In the numbers-driven credit union business, one can be equal to two.

At least that's how the math works when it comes to the trade groups that represent the industry's interests in state capitals like Columbia and on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.

The South Carolina Credit Union League is a case in point. The Irmo-based, industry-funded organization is advancing a plan to merge with the North Carolina Credit Union League by early 2014 after nearly 80 years of independence. The unified group would be called the Carolinas Credit Union League.

“The consolidation of talented staff from both organizations would allow the new league to enhance its delivery of core association services: advocacy, compliance, and professional development,” the groups said in a recent statement after deciding to let their members vote on the proposal.

The urge to merge is being fueled by the fact that there are fewer credits unions thanks to consolidation, said Steve Fowler, president and chief executive officer of the S.C. Credit Union League, which dates back to 1934.

“We here in South Carolina have 74 credit unions. That's down from 1978, when we had 200,” he said.

North Carolina has 87 credit unions, down from about 320 over that same period.

The result is that the costs of keeping the trade groups going is falling to fewer affiliates, Fowler said.

“As we have seen the number of credit unions contract, the leagues have begun to take a look around and say, 'How can we best service our member credit unions going forward?' ” said Fowler, who is retiring at the end of this year.

He added: “Consolidation really became something that was a very viable option.”

The leagues have worked closely together for years on various projects and in some case they already use each another's back-office services, including legal compliance and accounting.

They began looking at the pros and cons of combining a couple of years ago.

Their peer groups in some other states already have taken the plunge, Fowler said.

“We're not in any real danger other than the number of credit unions is dropping,” Fowler said.

“We're dues-supported and affiliation is voluntary, so at some point you're going to lose critical mass. If you wait until that point, you start eating into your equity. We're making this decision from a position of strength, with time on our side.”

Both groups have been sharing details of the plan at town hall-style meetings with members, who are expected to vote on it next month.

Each state would be represented by three officials under the combined organization, which would maintain offices in Columbia, Raleigh and Washington, D.C. John Radebaugh, CEO of the North Carolina group, would lead the Carolinas Credit Union League.

Fowler said most members he's spoken with support the idea, through he acknowledges there are a couple of skeptics. He's not one of them, saying that “by combining our forces the sum is going to be greater than the total parts.”

“There so many more reason to do it than not to it,” Fowler said.

Contact John McDermott at 937-5572.