NEW YORK -- Actors Federal Credit Union's ATM deployment strategy works tremendously well--until a small child, or two, manages to shove a straw into an ATM's cash dispensing slot.
"It doesn't happen a lot, but it does happen," chuckled Nathan Enzminger, the $86 million CU's director of ATM services. "We have also had Coke and milkshakes poured over our machines and sometimes the kids have been playing with the power plugs, which of course we cannot allow," Enzminger added. "Sometimes parents just aren't watching, or maybe even they are," he said.
Straws in the cash slots and milkshake baths are part of the occasional challenges that go with an ATM deployment strategy that has put 180 cash-dispensing ATMs, with another 25 in the pipeline, in McDonald's restaurants and other convenient outlets across New York City. It is a strategy that has both helped Actors serve its eclectic and nontraditional membership, made the credit union's service a fixture in the city's culture and sharply reigned in ATM fees for millions of New Yorkers, even those who don't use the CU's machines.
The CU struck upon the deploying strategy in the late 1990's as it struggled to find a cost effective way to meet its members' needs for access to their accounts in a real estate market as competitive and expensive as New York City's. By the year 2000 the first machines were in the first locations, which gradually came to be almost exclusively McDonald's restaurants.
The credit union works exclusively with McDonald's franchisees in the city, not with the corporation itself, and Enzminger reported that the franchisees have come to routinely request an Actors' ATM in their stores.
"Oh yeah, they have come to expect it," Enzminger explained. "The fact that McDonald's in New York have ATMs in them has become something the public at large just knows--even if they don't always associate the credit union with the ATM."
Enzminger reported, for example, that one franchise with a restaurant destroyed by fire had made a point to refurbish the damaged building with a niche already prepared for the ATM machine. When the CU is considered in the building's architecture, Enzminger mused, that's acceptance.
The credit union's ATMs benefit the franchises both from the rental that the CU pays to have the machine in the store and also for the foot traffic the machines bring and the additional cash they put in the hands of hungry New Yorkers. The CU benefits from the interchange that the machines bring in while New Yorkers benefit from having a source of affordably priced ATM services.
It is a service New Yorkers have taken to heart. Enzminger reported that the CU does roughly 160,000 transactions per month at its ATMs, 150,000 surcharged transactions to the broader public and 10,000 surcharge-free transactions by Actors members.
Part of the reason why may be the impact the CU's ATMs have had on the price of ATM service in New York. Because Actors only charges $.99 for a CU transaction by a nonmember, other major ATM deployers, such as CitiBank, also only charge $.99 in many of its ATMs, particularly those close to McDonald's restaurants, Enzminger explained.
Since none of the ATM machines take deposits, a key part of the CU's ATM strategy rests on the novel relationship Actors, and other New York area credit unions, have established with many of the city's check cashers. Under the arrangement, credit union members are able to use the check cashers to deposit money directly into their accounts. Under the deal, Actors members have access to far more locations, which are open many more hours, where they can deposit their money. Also, unlike ATMs, the members can deposit cash directly into their accounts and not checks, which would spark a hold on their funds.
The ATM and check casher strategy is only the latest innovation for a credit union which has steadily adapted to meet the needs of a sometimes erratic and always individualistic population which was once completely discriminated against in financial services; actors, singers and other performers who work in the New York area. You Want to Give Your Money to Actors?
Conrad Bain, a longtime actor known for his work in situation comedies such as Diff'rent Strokes (he played the father figure, Phillip Drummond), was one of the principal organizers of the credit union in the early 1960s.
Bain recalled the effort grew out of the fact that, at least in the world of financial services, actors and other performers got no respect and, more importantly, no access to credit.
"It was at a meeting of the Actors' Equity [Union] where a member stood up and asked why we didn't do something about actors not being able to get any credit, much less a mortgage or anything like that," Bain recalled from his home in California. "Someone else stood up and echoed what the first member said, pointing out that the issue really was one of equity and actors didn't have any when it came to the banks."
Gil Rogers, current board secretary who has been volunteering with the credit union since the late 1960s also recalled those days. "When you went into a bank and applied for credit, they would ask what you did for a living and if you said 'actor,' well oh no, they didn't want to have anything to do with you."
So Bain and seven other actors joined together to organize a credit union for actors--an idea that seemed audacious for the time, requiring the organizers to both draw support from other New York area credit unions and to start educating other actors about how they manage--or failed to manage--their money.
"Remember this: no share payment is too small," Bain wrote in an early article promoting the credit union to other members of Actors' Equity. "The main objective should be to establish a consistent habit of saving. In return, you can have the security of knowing that there is a place to turn to when you need a loan, a place where you will be met with dignity and respect, rather than suspicion and prejudice."
And of course, because it is Actors' FCU, the credit union has seen its share both of the average working actor who makes up the bulk of the entertainment industry as well as the performers who went on to be famous. Tommy Tune, the award winning performer, director and choreographer worked as one of the CU's tellers at one time, as did noted television actor David Huddleston and others. Judd Hirsch, best known as Alex Rieger in the television series Taxi, worked for a time as the CU's collection officer.
But while there have been the famous among the CU's members, most of the members are run of the mill actors who seek to make a living plying a trade that can be capricious, open to both successes and setbacks, sometimes within the same month. Meeting Members' Specific Needs
"I think anyone will tell you that most of the job of collections is overcoming the consumer's fear of their debt," explained Melissa Sklarz, director of collections for the CU. "But with actors, it can be worse. It's a left brain/right brain sort of thing, these folks are very creative, they have very strong imaginations and it is very easy for them to imagine the terrible things that will happen if they don't pay back this debt. It's my job to help them overcome that," Sklarz explained.
Sklarz, who is good enough at collections that members ask credit union representatives to convey their regards and salutations to her, stressed that she never communicates with 90% of the CU's members, but that she can be a familiar voice to the other 10%. She said that dealing with actors often means that she and her staff of two collection officers often have to perform as part of the collection process.
"With some of them we are funny, with others we are very button down and serious and with others we have to be very calm and reassuring," she said. "We have to react with the personality, which is going to help us reach this person to come up with a deal which both gets us our money and lets them keep going with their life."
Denise Nolin, chairman, and also a longtime volunteer, explained that such innovative collections techniques, along with offering loans specifically for such things as makeovers and getting head shots taken for r?sum?s were part and parcel of working with an acting population.
But she also stressed that the CU was working hard to help meet other, bigger needs as well, such as the critical needs for housing in the New York area and helping to structure mortgages Actors' members can afford. The CU even gets involved in some affordable housing development.
"It's a feast or famine sort of industry," Nolin said. "If an actor gets a spot in three nationwide commercials in a year, which may be $90,000 or $100,000, that's their income for a year."
Jeff Rodman, president of the CU, said that meeting needs as diverse as those actors bring to the table has been the reason the CU has sought, and will seek, to keep innovating, keep trying new approaches, to bring actors affordable financial services they need.
It might also mean changing some of the CU's continuing strategies. For example, its ATM volumes took a 5% hit after Visa and MasterCard began pressing the case for using credit and debit cards at the cash registers of fast food restaurants. Rodman said he had begun thinking the CU might have another five years left in its ATM strategy before it had to change it, but that he has also begun to steadily revise it.
"Already we have an arrangement to rent space for advertising on the ATMs, which is adding to the bottom line," Rodman said. "So I am not really sure about the five-year window any more."
Now the CU is looking to open branches in other parts of the country, such as Florida and Los Angeles, where there are also a lot of Actors' Equity members.
"I think I have seen the 'death of Broadway' proclaimed a number of times," Rodman said, "but I don't think it ever dies as much as it changes and restructures itself for whatever comes next. The CU has changed as the entertainment industry has changed and our members have needed us to change. We plan to keep on growing by continuing to do that." --firstname.lastname@example.org