TULLAHOMA, Tenn. -- Members of Ascend Federal Credit Union might be tempted to have some bumper stickers printed: I Love My Credit Union $3 Million Ways.
In their December statements, members saw dividend and loan interest refunds totaling $3 million, up from $2 million the previous year. In terms of dividends, the bonus equaled 6% of a member's total year-to-date dividends. For members paying off loans, it amounted to 6% of the year-to-date interest paid.
In a time of pinched margins, how did the credit union accomplish this?
"We have a very strong capital-to-asset ratio," explains President/CEO Caren Gabriel. "We've been very cost conscious, and we have very good income."
She agrees the dividends have helped underline for members the credit union difference. She notes AFCU received many thank you notes and e-mail messages from members delighted at the money posted in their accounts.
Members got news of their 2006 dividends and rebates just as the credit union announced a name change from AEDC Federal Credit Union to Ascend FCU. The former name had been in place since 1951 when the credit union was formed to serve employees of Arnold Engineering Development Center at Arnold Air Force Base.
In a news release, Gabriel pointed out the reason behind the change, a scenario that has affected probably the majority of the nation's credit unions.
"We are no longer a one-room operation at Arnold Air Force Base serving one core group. This credit union serves members in more than 600 companies. Including our administrative office in Tullahoma, we have 14 facilities in seven counties."
Members seemed to readily grasp the idea.
"We did get a lot of comments," Gabriel says. "We were very anxious about that. We thought it was something we had probably needed to do for some time. We held focus groups and they supported the change. There were very few negative comments, and we got a lot of positive comments. Members who had been members for years accepted the idea." Those long-time members appreciated the fact the new name and logo link back to the credit union's aviation heritage. Gabriel says she's as proud of the name change as anything else she's done so far as CEO. "I have to give credit to the folks here--they did a tremendous amount of work, and did it with professionalism. It's been a lot of effort in the past two or three years," she says. "I like being with people who are team players, people who believe in what they do. A lot of people who work here have been part of the credit union for many years. One woman has been here for 45 years." A point AFCU stressed during the name change was that employees are shifting from being order takers to offering members a branded retail experience. The idea is to establish the credit union as a place members can turn to for help with personal financial solutions. Gabriel believes as competition among financial services providers increases and members work to become more sophisticated consumers, they appreciate a financial institution that raises the questions they don't yet know to ask. AFCU is headquartered in Tullahoma, population 17,000. Branches are located in areas stretching from rural to urban. Members range from those with below-average paychecks to highly paid professionals, the typical income level probably running below that of peer institutions. Overall, middle Tennessee has proven to be a good market, and several start-up banks have appeared. That competition, Gabriel states, simply keeps the credit union on its toes. New branches and expanding into additional markets are on the agenda. The "to do" list also includes retrofitting some existing branches. The updated look eliminates teller lines in favor of a greeter station and teller pods or kiosks. A couple of employees will be available to work with members. Safe deposit boxes will feature self-service.
One goal is a consistent look.
The latest AFCU member newsletter described the 7,042 square foot branch in Muphreesboro's Victory Station development this way:
"Members entering Victory Station will be greeted at the door and guided to one of two service areas. Those seeking to make quick account transactions will be taken to the Transaction Service Area, which contains three teller pods staffed with two tellers each. Members applying for loans or needing other credit union services will be taken to the Member Service Area, which features six rooms that will be used alternately by six member service representatives."
As for challenges, Gabriel figures AFCU faces a typical roster including competition not only from banks, but also from nontraditional sources. What's more, they're all vying for the best employees they can find.
Gabriel brings know-how from a couple of different disciplines to her job as CEO. She earned her B.A. in marketing from the University of Alabama and then went on to law school at the University of Tennessee.
Her first job out of law school was at Arnold Air Force Base. Then, in 1995, AEDC Federal Credit Union--that point about $185 million in assets--decided it wanted to have an attorney on board. Gabriel was offered the job.
"Not many credit unions had an attorney on staff. It was pretty much a groundbreaker," Gabriel recalls.
Her role expanded, and she became executive vice president. Then, when the CEO retired in 2004, Gabriel was selected for the job.
Married, she has three children ranging from college age to elementary school. Ask her about hobbies, and she'll point out her spare time has been spent keeping up with her children's activities, especially sports and cheerleading. She figures she's been to every cheerleading camp available.
"That there aren't more hours in the day," she answers. --firstname.lastname@example.org