CU Water Cooler

Build to Last

Jimmy MarksComment

What if you had to build something that was meant to be destroyed? What if you had to build something that couldn’t be?

In October 2000, the U.S.S. Cole was attacked by Al-Qaeda. The ship was approached by a smaller vessel carrying explosives and the hull of the Cole was breached, killing seventeen and wounding dozens more. The US Navy, eager to counter further attacks of this nature, started to develop short-range weapons that could be fired from the deck at nearby watercraft of varying sizes and speeds. To test the efficiency of these weapons, Navy contractors engineered a special human-sized mannequin made of plywood and springs. These mannequins would be fired upon using the special projectiles, then reclaimed and examined forensically to determine the impact.

The mannequins were effective but difficult to produce in high quantity and at the level of quality needed for the repeated testing to be effective. The lead engineer on the project wondered if his neighbor, a skilled woodworker, would be willing to help. 

His neighbor also happened to be Amish.

The Amish people are still prevalent in many parts of the country. This Amish woodworker lived on a small farm near the engineer and met him casually through a few neighborly exchanges. The two became friends, and when the woodworking job came up, the engineer went to his neighbor’s house to discuss the opportunity.

The woodworker was hesitant to create mannequins that were ostensibly part of a greater war effort. The Amish are pacifists and conscientious objectors. Would working on a project for the Navy be the same as contributing to a war, he wondered? 

The woodworker had other concerns as well, of a more personal nature. His wife has recently given birth to another baby, but something was different abot this birth that they hadn’t encountered with the others born before: this baby was born with underdeveloped lungs. The woodworker was given a dispensation by the Amish council to use electricity for the special breathing tent the baby needed. The medical costs were considerable. The baby needed extra attention. And suddenly, an opportunity to make a worthwhile sum of money was present.

The woodworker labored over his decision for many days. Finally, he contacted the engineer with a simple question:

“If I don’t do this for you, who will?”

The engineer smiled. “That’s my problem…if you don’t, no one will.”

A few weeks later, and with approval from the Amish council, the engineer took a crew of five men to the woodworker’s farm to pick up two-hundred perfectly made mannequins.

The Pride of Craftsmanship

Whenever I tell that story, I get one of a few reactions. One is pretty baseline:

“Wow, that’s incredible.”

One is more sympathetic:

“I can’t imagine how he felt when they told him he’d have to have that breathing tent for the baby.”

There’s one reaction I’ve heard a number of times that is consistently puzzling to me:

“That guy did all that work and it got destroyed.”

And the answer I always have at hand is:

“Yeah, so?”

Most people can’t imagine putting hours of labor and care into something they know won’t last. At the risk of being overly philosophical, let me ask you this: what lasts?

Some things last for days, some for weeks; few man-made things can stand up to the march of time and the parallel march of progress. Monuments, buildings, cities, states - these can survive for decades, for centuries, or even millennia. What is “worth doing” is tough to determine if you spend too much time considering how it might survive more than its benefit to the present.

Your members, the people that depend on your services - consider their dreams and desires. The food they use their debit cards to buy? It will get eaten or it will rot. The clothes they charge to their credit cards will wear away or go out of fashion. The cars they take out loans for will rust, the homes they mortgage will be sold to other families or bulldozed to make room for “prime real estate.” The members will die. I will die. You will die. Benjamin Franklin once said nothing is certain but death and taxes.

And credit unions don’t pay taxes.

What I’m saying seems gloomy but it’s the truth. Things end, eventually. You can’t do much about that. But you can focus on how it ends, why it ends, and what you intend to do in the meantime.

A Temporary Good

Imagine being a pastry chef. You spend countless hours mixing and pouring and baking, coming up with little masterpieces that are set in front of a hungry person, who promptly destroys what you’ve worked so hard to create. Is your work less fulfilling? Hardly. It’s not about creating a dessert, it’s about creating a flavor, an experience, a thrill. One truly great flourless chocolate waffle can make a repeat customer. It can make the perfect ending to a perfect meal. It can reshape the very soul of the person lucky enough to taste it.

Have you ever created a customer experience so profound it guaranteed future business? I look at apps and online services at companies like USAA and the AARP and I see how full and rich those experiences are and I realize why those businesses make so much money serving a member base that has at least some limits. 

And then I look back over the fence where the grass is much more brown. I look at credit unions and how frequently unprepared (and often unwilling) they are to take steps forward. Members will be using Apple Pay in the very near future - just like the smartest people in this industry have been predicting for a minimum five years now. Will you spend the energy to get involved, even if the opening volume of users is relatively low? And when something else comes along, something that upsets the Apple Pay cart…what then? Will you get out ahead of it or let it “sneak up on you”?

Working on What Lasts

The things members want are finite; they have a life cycle and that cycle begins and ends. But what’s needed, really needed, are the things that last. Community. Safety. Understanding. A legacy.

At the CU Water Cooler Symposium 2014 in Austin, not even a week ago, I was blown away by Linda Bodie of Element in West Virginia. She gave a killer presentation on the chemical spill that tainted the water supply in her home county, a spill that still hasn’t been fully resolved or thoroughly cleaned. The government, Bodie says, has done its best to make people forget about the spill. The company responsible dodged legal culpability by shutting down and reopening as another corporation. Who’s left to take care of West Virginia and its citizens, the people whose health may be affected by tainted groundwater for years to come? Naturally, said Bodie, the people took care of each other. Her credit union worked to start water bottle drives and make sure that the people who most needed clean water got it. There were no government bailouts, there were no corporate settlements; simply put, a community was thirsty and it nourished itself. Linda Bodie’s struggle is ongoing. So is her community’s concern, and its resolve.

Members can get checks cashed at liquor stores and big box chains. They can borrow money from payday lenders and title-loan services. Whether you think it’s true or not, their needs will be met at these places. You could meet those needs, too, but if you’re only working to build something that ends in six months, a year, five years, thirty years…why should they choose you? Because they like your marble counters? Because your website has cute stock photography of a puppy in sunglasses? 

If you don’t care about your community, about the impact the right amount of money invested in the right person will have, why bother opening your branch each morning?

The woodworker who built those mannequins didn’t just do it so they could be turned to splinters. He did it for the continued health and growth of his family. The Navy wasn’t buying mannequins simply to destroy them, it was looking out for the safety of the fleet and the continued protection of America’s interests. If all you’re hoping to do is make loans month to month, you may be overlooking the true scope of your mission and the truth about how to help your members afford the life they want. Build something that can crumble and it surely will. Build something that transcends time and space, something members will pass along to the next generation, and the short-term worries will take care of themselves.


Jimmy Marks is doing science and he’s still alive.