A Milestone for its Members
By Christy Krueger
Perhaps without being aware of it, thousands of Tucsonans have a financial connection to the American tycoon Howard Hughes. As Hughes Federal Credit Union celebrates its 70th anniversary this year, its members can honor their financial institution’s history by looking to the past.
Hughes, who died in 1976, was one of the most powerful people in industry. He was also a record-setting pilot, an engineer and a film director. In 1932, he formed Hughes Aircraft Company, a major aerospace and defense contractor, in Glendale, Calif.
In 1951, the company built a missile plant in Tucson, which in 1997 was sold to what is now Raytheon Missiles & Defense and remains the region’s top private employer. A year after Hughes Aircraft Company started in Tucson, its employees founded Hughes Federal Credit Union (formerly known as Hughes Aircraft Employees Federal Credit Union) based on the principle of people helping people.
Hughes was originally formed to meet the needs of Hughes Aircraft employees and family members, helping those of modest means by providing low-cost financial products and services.
“The motivation to form a credit union as an alternative to a traditional bank was the benefit of being a member/owner of a financial cooperative as opposed to a customer of a for-profit bank,” explained Robert Swick, president and general manager of Hughes Federal Credit Union. Its founders realized the credit union format could better serve the financial needs of Hughes employees because any profits made are returned to its members in the form of better loan and savings rates and lower fees.
As a long-time employee of Hughes Aircraft Company plant and an employee, member and volunteer at Hughes Federal Credit Union, Erna Acosta could be considered an amateur historian on Hughes. “I worked at the Hughes Aircraft Company plant since before I graduated from high school. I was in the secretarial sciences program through DECA,” Acosta said. During her 27 years at the company, she worked her way up from a clerk to executive secretary.
Acosta had many memorable experiences and made life-long friends at Hughes Aircraft Company and Hughes Federal Credit Union. Early in her career she met her husband-to-be, Lou Acosta, who worked in engineering at the plant. They married on Valentine’s Day and just celebrated their 59th wedding anniversary.
Then there was the time, while working at the plant, when she was assigned to be a greeter. “They asked me to go to the lobby for the next day or so to greet people coming in.” Just as the 4:30 p.m. shift ended, a man walked through the door wearing white tennis apparel. Acosta immediately recognized him as Howard Hughes, whom she had always thought looked like her dad.
“I said ‘Hi, Mr. Hughes,’ and he said, ‘Hi young lady.’ When I asked him how he’s doing, he nodded and continued in. It was an exciting moment for me. He looked like his picture and was very polite. As far as I know, that was his only visit to the plant, but it was my highlight for a long time to come.”
Hughes Federal Credit Union opened its doors to Hughes Aircraft Company employees in 1952. “It started with the founder, Harry McCormick, and two employees. It was a satellite office out of Hughes Aircraft Company building, then later they built an office nearby, at the entrance to Hermans Road,” Acosta noted.
Acosta, who became the executive secretary to the credit union president also served as a volunteer on the annual meeting committee and was a great promoter of Hughes Federal Credit Union because she strongly believed in its values and mission and wanted others to have the experiences she did.
She has passed this commitment on to her kids and grandkids. “It’s important to my family. They know the credit union belongs to them and they like to be part owners. When they were kids, I took them to sign up. They said, ‘Now I own the credit union, right?’ It was home to them. They brought jars of money to make deposits.”
Another Hughes Aircraft Company employee who became a steadfast supporter of the credit union is John Sansbury. After graduating from University of Arizona with a degree in mechanical engineering, he was hired by Hughes Aircraft Company in California and then transferred to the Tucson plant in 1971. “I joined Hughes Federal Credit Union in 1972 to obtain a car loan, knowing that they had the best terms available for such a loan.”
Three years later, Sansbury became a member of the credit committee at Hughes Federal Credit Union, which reviews and approves loan applications. Being seen as a valuable asset to the credit union, he was subsequently elected as chairman of the board, and he held the position for 27 years, staying on long after his retirement from the plant.
“I learned what a positive difference the credit union could make in the financial lives of our members,” Sansbury said. “During my time volunteering for Hughes Federal Credit Union, we expanded our field of membership, initiated working with the underserved community and developed new products to better serve our members. I was proud to be able to assist the credit union in providing a supportive financial environment for our membership. Helping people work out their financial needs and problems always left me with a feeling of accomplishment.”
Hughes continued to grow by serving more members in the community by expanding its field of membership. In 1992, Hughes merged with Arizona Transportation Credit Union to serve more members in the community. The merger also gave Hughes a branch location outside the plant site and the ability to serve employees of 400 businesses throughout Arizona. Incorporating those organizations’ membership base helped expand Hughes’ branch footprint.
In 2001, Hughes was approved by the National Credit Union Administration to offer membership to the “underserved” Tucson community, opening its doors to anyone that works, worships or attends school in Tucson. In addition, in 2001, those living outside the Tucson area that did not work for a Hughes member employer could join Hughes by donating $10 to the Friends of Oro Valley Library, which has since raised more than $750,000 to help this volunteer, nonprofit agency purchase new books and equipment, host financial literacy classes and support other programs designed to bring free educational resources to residents.
Hughes Federal Credit Union now has seven branches throughout Tucson, from northwest Tucson to Vail in the southeast and a two-story corporate office on Wetmore Road.
When Robert Swick became president and general manager of Hughes Federal Credit Union in 1999, he already had more than a decade with the organization in various leadership roles. “I am most proud of our obtainment of a low-income, underserved community charter on October 18, 2001. This charter has allowed us to make a positive difference in the financial lives of many more Tucsonans.”
Swick has made a career on the unwavering promise of “people helping people.” To that end, Swick refused to follow the financial industry’s use of risk-based lending and provides members with one low rate on loans. That means all members are treated equally, which provide Hughes Federal Credit Union with a competitive advantage, that other credit unions and banks cannot match. Today, Hughes has the highest membership growth and strongest return on assets in Arizona, simply by focusing on people over profits.
Another segment of the community helped by Hughes Federal Credit Union is military families, as they’re in the unique position of being moved frequently. Juan Gonzalez joined the U.S. Air Force in the 1970s and traveled throughout the country and abroad. He found credit unions to be the obvious choice for him.
“Banks were not set up as reliable entities to support families that moved around as much as military families did,” Gonzalez noted. “The credit unions worked closely with their members to understand and be responsive to their banking needs. I recognized and valued what credit unions did for me and my family.”
Gonzalez has now been with Hughes Federal Credit Union for 31 years, including his volunteer work as chairman of the board and on the supervisory committee, which oversees the credit union’s compliance with the National Credit Union Administration guidelines.
Beyond the military family, Gonzalez said that Hughes Federal Credit Union is very involved in the community. “Our financial education initiatives keep growing. We teach financial principles and practical skills to students and provide them to organizations that need to teach financial knowledge.”
These include groups that help veterans integrate into the community and those that prepare single mothers with financial knowledge. The credit union also helps local schools buy books and provide online education. Gonzalez said he believes this kind of local support enhances the community for all.
While Acosta has been retired from Hughes Federal Credit Union since 1994, she is still a member and believes it’s in good hands with the wonderful volunteers and Swick at the helm, calling him a dear friend and noting that the credit union has flourished under his leadership.
When Hughes Federal Credit Union was ranked by Forbes as the #1 Best in State Credit Union in 2021, true to form, Swick said, “the award validates our entire teams’ dedication to making a positive difference in the financial lives of our members through best-in-class products, services and customer care.”
Swick is proud that the credit union has grown while still retaining key values that have made it successful for seven decades. “Hughes Federal Credit Union continues to grow and much has changed over the past 70 years, but what is most important is what has not changed. We remain today what we were then, a member-owned and operated financial cooperative in existence solely for the benefit of our member/owners.”
Pictured above from left − Keith Damek VP Finance, Karen Shanor-Thompson VP Member Service, Mark Frieden VP Cybersecurity, Rich Griesser VP Information Technology, Elisa Ross VP Marketing & Sales,Carla Craig VP Operations, Robert Swick President & General Manager, Andrew Britton VP Lending, Tara Tocco VP Internal Audit & Compliance, Cyndi Samples VP Human Resources