COK marking 50 years of growth and development through innovation

Wednesday, August 08, 2018

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Since its founding in 1967 with total shares of 60 and a membership of 13, City of Kingston Sodality Cooperative Credit Union has grown into a multi-billion dollar enterprise with islandwide membership of 270,000.

That growth, according to CEO Aloun N'dombet Assamba, has its foundation in the fact that COK is always anticipating and meeting the needs of its members. The upshot is that the credit union is now a force for change in improving lives and helping people to meet their goals, while cultivating an ethos of prudent and productive saving and investing.

“COK is the leader in personal financial service. We are hard to beat in that regard because we are close to our members and they know they can trust us to have their best interests at heart. After all, the members are the owners of the credit union and they participate in the decision-making,” Assamba noted.

“We have come a far way from the days when no financial institution wanted to serve those not connected to a major company, when banks had no interest in serving working people or those owning or wanting to set up a small or micro enterprise,” Assamba said.

“COK broke the mould; we were the first to widen the bond of membership to include those living outside Kingston when we included Portmore when it was first opening up, as we partnered with the Government through the NHT (National Housing Trust) to provide mortgage financing. Today, we are islandwide and our list of firsts in the credit union movement include establishing a private group and individual pension scheme, ATMs and credit cards; we were the first to advertise and market the credit union and we were very active in the genesis of small and micro business financing. Many of these firsts were adopted by other credit unions, leading to the growing sophistication of the movement, and a widened menu of services,” Assamba said.

“In the case of business financing, COK does not just lend the money to set up businesses, we hold the hand of the entrepreneur, assisting them to understand its dynamics and the need for things like marketing and product development,” the CEO added.

She said that COK has led the way in innovation to the point where many people think that it is the only Jamaican credit union islandwide, because of how it has managed to capture their imagination.

The credit union concept has made a major leap from the days when an Irish Catholic priest, Fr John Peter Sullivan, in keeping with the tenets of Catholic social teaching, rode his bicycle around Kingston and beyond to set up financial cooperatives aiming to empower Jamaicans to take better control of their destinies.

This was the early to mid-1940s. Jamaica was then in the grip of the harsh shortages and other privations resulting from World War Two and was negotiating the period after the fiery social protests against low wages and growing unemployment and poverty in 1938 which led to the birth of trade unions and the two major political parties.

But the struggle of the working man and woman remained. So, starting from his base at St George's College, Fr Sullivan taught cooperatives to the early cohorts who would help to establish the first credit unions, including COK founder Paul Chevannes and other early stalwarts like Stanley Moore.

Although there were approximately 130 credit unions at the time of the founding of COK, their membership was restricted to certain professions or church groups. The COK concept allowed people for the first time to join a credit union once they were residents of the Corporate Area or Portmore.

This idea was the brainchild of Albert “Bertie” Morris, who first formulated the concept of a parish credit union. However, he was way ahead of his time and his dream did not materialise until 1967 when Paul Chavannes, then a CUNA Mutual sales representative to Jamaica and Belize, recollected Morris' proposal and approached members of the Jamaica Co-operative Credit Union League and the Registrar of Co-operatives, which regulated and guided credit unions.

His lobbying efforts were successful and the Registrar of Co-operatives approved the venture. Morris would go on to become a long-standing president of COK.

A deep concern for the well-being of people is what has informed successive waves of credit union leaders. The spirit of volunteerism and service is still strong today with a number of voluntary committees and strong boards of directors helping to guide COK over the years. The COK board is currently headed by Steadman Pitterson.

One man who is cognisant of the 'credit union difference' is Garth O'Sullivan, a 43-year member and now a trustee of the COK Retirement Scheme.

“I joined COK in 1974. Back then we called the credit union the poor man's bank. In those days people like Paul Chevannes would hold meetings with workers at various companies and preach the gospel of the credit union. I was one of the first liaison officers, which means I had to recruit members and keep the link between them and the credit union as a worker and union delegate at Thermo Plastics. I serviced the industrial belt in Kingston back when members could only be recruited from Kingston and St Andrew,” O'Sullivan explained.

“One of the things that stands out in my memory is that COK was very helpful in allowing people to get furniture as they could get one loan for different items and the credit union would pay it directly to the company, relieving them of the hassle and the high interest rate and you would not owe the furniture company, which was a big relief. Back then people would stand security for other members as co-makers. In those times everyone knew each other,” he said

Assamba noted further that many of the benefits of credit union membership, such as insurance on savings and loans and the debt dying with the debtor, were as a result of dialogue and interaction with other cooperatives, primarily in the USA and Canada, and that there continues to be a high level of collaboration by COK with the global movement through the Caribbean Confederation of Credit Unions and the World Council of Credit Unions.

She added that that openness to change and innovation has allowed COK to grow organically through services, rather than through mergers to the point where it is the largest credit union in terms of membership in Jamaica and the English-speaking Caribbean today, serving members in Kingston and St Andrew, St Catherine, St Ann, Mandeville, Montego Bay and other parts of the island, as well as Jamaicans in North America, the United Kingdom, Grand Cayman, and other Caribbean countries.

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