opened his place, and how he kept it afloat when business wasn’t so good.

He talked about how he learned his trade: He worked 12 years for a guy who promised to sell him the shop someday when he retired.

Well, his mentor never retired, and he got tired of waiting.

So he decided to open his own place, though he knew it would be tough. At one point, he even sold scrap on the side to make ends meet.

“Well, you sure look happy today,” I said.

“This kid I knew in school wanted to be an astronaut, and today he isn’t,” he said. “Another kid wanted to be a football star. Today, he isn’t. Well, I wanted to be the shoe repair guy, and I am.

“I tell you what,” he continued, “I love this business. It’s all up to me. I’m in control of how things turn out. I love giving customers what they need, and I love coming to work.”

Why am I telling you about the shoe cobbie?

It reminded me of credit unions, and how all of you approach your work serving members and your communities.

Credit union people come to work every day because they’re in control. What do I mean by that? As nonprofit cooperatives owned by members, not stockholders, you don’t have to chase profits. You can simply serve your members.

Of course that means you’re not getting rich, either. Not like football stars or astronauts, anyway.

Like the shoe cobbie, who counts his successes one “fixed-up” pair at a time, all of you count your credit union’s successes the same way:

• The worker living paycheck to paycheck who now has an emergency fund.

• The family whose commitment to a monthly budget avoids a foreclosure.

• The teenager who already has opened an individual retirement account.

• The student who can manage both a credit card and a student loan.

• The single mom whose increased credit score means she’ll be able to own a more reliable car.

• The young couple who opts for a first home within their means.

• The small business whose modest loan renovates space for a new employee.

• The community whose youth center or other program thrives with the credit union’s help.

For both the shoe cobbie and credit unions, serving people in small ways is its own reward. But what credit unions achieve in doing so isn’t so small after all.

At the Wisconsin Credit Union League’s state Government Affairs Conference in January, lawmakers received a copy of Wisconsin credit unions’ latest Scorecard—a report that shows how they helped their communities and saved members close to $1 billion since the start of the Great Recession in 2007.

It wasn’t uncommon to see lawmakers’ eyes pop in amazement or their jaws drop.

It delights me to see the reaction because—having played a role in showcasing this kind of data for years—I’m reminded that the many simple ways credit unions serve their members day in and day out add up to an awe-inspiring level of social responsibility.

Credit unions are united for good. And your impact is nothing short of amazing.

So for all you’ve done and continue to do for your members and communities, I salute you.

Here’s to great shoes—and credit unions.

CHRISTINE HENZIG is director of communications with the Wisconsin Credit Union League. Contact her at 262-408-6019.