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An Interview with Denise Cooper, President/CEO of Upper Cumberland Federal Credit Union

What was your first job overall and what was your first credit union job?
My first job was selling Sarah Coventry jewelry when I was in High School.  I opened my first checking account and sold jewelry to students, family, and neighbors.  I learned a lot about managing money and being responsible for my own little business world.  My first and only credit union job began as the sole employee of a $480,000 asset credit union.  I posted payroll deductions, wrote checks to members, and kept up with the bookkeeping.   In those days I was so young that I thought having a visit from a federal examiner was like having a visit from someone from the Tennessee Credit Union League.

How did you get brought into the industry? 

Denise Cooper
Denise Cooper, President/CEO of Upper Cumberland Federal Credit Union

The credit union served employees of the Carter Ink Company from Massachusetts, Tennessee, and North Carolina.  The credit union was transferred from the Massachusetts Carter Ink company to Crossville, Tennessee in 1978 and needed to hire one employee.  I was hired at 19 and worked five or six years as the only employee.  I was thrilled when we had grown large enough to have the second employee!

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received early in your career?
Joe Rogers, a great TCUL consultant, was so passionate about serving the credit union members.  He taught me the basics of how to handle the credit union books and taught me to never forget that everything I did was for the member.  He really knew how to teach a new credit union employee about the history of credit unions and what credit unions mean to this country.

Did you ever have a moment when everything just clicked and you felt like what you were doing was what you were meant to do?  
After working for the credit union for about four years I was offered a job at a community bank.  Since the bank was located one mile from my home I only thought about how great it would be to have a short commute to work.  Within two weeks of taking the bank job I knew I had made a huge mistake.  I had not realized how much I loved helping the blue collar worker, low-income, elderly, etc.  Big bank accounts did not impress me.  I was most impressed when someone making very low wages would find a way to save money each week by payroll deduction.

I had worked for the bank almost a year when my credit union called and offered me a job since their only employee was leaving.  I was so happy to come back to the credit union world!  I have never considered another profession since!

Or did you feel you were meant to do something else? 
I think being in the Air Force would have been an amazing job but I truly feel I am where I should be.

Can you give a story or stories for how your credit union helped a member when a bank wouldn’t?

  • We had a family that was desperately trying to move close to their aging parents.  A huge financial institution had been dragging their feet for 45 days on a mortgage.  The family came to us because they thought they would lose the deal to get the house close to their parents.  UCFCU closed the loan for the family in 10 days.
  • We had one member that was using check cashing/payday loan outlets to finance unexpected expenses for her children in high school.  She had a low credit score because her only credit history was the payday loans.  UCFCU financed $3,000 for her so she could pay off the check cashing/pay day loans and she has been a model credit union member ever since.
  • We finance single wide and double wide mobile homes which makes up 5% of our loan portfolio.
  • We offer a $2500 EZ Line of Credit for people that have colorful credit and we have not had any charge-offs on the EZ Line of Credit.
  • We finance older autos and even classic cars.  Several banks recommend us to their customers for financing older vehicles.
  • One of our checking account options allows the member to be negative up to $600 for up to 30 days without per item NSF fees.

What’s the one thing that, when a young professional that reads this, you want them to take away?
If you do not love the credit union world of “people helping people” then find something that you are passionate about and go for it!  Life is too short to spend 40 hours a week in a job that you do not love.  If you stay in credit union world then please listen to the members.  They are talking to your credit union even when they are silent, not using your services, or closing an account.  How can you help your credit union really hear what your credit union members are saying? That is a great challenge and a great job!

The credit union industry, like any business in this day and age, faces new challenges and new opportunities. Is there something you wish that credit unions would get into that they are not already? 
I believe Peer to Peer Lending is the future for credit unions.  I don’t think our future members will tolerate loan committees, loan officers, etc.  The credit union investor and borrower want more control in the financial picture.

How do credit unions reinvent themselves and stay relevant to a younger demographic when faced with so much competition from banks & other non-traditional forms of banking?  
This is a tough question because there are many products that we would like to offer but we are so heavily regulated that our hands are tied.  For instance, we have a lot of creative mortgage financing ideas but we cannot get them out the door because of the regulations.  This is another reason I think the Peer to Peer Lending model is a way to attract a younger demographic.

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