The end of an era? BCU members vote on merger

The bcu founding group. Image taken at the Pub With No Beer in 2004.
The bcu founding group. Image taken at the Pub With No Beer in 2004.

Back in 1970 several hundred commercial banana farms operated along the Nambucca River, with most located on Crown Land.

Without the leverage of land as an asset, the region's banana farmers found it nigh impossible to persuade banks to lend them any money.

But our local farmers are nothing if not an industrious bunch, and a workaround was eventually found.

It's been nearly 50 years since Bill Ussher and Neville Spear came together to create the Nambucca Banana Growers' Federation Members Credit Union.

Neville's son Stephen remembers the very first office of what eventually became known as the Bananacoast Community Credit Union (bcu) was originally located underneath his parents' bed at Grays Crossing, a few clicks from The Pub With No Beer.

After the first year of operation, the credit union had 58 members and just under $7000 in assets to its name.

In its second year it expanded to Coffs Harbour, where the first full-time office was eventually established, and by 1977 the credit union was a million-dollar entity.

But it kept its unique and personal touch; in the beginning loan repayments were not the weekly or monthly headaches we know today - farmers chipped away at their loans one crate of bananas at a time, with roughly 20 cents from each going towards loan repayments.

Stephen Spear even remembers a few farmers borrowing above and beyond the loan maximum.

"And they always paid it back. That's just the way it was - it'll never be the same again," he said.

A lot has changed for bcu and the banking industry in general over the past 50 years.

But perhaps the biggest change for the Nambucca Valley's largest export is just around the corner.

This Sunday, October 20, voting will close for members who are currently deciding whether bcu should merge with Western Australia's Police and Nurses (P&N) Bank.

The cost pressures of the exponential rate of technological change, rising competition in the market, and a low-growth economy have all been put forward as reasons for the merger by the board's chair.

"The bcu directors are of the view that despite bcu's historical sound profitability, merging with another banking organisation at some time in the future is inevitable," Chair Steve Targett said.

The board from 1987

The board from 1987

It's not the first time bcu has undergone a merger - in 1985 it merged with Mid North Coast Credit Union, and in 2005 with Big River Credit Union - but this time is different.

If, by Sunday, 25 per cent of bcu's members have voted, and 75 per cent of those have done so in favour of the merger, then P&N - by far the larger of the two - will control the majority of the continuing entity, and hold seven of the ten positions on the board.

All of this, of course, also hinges on whether P&N members agree to the merger.

There have been guarantees made to bcu members that the credit union's branding, and branch and staffing numbers will be left untouched.

And there is a promise to appoint a bcu general manager (to be based in Coffs Harbour) and establish a bcu advisory council.

The feeling on the ground

Quite a few members Guardian News has heard from have expressed sadness at what they believe is the end of an era.

A few have chosen to vote 'no'; some for admittedly sentimental reasons, others because they have concerns about the financial volatility of Western Australia, and doubts about the guarantee made to keep stores open, staff on, and the brand unchanged.

Maz Syratt has been a bcu member for 30 years and said while she voted "yes, with reservations", she knows a few people who were adamantly against the merger.

"It is a complex issue. Initially I was of the 'no' brigade. And I think here in the Valley there's a very heartfelt core that this is ours and we don't want to lose it," she said.

We're placing a lot of trust in promises that might not come into fruition.

She said over 100 people attended the recent members' meeting in Macksville, with nearly half of those from Bowraville and surrounds.

"People do care, are interested, and a lot of questions were asked," she said.

"With all the banks closing around the region, having a branch at Macksville, Nambucca and Bowraville is very important."

But Todd Vercoe said he voted yes because he believes the merger is a sensible business decision.

"If bcu wants to remain competitive, it needs to have more leverage in the market," he said.

Ultimately it's better that this takes place at a time of bcu's choosing, rather than being forced at an inopportune time in what could very well be a hostile takeover.

Other members have remained skeptical of the promise to keep bcu branding unchanged, but Todd said it doesn't make business sense to touch the credit union's identity.

"While they're on the other side of the country, P&N are also community-based. And I'm hard-pressed to think of a situation in which they would drop that well-established branding over here."

Bryan Ussher, the son of founding father Bill Ussher, said while he's not exactly happy it's happening, he believes the writing is on the wall and the merger opportunity with P&N is the best way to make sure the bcu brand remains in the region.

"Change is always inevitable. Nothing stays the same forever. If it did, the credit union would never have started in the first place," he said.

"Dad did a lot of the groundwork with Neville Spear to get it started. He put a lot of work into it which, as kids, we all saw happen.

Bill Ussher

Bill Ussher

"It's now grown to the point where we believe it's the largest single organisation ever to come out of the Nambucca Valley. We are very proud of what they did.

"bcu today still values having branches open so people can talk to people. Keeping that and the brand is very important to me."

Founder Neville Spear's son Michael, a former director of bcu, said he would vote yes, but do so with mixed feelings.

"There's still a strong bond there for me and there's still a strong loyalty to bcu. I am one of the early members," Mr Spear said.

"I saw so much voluntary work go into that business in the early days. There was terrific dedication from a lot of people who got nothing in return. It was wonderful to witness."

Mr Spear said that more than a decade ago, he and other directors had recognised that bcu required "greater size or critical mass" and had explored merger opportunities.

"Given the rate of consolidation in the credit union industry, a merger or mergers for bcu seems inevitable and this merger may be the best chance of keeping the bcu brand," he said.

He said that whether the merger was with a bigger player or several smaller ones, the ultimate result was a likely loss of the level of control members currently had.

"It introduces a lot of emotions for me. I accept that the organisation will evolve. It evolved from being a banana-industry based organisation to being a community credit union all up and down the coast," he said.

To me it's sad to watch the demise of smaller players in so many industries in Australia. But even in the banana industry where bcu started, many of the smaller players have gone. It's a sign of the times.

Michael's brother Stephen said he wasn't 100 per cent sure how he would vote until he spoke with a few people about what would happen with the brand.

He said while driving from Taree recently he noticed the Holiday Coast Credit Union in Hastings had gone - swallowed up by Regional Australia Bank, and said similar mergers were happening in the Tablelands with Bendigo Bank.

After talking with the P&N CEO Andrew Hadley, he said he was convinced this merger was the best option at the moment for bcu.

"Options after the October 22 general meeting could be far worse," he said.

"I think it's good to know who you're merging with rather than it being forced upon you. I think bcu has a good idea of where they're going and if everything works out as planned it will definitely be for the benefit.

A few people have asked me what my dad and the others involved in setting up the credit union would have thought. I don't think they'd be disappointed.

"I think whether you're in the financial industry or agriculture the issue is that you have to get bigger to survive due to economies of scale.

"I want as many people as possible to vote. Whether you vote yes or no, either way, exercise your democratic right to vote."

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