Mark Genovese left financial mutuals after an illustrious career spanning almost 40 years. Mark says he “must’ve worked for more credit unions than anyone else”, but highlights include working with CUSCAL’s CreditCare and CUFA as well as steering the ship of Unity Bank as CEO for 18 years. Mark was also a Trustee overseeing the work of Australian Mutuals History. Today, he is the CEO of Westfund, a member owned health fund with its origins in Lithgow, NSW, in 1881. Mark told us that, “I came to work here at Westfund because it’s a member owned mutual and it’s exactly the same principal [as customer owned banks]. I would find it impossible working at places that don’t have those values”.

The Genovese name is legendary in Australian financial mutuals thanks not only to Mark but also to his father. Alex Genovese arrived with his family from Malta when he was still a school student. He worked for the Department of Motor Transport for 15 years where he was introduced to credit unions. He would eventually take the helm at Bankstown Credit Union, an organisation that today falls under the Unity Bank group that was put together under his son’s watch.

Mark’s inherited understanding of credit union principles would hold him in good stead but his father’s influence gave him the finance bug more broadly. “It all started with my dad when I was five or six years old. He would take me to the credit union office at Bankstown and I remember at weekends counting money boxes because dad used to go in and work on weekends”, said Mark.

However, his first job wasn’t in credit unions. He told us that:

In actual fact my first job wasn’t in the credit union industry, I worked at an insurance company and then I worked in an accounts department of a manufacturing company.

So, I got a bit of a taste for administrative accounting type work which I enjoyed and decided to look for accounting qualifications. Then an opportunity came up at a credit union at North Ryde, called Amalgamated Credit Union – which was the old AWA Credit Union. I went on there as a Loans Clerk. That was my first job, in probably, 1981.

Life in credit unions in 1981 was much different than it is today. Mark says his position as Loans Clerk involved, “Everything back in those days. We probably had a staff of six, I was serving on the counter, doing the statement runs at the end of the month [which involved] sitting up all night waiting for the statements to come up, making sure that they didn’t get blocked in the machine”.

The next era of Mark’s career involved moving around a lot. Something that he says was necessary for career progression among credit unions that were very small. His big break was gaining the role of CEO of Esso Employees Credit Union. Of his time at Esso, Mark said:

That was a great experience for me because they had some senior, very capable, professional people sitting around their board. The company saw it very much as part of the organisation and so it was a bit of training and mentoring for their senior executives, to come on a board and act as directors.

It was a real eye opener for me. It gave me a good insight into what you need to do to aspire to those sorts of senior roles and I got to mix with senior people who had international roles working for Esso which was great.

An example of how important Esso regarded the credit union was that when the company moved its headquarters to Melbourne it offered to pay generous compensation to credit union employees who undertook the move to Melbourne with equally generous redundancies for those who wished to leave. The new premises in Melbourne and all ongoing credit union salaries were all provided for by Esso. The credit union membership was spared the expense. Also, as CEO of the Esso Credit Union, Mark was given the use of the company jet for visits to the Sale office which looked after the financial needs of employees on offshore oil rigs.

After Esso, Mark worked for a short time with City Coast Credit Union and Comtax Credit Union before joining CUSCAL as part of their CreditCare initiative in the mid-1990s. CreditCare was created after the federal government came under pressure when a swathe of bank branch closures in regional Australia had significant economic and social impacts, especially in the indigenous community where there was already financial distress.

Here are Mark’s reflections on his time with CreditCare:

CUSCAL came to me and said Mark would you like to take on this role to sort of run this program but also we want to look to start some new credit unions again because we haven’t started any credit unions in 30 years and we really think there’s a demand for new credit unions and we’d like you to help out.

I thought, yeah great, I’ll have to take on this role. We recruited a team of about 12 people, 2 were indigenous people.

We got federal government funding for 5 years and NSW government funding for 3 years and our job was to go out and basically work with communities that lost their last bank. I think we ended up helping 68 communities throughout Australia, mostly on the Eastern seaboard, but we did help communities in SA and WA as well.

Basically, the model that we came up with was a collaborative approach where we’d work with the local credit unions and government agencies [who would join in] putting services back into communities in a sort of one-stop-shop.

We also started a number of credit unions, such as First Nations Credit Union with Advantage Credit Union where we actually got Cathy Freeman to agree to be on the member’s visa card.

That was using what they called the incubator model, so it sat within the credit union. We were working with all sorts of communities, we were working with the Shooters Association, the Gay and Lesbian community, the Muslim community. There were a lot of groups that were keen to consider credit union services, so we did a lot of work around that and if we didn’t start them we obviously encouraged them to join and build associations with credit unions.

Mark also worked with CUFA and by extension WOCCU which saw him visiting Nicaragua and on a study tour to Texas he found himself in a RV that served as a mobile branch that included a portable ATM.

When the CreditCare program was wound down after much of the work of keeping branches in the regions was completed, Mark worked with CUSCAL on the payments side of things. That wasn’t what he wanted to do long term so he took on the role of CEO at Maritime Workers of Australia Credit Union, finishing up there last year. Here is Mark on those years:

I worked there for 18 years and we had 9 mergers over that period of time. I think we merged with more credit unions than any other credit union in the country and they were all very successful. We obviously changed our name a couple of times –we were Maritime Credit Union, then we changed to Mining and Power Credit Union because we merged with Power Credit Union and we also expanded ourselves into the mining industry.

We kept that name for a while and then the bank [name] issue came up and we needed to look at changing our name and we ended up going with Unity Bank. The Reliance one was a big merger as well, because then we became a regionally based credit union and so all of a sudden from being industrial and city focused we became very much a regional one as well, with a different brand, which is the Reliance Bank brand now.

During the discussion with Mark I mentioned that I had seen an interview with the CEO of Heritage Bank, Peter Lock, where he said he thought that branch closures were “bad strategy” and that Heritage Bank had in fact recently opened new branches. Mark agreed and offered some thoughts on how branches might operate in the future. He said that:

One size doesn’t fit all but there’s a fair rump of the community who, when it comes to a serious transaction, like a home loan, still want to physically talk to someone. It’s one of the biggest decisions people make.

It’s true that the days of having a queue of people waiting to withdraw $20 is over but what these branches are is that they’re really like a social hub, a connector where you connect your organisation with the community and especially in regional and rural areas, it’s critical because that’s how they connect, they still like to see people, they still like to interact face to face and all the rest of it.

I think for a lot of mutuals that face to face touch, no matter what form it takes, whether it’s a branch or whether it’s a mobile lender or whatever it might be, that’s something that’s unique to the credit union sector. I mean in our branches here in the health fund, because a lot of people are doing claims over the internet, we’re looking at turning them into health hubs so people can come in, access modern technology and talk to a allied health person about whatever it might be, so we’re going to change what that physical presence does but it’s still going to be there. There’s no thought of us closing these branches it’s just re-designing and repurposing them.

In fact in Mark’s opinion, community connection, which may include physical branches is essential to the ongoing success of financial mutuals. “I think for a lot of them, the ones that are going to succeed, there is always going to be an exception to the rule, but I think generally, that’s how mutuals are going to have to operate. They’re still going to have to have a physical presence in those industries or communities they serve. If they just rely on everything being online and over the phone, well good luck, where’s the connection? No one is going to build a relationship through that”, said Mark.