Many years ago, I became a member of the Sandymount Credit Union. At the time I was advised that it might come in handy to be a Credit Union member if you needed a loan for a short period of time. I never went for the loan and don’t have much money on my credit union account, but curiosity drove me to attend this year’s Annual General Meeting (AGM).

My formerly little Credit Union has undergone a whole range of mergers and now is called “Capital Credit Union” with a whopping 40,000 members and something like 14mio of deposits. Every single member if a Credit Union is automatically a share holder and is therefore invited to the AGM and out of the 40,000 members an extremely disappointing amount of maybe 200 people came to that meeting that votes for the board members, makes decisions about the future and also is meant o hold the credit union accountable.

The age profile and the behaviour of the 200 was very interesting. I would guess that the average was well above 65 years of age and you were wondering of the majority came just for the draw of a few Christmas Food Hampers and cash prizes because the interest in the proceedings didn’t seem to be the main reason for their attendance.

The Board of Directors sat on the stage and – lead by the Chairman and assisted by the Credit Union Manager – they ran through their programme with the clear expectation that there would not be much if any opposition to their running of the Credit Union.

I should mention that Credit Unions in Ireland have a long standing and are not banks, but are cooperative lending institutions. Nowadays, though, they have to become more and more like banks or they will be wiped out. So they are in the unique position of being a cooperative organisation that is owned by the members and a the same time an organisation that is looking after a sizeable amount of money and is expected to do that as good as a bank would.

My image of Credit Unions before attending the AGM was that they are a friendly and customer-focused mini-bank that is run highly democratic, but my pretty image got a big dent!

At the AGM was one member who was very much different than the rest. He was contrarian and disagreed or at least questioned nearly everything. Interestingly he asked some very interesting questions that should have interested most members, but he was not very good in representing the interests of others, instead it seemed as if he was out on a crusade against the board of the Credit Union. A bit of a Don Quijote fighting against windmills. Maybe he defines himself through this opposition, maybe it is his yearly hour of fame that he lives for or maybe he really is passionate about the issues that he wanted to bring up.

Either way, he was bullied from the first minute by the chairman of the credit union to the point that he was threatened with being thrown out of the room and any further questions were ignored.

I didn’t agree with many things this gentlemen brought up and his motives were unclear and also he didn’t stick to a number of rules (questions were meant to be submitted before the AGM), BUT he was passionate and (most of) his questions seemed genuine. But the chairman and CEO saw him coming, had previous experience with his approach and were DETERMINED to shut him up.

Right at the beginning of the meeting resolution was voted on that seemed to have been written with the only purpose to shut up any difficult questions and especially from the said gentleman.

Democracy in Credit Unions? Not in the slightest!!! The board behaved in an shockingly arrogant manner against a person that seemed difficult but harmless. They even used the mob to shut up the lone opponent when the chairman asked the “masses” if they agreed that the contrarian gentlemen should not be allowed to continue asking his questions. The 70+ year old grannies and granddads who probably had no clue what the discussion was about anyway and just wanted get home to their hot warm milk were very much siding with the similarly aged chairman.

Instead of an example in cooperative management, it was a masterclass in bullying.

I have no doubt that the history (that I am not aware of) between the contrarian gentleman and the board of management had a LOT to do with the stance that was taken, but I would have expected better from the CEO of the Credit Union. The CEO and the board had no need to be shaken or even afraid, they seemingly did their job during the year in a good and justifiable and fully explainable manner, so why this frightened and dismissive approach when someone dares to question and hold them accountable?

Very odd and quite disappointing!