Joanne O’Donnell works as the Risk and Compliance Officer with Laboratories Credit Union (LCU) based in North Ryde, NSW. Such a job did not exist when Joanne began her credit union career with Universities Credit Union in 1989. In those days, Joanne says, regulatory reports took up two pages annually, now they are expected to file a 130 page report per quarter. Although she understands the need for regulation, she feels that in a perfect world, all that time could be better spent serving the members.

Joanne was born in London and her first job after leaving school was at the famous Barclays bank when she says she “was frog marched down there by the Maths teacher when she decided to leave school early”. 

From retail banking with Barclays, she ended up in merchant banking at Sumitomo Bank for six years, Joanne said:

It was an interesting experience before computerisation, we stayed back until 3 o’clock in the morning until the telexes came in from Japan and America. We could then close the books. That would be every 6 months. We would have a limousine waiting outside to take us all home. The heady days of the 80s ended. When I left that job, I escaped the golden handcuffs to see the world. Sumitomo treated their staff very well.

Joanne’s connection to Australia arose when she met her husband here on her travels. Eventually settling in Australia, she took up work with NAB and then Universities Credit Union in 1989. Of this switch Joanne told us:

I worked for the NAB for about one year. Then I saw a job advertised at a credit union. I had never even heard of credit unions before. I applied for the job as a part time Members Services Officer with Universities Credit Union and that began a life-times attachment to the credit union movement.

We were based at UNSW and there was a couple of branches at other NSW Universities. I was at one of the branches, initially. When a full-time job opportunity arose, I applied for it and eventually became the Assistant Accountant. I worked there right through to October 1993.

From there Joanne took on a more senior role in what today would be considered a very small mutual indeed. From October 1993 to July 1999, Joanne was the Secretary Manager (i.e. CEO) of Waverley Bus Depot Employees Credit Union.

As the name suggests, Waverley Bus Depot Employees Credit Union began in 1966 to meet the needs of the workers at Waverley Bus Depot in Sydney. By the time of Joanne’s leadership in 1993, modernisation was fast catching up with it. To illustrate this, Joanne said:

I’ll tell you a little story. Back in those days if the members wanted their Tax File Number, they’d come to the credit union because we kept them all in a notebook in the safe. I came along and said you can’t do that. I was a bit of a new broom that cleaned out some of these old traditions. I might not have been loved for that but it was just to make sure that the credit union remained compliant.

Nevertheless, Joanne loved her time there. It was “a real old fashioned credit union”, said Joanne. “You knew all the members. Literally. The drivers were fantastic. You knew their families, you knew their wives and you knew their children. You knew when their birthdays and anniversaries were”, she said.

Waverley Bus Depot Employees Credit Union transferred engagements to Encompass Credit Union in 2000 and a year before the merger, Joanne took a step up and became General Manager of Comtax Credit Union. Comtax Credit Union was formed from the merger of Fourth Division Taxation Officers Credit Union Co-operative and Income Tax Officers Credit Union in 1971. Again, as the name suggests, Comtax CU looked after the needs of tax office workers and their families.

Comtax CU and Security Credit Union merged in 2008 and eventually the merged entity, Allied Members Credit Union was absorbed by Sydney Credit Union in 2014. Joanne left Sydney Credit Union in 2015 in order to take up her current position with LCU, a less taxing role.

Joanne says that Comtax CU tried to implement measures for it to continue to run successfully but eventually, “the regulations had changed. It was becoming harder and harder”. As was the case with Waverley Bus Depot Employees Credit Union, merging was inevitable, the “writing was on the wall”, said Joanne.

In time, Joanne has come to see herself as “a credit union person” and is thankful that she found credit unions. She told us that:

I’ve always believed in helping other people. At the banks you had to sell to people. The idea was that there has to be a profit at the end of the day. The motto of the credit unions was “People Before Profit”. In other words you were there to try and help people. I think that was the most important difference between credit unions and banks you weren’t just there to make a dollar from your members.

In addition to her role with LCU, last year Joanne joined the Australian Credit Union Archives Trust, overseeing the work of Australian Mutuals History. On our work Joanne says:

I think history is always very important. From a personal point of view I find history fascinating but you’ve got to know where you’ve come from. If you don’t look at history, you risk repeating your mistakes.

If people look at what happened in the past it could stop them making the same mistakes in the future. In 50 years from now people wouldn’t know that there were about 700 credit unions. There’s only 60 odd now. The future is unknown. All those little credit unions were there because the banks wouldn’t lend to ordinary working people, especially women who couldn’t obtain loans at all without a man as guarantor. The banks wouldn’t help the mums and dads. It was people coming together in all those small credit unions that helped.

If the major banks were to stop lending money to people tomorrow, where would people go if there were no credit unions, building societies or mutual banks?

Joanne O'Donnell in her role as General Manager of Comtax Credit Union