CU Industry Veteran Takes on Challenge of Starting New CU for S.C.'s Firefighters
By MARC RAPPORT Credit Union Times Technology Correspondent
COLUMBIA, S.C. -- About one year and a million dollars after leaving Florida to help lead a new credit union in a new state, Bill Kennedy says he just keeps looking forward.
The 20-year CU veteran was teaching entrepreneurship to college students in Orlando when he got the call to be president/CEO of the brand-new South Carolina Firefighters Federal Credit Union (SCFFCU).
"I'm a big dream guy. I like to work with a vision, and starting a credit union from the ground up is something I'd never had the opportunity to do," Kennedy says. "I couldn't pass that up." The credit union was chartered in February 2006 by the 17,000-member S.C. Firefighters Association, one of only a couple of new credit unions launched in the Palmetto State in the past several years.
A year after that February launch, the credit union is approaching 600 members and has just reached the $1 million mark in assets, despite initially offering only two products: share savings and the Wildfire loan.
"It's a small loan, up to $500 that requires no credit check and is meant to help people get on their feet and repair their credit, rather than punish people with low credit scores," Kennedy says. The program has worked well enough that SCFFCU now offers Wildfire II, a $750 loan with a reduced application fee that rewards repayment of the first loan and encourages members to continue to improve borrowing and spending habits.
"My philosophy is that we're in the business of serving and making a difference for this group of people, and one way to do that is to help them not need to go to payday lenders," Kennedy says.
"These are people I'm so proud to be able to serve," he says. "They put God and country and service to mankind in front of everything else. You have to be a pretty special person to be a firefighter. Remember, they run in when everyone else is running out. I'm proud to be here for them."
He has a similar take on his commitment to credit unions.
"Starting a credit union is something I've always wanted to do," he says. "A lot are going the other way. Merging and vanishing. But I've always believed that with the right vision, smaller credit unions can make a go of it. I really believe that, even though a lot of people don't so much nowadays."
Expanding services is one key to making SCFFCU go, he says.
"Financial institutions are about economies of scale and numbers," he says. "We're now offering share drafts and money market accounts and CDs. We can do ACH and new and used auto loans and we have a Harley loan. We also have an unsecured loan."
"We also are working on offering bill pay and debit card access. We want to be the primary financial institution for our members if we can someday, but we also might be trying to go a bit too fast," he says with a chuckle. "There are only two of us." Humble Beginnings
Kennedy's credit union--he and his sole employee, joined by a pair of college interns--work from space at the S.C. Firefighters Association's headquarters in South Carolina's capital of Columbia.
From there, he travels around the state selling the credit union, when he's not at the office helping to do the back-office work, including recording deposits on the startup CU's FedComp core processing system.
While he credits the assistance of a number of supporters--including his board, foundation and corporate along with Palmetto Citizens Federal Credit Union, Palmetto Health Federal Credit Union and S.C. State Credit Union--Kennedy's job requires end-to-end knowledge of what makes a credit union tick, he says, adding "you don't have the luxury of trial-and-error. Everything has to work."
But he should know the ropes. After working as a federal regulator helping to close down troubled savings-and-loans, he joined Department of Justice Federal Credit Union in Washington as its CFO in 1986. There he enjoyed his contact with FBI and DEA agents--"People who serve, all great guys," he says--and came under the mentorship of Ken Robinson, former president of NAFCU.
Kennedy then became CEO of Taylor Model Basin Federal Credit Union in Maryland, where he says he helped the CU grow from $20 million to about $27 million in less than three years and was named a NAFCU Professional of the Year.
Chasing another dream, Kennedy then moved to Florida to become CFO of Sarasota Coastal Credit Union and to attempt to make the Senior PGA Tour.
A serious back injury ended his golf aspirations, Kennedy says, although he still enjoys playing the game with his five children, all golfers themselves.
He then moved to become CEO of Central Florida Postal Credit Union and after that, began teaching at the Ringling School of Art and Design and Southwestern College.
His class load included teaching entrepreneurship and how to craft a business plan when he got the call to come put a plan in action himself. "I was offered this wonderful opportunity to come to South Carolina," he says. "As you can tell, I have no problem moving!" Settled again, Kennedy says he's going forward with a two-pronged approach: attracting individual members and the fire departments themselves. While the big municipal fire departments probably aren't candidates for S.C. Firefighters FCU's services, the many small departments around the state are, Kennedy says. "There are 450 or so fire stations little and big throughout the state. We can offer them money markets, CDs, checking accounts and the opportunity to be part of what we're doing here," he says. "In turn, we get economies of scale that help us grow as we focus on serving the individual firefighters of this state and their families." --firstname.lastname@example.org