There’s nothing more powerful than hearing someone who has obviously made it to the top of their career talk with humility about their achievements. CUFA Chair Margot Sweeny does just that. The dynamic CEO of Summerland Credit Union – she celebrates 16 years in the role this year – also happens to be CUFA’s Chair, as well as Chair of the Finance committee at Southern Cross University, and a tireless mentor at Summerland. So when she recently told me, “I feel now that I’m just beginning to get the hang of business …” I had to know more.
Becoming head of a credit union was never in Margot’s original life plan. Migrating to Australia from Toronto, Canada in her mid teens, Margot finished high school in Sydney, and by then was besotted with the country.
“It’s been a real pleasure to see Australia grow up in every way – including the culinary sense. When I got here in the ‘60s, the most exotic dish you could get was chicken in a basket,” she laughed.
Her original career choice was archaeology (despite her career counsellor warning her of the lack of bathroom facilities on site) but she then switched to architecture. Next came a double degree in accounting/computing, which then led to the world of academia as a university lecturer. “All my careers began with ‘A’,” she laughs. “Wait till I get started on the ‘B’s.”
Margot was poached from academia by Summerland in 1999 – and confesses she has been wedded to the cooperative movement ever since. Hardly surprising given her early family life: “Growing up we were always taught to look after people who were less fortunate,” she said, even it meant a simple gesture like baking a cake for a neighbour. “I also remember my grandfather in Toronto teaching me how to count money when I was 4,” she said, “so I suppose it’s no surprise to be where I am now.”
Margot’s introduction to CUFA was similarly by chance. As a board member of Abacus in early 2008, she got the opportunity to become a CUFA director and took on the role of Chair in 2010. “Since my first visit to Cambodia, I fell in love with what CUFA does,” she explained simply.
“If ever you feel down, just look at the pictures on the CUFA website: the smiles of those children say it all.”
During her tenure at Summerland, it has grown six times over, and is now one of the largest employers in the Lismore region. “That growth is due to our fantastic staff,” Margot says with real pride in her voice. “People are coming back more and more to this old-fashioned “ship” called the cooperative. The beauty and simplicity of it is that it’s entirely built on trust, respect and the ability to share: that’s why it’s such a good model for developing communities,” she explained.
“Small communities work well together anyway. What I’ve seen is this: give them the right tools and they make it infinitely better.
“They’ve really got it right: theirs is subsistence living and yet they manage to be so much happier than us. Here our mobile phone drops out and we get mad. There they’ve got no phones – no power even. What these people see as essentials to life are completely different: they are happy as long as they are healthy and their children are healthy.”
Margot can’t hide her enthusiasm for the Village Entrepreneur she supports. She has visited her VE, Nimh, on several occasions. “A personal highlight for me in 2015 was Nimh’s graduation as a Village Entrepreneur,” she said. Nimh’s chicken and pig raising businesses are now financially independent after just three years; the mother of two has increased her profits by over 200%, which has enabled her to provide better housing, health care and education for her daughters. Most remarkable of all is the fact that she is continuing to grow her own savings as well as benefit the rest of her community.
“Last time I was there she told me: “ I am saving $20 of yours so I can take my pigs to the vet.” I was almost in tears as I explained to her that it wasn’t my money, but hers.”
Margot’s most recent field trip was to CUFA’s new Myanmar project, which is bringing financial access to people in the remotest areas for the first time, and notable because several of the projects are entirely run by the women of the community. “Women are very much used to taking the back seat in society,” Margot explained, “and when we first got there they were so quiet. Of course they had brought their children and babies along, and as soon as I reminded them what a wonderful thing they were doing for their children, that broke the ice and they started talking. A wonderful emotional connection was formed.” It should be mentioned that Margot endured the sticky heat and potholed roads of Myanmar her arm in a sling thanks to an injured shoulder. “The CUFA staff were so concerned – it was touching how they made sure I was comfortable,” she said – even to the point where Regional Project Support Team coordinator Ratha Ra even insisted on taking Margot’s handbag for her when they were walking around projects. “I do think the CUFA staff who work on the projects are special,” Margot enthused. “They inspire me every time I visit them. You can see the depth of their commitment and how they give others inspiration.
“There are managers and there are leaders. Managers light the fire. But it’s the leaders who first build the fire inside to help people get the job done.”
Margot’s special highlight of the trip was provided by Myanmar Country Program manager Kwaw Zin Myo – better known as KZ. At CUFA KZ is renowned for his quiet professionalism and efficiency – and his impeccable grooming. Margot takes up the story: “Our tour bus broke down in the middle of nowhere, leaving the group stranded with the prospect of several hours’ wait. The bus driver was stumped. So KZ crawled under the bus, identified a faulty accelerator pedal, implemented a makeshift fix from a string of rubber bands, and we were on our way again. To me it just showed their resourcefulness and ability to cope in every situation. This strength that they have gives us hope and the confidence that they will continue to inspire,” she said.
Discover how you can transform a life today. Simply click here to read about CUFA’s Village Entrepreneur program.