Latin American and U.S. CU Organizations Share Best Practices at Remittance Workshop
CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas - Undocumented Latin American workers in the United States are unlikely to seek out a relationship with credit unions simply because a credit union hangs a sign advertising low-cost international remittances. What U.S. credit unions can do to increase remittance usage and credit union membership by foreign-born Latinos was one of the topics discussed at the April 9 Remittance Workshop hosted by World Council of Credit Unions, Texas Credit Union League and Vigo Remittance Corp. Some 35 participants from IRnet-user credit unions and credit union organizations representing the United States, Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and the Dominican Republic met here for a full day to explore cross-border solutions to operational, cultural and marketing challenges faced by credit unions providing international remittance services. The entire workshop was simultaneously translated in English and Spanish. WOCCU's David Grace told attendees his organization infrequently has both sides of the remittance transaction, the originating financial institution and the receiving financial institution, in the same room together. "You're part of an experiment today." Harriet May, GECU in El Paso, Texas, Oscar de Leon, Guatemala National Association of Credit Unions, and Hector Cordova, El Salvador National Association of Credit Unions shared best practices of credit unions in their home countries. Rene Vasquez Perez, representing Mexico's largest credit union, Caja Popular Mexicana, updated participants on his organization's preparations to offer remittances, which he says will begin this year. Representatives from the Dominican Republic are evaluating the remittance program for credit unions in their country. Much of the discussion centered on how to market remittances to Hispanics. May, whose credit union is located in a geographical area that is 76% Hispanic, said GECU is taking measures to make itself more Latino-friendly, including advertising on Spanish-language television, introducing low-balance certificates of deposit and Christmas Club accounts, surveying members in Spanish and English, and marketing remittances in connection with events or holidays of special significance to Latinos. These include Mother's Day, Semana Santa or Holy Week, Cinco de Mayo and Quincienera, the celebration that marks a Hispanic's girl's passage into womanhood on her 15th birthday. GECU users are particularly interested in an automatic remittance program, similar to direct deposit, for members who regularly transfer the same amount of money to the same location, May said. Guatemalan credit unions provide videoconferencing with relatives in the U.S. as an extra member benefit. El Salvador views remittances as a link for people back to their country of origin. The Salvadoran credit union movement is "trying to put a face" on its emigrants to the U.S. While considered "poor" here, these individuals are valued in El Salvador because they are the ones sustaining families in their home countries. Credit union officials would like to foster more investment, rather than consumption, of remittance money to fund improvements, education, etc. - things their "government should be doing but isn't." Mexico's Caja Popular Mexicana is readying its 336 branches in 24 Mexican states to go after a portion of the $10.5 billion in annual remittances to the country, according to CPM's Rene Vasquez Perez. CPM hopes to receive 120,000 remittances monthly for a total of $432 million and reach 50% of its membership in the next 18-24 months. Guest speaker Santiago Garcia, deputy consul general from the Mexican consulate in San Antonio, encouraged credit unions to cooperate with any of the 11 Mexican consulates in Texas to promote credit union financial services to Latinos entering the state. Garcia called the matricula consular the agency's "best seller" and told credit unions, "We appreciate the support credit unions have given this document." Currently, approximately 60 U.S. credit unions accept the matricula as identification, including about a dozen in Texas. WOCCU's Grace cited credit unions that have set up tables in consulate offices to open accounts for people who have just received their matriculas. Roughly one-third, or nine million, Mexicans in the U.S. are undocumented. If credit unions want to do business with this market, they will first have to understand the Latino culture, establish relationships of trust within Latino communities and organizations and create Latino-friendly environments within their credit unions, said WOCCU's Mark Cifuentes. "Don't wait for undocumented individuals to come to your credit union," he said. "They won't, because they're scared. But they live with others like themselves. They have Hispanic support groups. Go to the communities and tell them you're not a threat. Their word-of-mouth will do a better promotional job than anything we can do." TCUL President Dick Ensweiler said U.S. credit unions need to change their image if they want to attract Latinos. He expressed surprise over a recent visit to bank branch. "I was the only Anglo-American in line," Ensweiler said. "All the tellers were bilingual. All the signs in the lobby were in Spanish and English. We, in the credit union industry, have been perpetuating the idea that banks don't get it when it comes to serving the underserved. This made me realize that Bank of America does get it, Wells Fargo gets it, and maybe it's credit unions that haven't gotten it. Credit unions need to make more of a commitment to reaching out to Hispanics." Ensweiler suggested that credit unions consider designing branches in Latino neighborhoods to look like check cashing facilities. Once patrons are comfortable cashing checks there, credit unions can promote remittances, non-interest-bearing savings accounts and other credit union services. Bob Lisy, Vigo Remittance Corp., provided an overview of Vigo's recently restructured business plan. Currently offering remittances in 35 American states and 33 countries, the company had $32 billion in remittances to Latin American countries in 2002, primarily from California, Texas, Florida, New York, Illinois and New Jersey. Moving forward, Vigo plans to: improve its foreign exchange discount on Mexican transactions to 1.5%, transition to Internet-based point-of-sale software, promote Vigo/IRnet at ethnic festivals and work sites, install improved signage at retail outlets, create new ways to process transactions (telephone, direct pre-arranged debits, card-based transactions), and ensure bilingual employees at teller windows. A local Latino television network interviewed several workshop attendees from both sides of the U.S./Mexico border about their remittance programs. WOCCU plans to hold a similar remittance workshop in conjunction with the California Credit Union League's annual meeting in November.