Obituary: Credit union pioneer Ralph Swoboda (1948 – 2021)

Chris Smith pays credit to credit union pioneer Ralph Swoboda

Ralph Swoboda died suddenly on 13 September in Dublin. He was a giant of the international credit union movement, was the key individual promoting change in the British credit union movement from the 1990s onwards and was recognised equally throughout Ireland as a key player in ensuring the contemporary relevance of credit unions.

An attorney by training, Ralph had 47 years’ experience in the USA and international credit union sector, having served as president/CEO of Credit Union National Association (CUNA, a US credit union trade body), as chair of the management committee of the Association of British Credit Unions Ltd (ABCUL), and later as head of international operations for CUNA Mutual Group, at that time serving credit unions in nearly 30 countries.

Ralph also served as a director of numerous credit union and co-operative organisations in America and internationally, including CARE USA, US Central Credit Union, and the Filene Research Institute (of which he was one of the founders). He essentially became something of an individual World Council for Credit Unions all on his own. 

Ralph co-founded Credit Union Financial Analytics (CUFA Ltd) in August 2013 with Declan Mooney and Pintu Jacob. CUFA started with seven credit unions onboard from when Declan and Pintu had been involved with an earlier company. Today the organisation has approximately half the Irish credit union market by assets, has successfully licensed its software for distribution in the US and has seen several sales.

As if running a company in a very competitive software space wasn’t enough to fill Ralph’s time, in 2017 he teamed up with Paul A. Jones, of Liverpool John Moores University and Nick Money, a long-standing consultant in the co-operative sector, to create the Centre for Community Finance Europe (CFCFE).  CFCFE is the only bespoke research centre for credit unions in Ireland and Britain and addresses strategic, tactical and operational issues of sustainability, such as corporate governance, business strategy, product/service development and risk management. Ralph once described CFCFE as an initiative that has “morphed into what is basically the Filene Research Centre of Europe”.

Ralph Swoboda spent all his life in the credit union movement.  The day before his sudden death, he was actively organising the September CFCFE conference in Manchester.  He was the last in the line of Credit Union National Association (CUNA) presidents who served in a job filled by people who only came from within the credit union community. He lived and breathed credit unions till the end.

I knew Ralph for over 30 years, and he had such wonderful qualities. Setting aside that he was a workaholic, and that many people would see emails from him dispatched in the early hours of the morning, he had an enormous capacity to simplify issues and then influence people to understand and move forward. I’ve seen him with politicians, civil servants, credit union workers, managers who all admired his charm, skill and his humble style of communication. 

He had a real soft spot for Britain, especially Manchester, and for Ireland, where he lived for over half of the year. He was always fascinated by how we got things done (or not). But he was always aware of how things had been done previously and then employed a gentle but tenacious way of helping people achieve change for the better.

It is without doubt that the seminal research, ‘Towards sustainable credit union development’, written by Dr Paul A. Jones in 1999, was driven and inspired by Ralph. He challenged the then leaders of many small British credit unions to professionalise their businesses and modernise methods of savings and loans to compete effectively with other financial services businesses on the high street. Ralph said in 1999: “Some British community credit unions have so little member accessibility by being only open two hours a week, and with member collection points in church foyers and community centres, they are probably unsustainable”. 

He added, “These are well intentioned and principled people running credit unions, but the day will come when the current founding volunteers pass away and then, without employees or volunteers to replace them, the business will fail”. He once said, “The popular (1980’s) British model of credit unions, being primarily an anti-poverty device, is flawed. There is no common bond of people in poverty”. The research Ralph inspired paved the way to greater credit union professionalism and levels of sustainability throughout the British credit union sector, the benefits of which we see in many modern efficient and sustainable credit unions to this day.

Ralph thoroughly enjoyed his last years on this side of the Atlantic. He leaves behind many good friends and many great memories. Ralph and his wife Sheryl had been together 30 years when he passed. Ralph always referred to her as his rock and jokingly as the CEO of Swoboda Inc. May Sheryl and family find peace as Ralph Swoboda will live on in the hearts of credit union people for years to come. He was not only a true visionary for credit unions in Britain and Ireland but also inspired and achieved change across the global credit union family.