The similarities are remarkable. The first credit union started in 1909 with an initial deposit of 10 cents. The Green Bay Packers started in 1919 with a $500 loan from the Indian Packing company for uniforms and equipment. Both had two co-founders: Curly Lambeau and George Whitney Calhoun for the Packers, Edward Filene and Roy Bergengren for The Credit Union Movement. It was a monumental year in 1921 for each organization with the Packers joining the NFL and the formation of the Credit Union National Extension Bureau, creating laws for credit unions to form in all states.
Both organizations are non-profit. The Packers are owned by the community. A credit union is owned by a community of people with a common bond. Both of the corporations are directed by volunteers. The Packers had a core group of volunteers nicknamed "The Hungry Five." The Credit Union Movement had their version of "The Hungry Five," too. Without dedicated volunteers, neither organization would have survived the hardships they endured in the early years of their existence. Let's stroll down memory lane of these two great entities.
Edward Filene, Alphonse Desjardins, and Pierre Jay form the first United States credit union, St. Mary's Bank, in Manchester, New Hampshire.
Curly Lambeau and George Whitney Calhoun found the Packers in the editorial room of the Green Bay Press Gazette
. They end their first season with a 10-1 record, losing only to the Beloit Fairies.
Filene organizes and funds the Credit Union National Extension Bureau. The CUNEB focuses on forming new credit unions, enacting state laws to charter credit unions, and promoting the philosophy of credit unions.
Meanwhile, The Packers become a professional franchise when they join the newly formed association now known as the National Football League (NFL). Their franchise is revoked at the end of the season when the league is told by George Halas that the Packers used college players in a game. The incident signals the start of the infamous Packers-Bears rivalry. Lambeau appeals to the NFL and is reinstated after paying a $50 fine.
The Credit Union Movement stalls, embroiled in internal disputes about how to proceed. Less than 300 credit unions exist. Filene is determined to not let The Movement fail, funding the effort by hiring Roy Bergengren full-time. He finds success starting credit unions with railroad and postal workers, civil servants, and teachers. From these groups, Bergengren cultivates an ever-widening band of disciples. Volunteers start spreading the word about credit unions in their industries and neighborhoods.
During this era, banks rarely provide loans to working people, leaving only usurious alternatives. The need for affordable credit is obvious to most companies and factories. On paydays their offices are often crowded with sheriffs, installment officers, loan sharks, and process servers, all waiting for a piece of the workers' paychecks. Although some well intentioned employees want to help by financially supporting or running a credit union, Bergengren makes it clear that money must come solely from members and be managed through their own elected officers and directors. Their common interest and control encourages involvement, and involvement is critical to success.
As for The Green Bay Packers, with their franchise deeply in debt following a weather-plagued season, local businessmen known as "The Hungry Five" meet at the Elks Club and set in motion plans for a stock sale to save The Packers. They also incorporate the team as a non-profit corporation and establish a board of directors.
The stock market crash of 1929 causes a financial crisis that leads to the Great Depression. Personal income drops significantly with unemployment rising to over 25%. Yet, both The Credit Union Movement and The Green Bay Packers enjoy success!
Ironically, The Credit Union Movement makes its biggest strides to date during the Great Depression. The Movement grows to over 3,000 credit unions because it impresses upon working people the importance of thrift and inexpensive credit. People are drawn to credit unions' message of hope as well as practicality.
9,000 banks fail during the 1930s, with 4,000 failing during 1933 alone. Alternatively, very few credit unions close, and--when they do--it is usually because they had placed their reserves in a bank that failed. Credit unions survive because they invest in people; for example, one credit union had assets of $10,000 and more than $8,000 in loans outstanding when the plant where it was located closed for 17 months. When the plant re-opened, the credit union members--a few of whom had found new jobs--reduced their loans to $800.
After going through modest winning seasons during most of the 1920s, little Green Bay's surprise 7-0 victory over the New York Giants and their first trip to the "Big City" creates a huge buzz and glowing coverage from large metropolitan newspapers. The Packers begin to build a championship-caliber team, as they sign three future Hall of Famers--"Johnny Blood" McNally, Cal Hubbard, and Mike Michalske.
The Packers win their first NFL championship in 1929 with a 12-0-1 record, the only undefeated season in Packers history. (Their only blemish is a tie with the Frankford Yellow Jackets.) The Packers are able to successfully defend their title in 1930, and win their third straight league championship in 1931.
Roy Bergengren believes the state-by-state approach to start new credit unions has reached its limit. Forty states already have credit union laws, but small, powerful groups of hostile legislators prevent favorable legislation for the rest of the states. The passage of a federal law would instantly override their opposition. Although congress is occupied with New Deal legislation, Bergengren manages to cultivate support while Filene has the ear of President Roosevelt. On June 26, 1934, the Federal Credit Union Act becomes law, authorizing federally chartered credit unions in the United States. Two months later, credit union delegates from across the country board trains to Estes Park, Colorado to create a national organization--The Credit Union National Association (CUNA).
At the same time, the Packers scuffle in 1933 and 1934, having their first-ever losing season. Additionally, a fan who injures his back when bleachers collapse at City Stadium is awarded a $5,000 lawsuit that forces the Packers into bankruptcy receivership during the appeal process. In the following year, the Packers pull out of receivership, reorganizing under the Green Bay Packers, Inc. Lambeau is able to build another elite team, signing more future Hall of Famers like Clarke Hinkle, Arnie Herber, and--most notably--Don Hutson in 1935. The Packers become a perennial championship team in the NFL for the next decade, primarily due to Lambeau and Hutson revolutionizing football through the development and utilization of the forward pass.
Talk about two organizations that are like the proverbial cat with nine lives! What if Lambeau was born in a different town? What if the Indian Packing Company refused to front the $500 in startup costs? What if the NFL refused to reinstate the Packers?
Lambeau was also the only paid employee of the Packers in the early years. What if the volunteers did not donate the countless hours of their time, putting up a fence around Hagemeister Park so they could route fans through a gate, collecting donations and small fees in their hats? What if they did not have the skills to recruit great players that won championships, creating an enduring loyalty still enjoyed today?
Similarly, what if Filene never learned of this concept of cooperative credit that started in Germany? What if he was not a true believer in the business model of a credit union operated by its members, compelled to learn something about banking, the value of regular saving, and the wise use of credit? What if he did not have wealth to single-handedly fund The Movement in the early years?
Like Lambeau with the Packers, Bergengren was the only paid employee in the early years. What if the volunteers who actually made up these credit unions did not have the dedication to weather the tough times? What about the state and federal legislators who took up this great cause, standing against powerful opposition? Where would we be without them?
There is no doubt that it took very special people to pave the way so that we can all enjoy and benefit in so many ways from these two great organizations. Here's to the next 100 years of continued success for the Green Bay Packers and The Credit Union Movement!