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Chris Smith served for almost 30 years on the board of the Co-operative Credit Union. He is founding chair of the Co-operative Credit Union and Dukinfield Credit Union and has served as vice chair of the Association of British Credit Unions (Abcul). He was chair of Greater Manchester Chapter of Credit Unions and a founding director of the Community Foundation for Greater Manchester. His experience in the sector led to his appointment to the government’s Task Force on Credit Unions. He was also involved in the co-op sector, working as head of social goals at the Co-op Group for 27 years until his retirement in 2007. He continues to pursue his passion for co-ops and credit unions with his podcast, Talking Credit Unions.

When did you first learn about credit unions?

I began working for the Co-operative Bank, back in the 1970s, and credit unions were already well known to the organisation. Many credit unions had already joined the Co-op Bank and I admired the way it held co-operative businesses as special and was supportive. That was my first influence, then in the 1980s I joined a local group of volunteers in Ashton-under-Lyne, who aimed to start up our own credit union, close to where we lived. We launched Ashton West End Credit Union, and later Dukinfield Credit Union. Both had a tiny common bond of people, many of whom were in difficult financial circumstances. We didn’t understand, in the early days, that you cannot create a common bond based on poverty and I began to realise, over time, that community credit unions need a diverse membership drawn from all parts of communities. Credit unions need waged members, savers, borrowers, and varying levels of household incomes to be viable. Community credit union common bonds needed to be larger and more diverse to grow and prosper and, most of all, they needed to professionalise if they wanted to attract new members from all parts of society.

Related: Credit unions tackle community development challenge at Abcul conference

How did you get involved in the sector and what attracted you to it?

I was introduced to Michael Parkinson, CEO of the main credit union trade association Abcul, in the late 1980s. I was already an active member of the Greater Manchester Chapter of Credit Unions, but Michael recruited me to the board of Abcul and by then I found I had much in common with these credit union pioneer volunteers and activists. 

In the 1990s I brought together a group of volunteers from workers in the various parts of the co-op movement in central Manchester (the Co-op Bank, CIS, Co-op Group, Co-op Union and Abcul). We launched the Co-op Family Credit Union in 1998, serving the workers of those co-op organisations in the Manchester area. The employers were helpful, and the credit union went on to extend its common bond to cover the whole of the UK. My greatest influencers, early in my credit union lifetime, have been Paul Jones (Liverpool John Moores University) and the late Ralph Swoboda. Paul because of his great understanding of what makes credit unions effective and purposeful and Ralph for his careful and wise influencing of credit union leaders to modernise and become more effective without compromising credit union values.

What does a regular working day look like for you?

I spend a great deal of time preparing, researching, recording, and editing podcasts. I’m cautious to not record too much material, as editing can be a time-consuming process, especially when dealing with large projects or complex audio tracks. In the last four years I have delivered Talking Credit Unions with Chris Smith podcasts on topics exclusively for credit unions, mostly in the UK and Ireland. I work in support of the Swoboda Research Centre, a valuable source for content, advice, and themes. I also have started on a separate podcast project that allows me to interview great characters in my life that have a great story to tell with a musical thread to their contributions. This project is called Time of my Life.

What do you see as the biggest challenges for the UK credit union sector and how do you think they could address these?

Many of the employee credit unions that serve a wide range of employee groups, such as transport workers, police, taxi drivers and health workers, have grown well in the last decade. They have professionalised and are succeeding even in tough times. The future of community credit unions is also not as gloomy as some critics predict. The scale economies, rationalisation and mergers, along with considerable modernisation, have seen some real successes in local and regional credit unions. Credit unions are in all the major cities and towns of Ireland and the UK. They have memberships measured in thousands and are often paying healthy dividends in many cases. Some may be struggling, in some regions, with the storm of the cost-of-living crisis, but so is every other business. Increased collaboration between credit unions will lead to more efficient shared services and scale economies and future governments have an enormous to do list but nurturing a vibrant credit union sector will pay big dividends for them and the people at large. 

It’s refreshing that the young generation of credit union managers appear to be embracing significant digital transformation, analytics, and innovative retail models. This must be the way forward.

I do have some concerns, for the future, that democracy on credit union boards will be diluted as the business becomes more sophisticated and perhaps ‘bank-like’. Boards of directors must maintain that unique ownership measure, on behalf of their members. As Tony Benn once said, “What power do you have; where did you get it; in whose interests do you exercise it; to whom are you accountable; and how can we get rid of you?”

Can you tell us more about your credit union podcast, Talking Credit Unions with Chris Smith? How often does it air? And how did the project start?

The podcast has been around for just over four years, with 32 individual podcasts released so far and almost 5,000 downloads from listeners all over the world. So not quite one per month, but about eight per year. I do this work entirely pro bono, with the Swoboda Research Centre covering some of my costs (hosting platforms, copyrights, equipment, etc). I’ve covered many aspects of topics in the credit union arena but gambling, poverty, dividends, mergers and how we survived lockdown have been popular. In some ways, the whole podcast project started because of lockdown. As with many things in daily life, it changed the way we communicate, and this gave podcasting a boost, so people became more aware of this easy communication medium. 

How could Co-op News readers listen to your podcast? 

Search Talking Credit Unions with Chris Smith or 

Talking Credit Unions with Chris Smith (buzzsprout.com)

Talking Credit Unions with Chris Smith | Podcast on Spotify

Talking Credit Unions with Chris Smith Podcast on Amazon Music

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