CHEYENNE, Wyo. and SALT LAKE CITY -- For years, the running teaser between Meridian Trust Federal Credit Union and Utah Power Credit Union involved finding a way to link up to serve more members even though both financial institutions were as different as they come.
Other than sharing the same data processor, both credit unions didn't have that much in common when it came to field of membership. The $159 million Meridian Trust FCU was founded in 1954 to serve state of Wyoming employees and later evolved to a multi-SEG institution serving more than 18,000 members. The $250 million Utah Power CU got its start in 1935 for Utah Power & Light employees and with more than 16,750 members, remains a single sponsor, state-chartered credit union to this day.
Meridian Trust, with five branches throughout the state, was looking to expand its presence in the western part of Wyoming, said Kim Withers, president/CEO of the credit union. Utah Power had found that many of its members lived in the Rock Springs, Wyo. area, but charter and regulations prevented the credit union from venturing across state lines, said Ryan Pollick, vice president of lending and marketing at Utah Power.
The idea to launch a shared service CUSO ultimately became the solution to accommodate members at both credit unions. On May 30, 2006, PowerTrust opened its doors for business in Rock Springs. Here, Utah Power and Meridian Trust members could make deposits and withdrawals.
"We came to this partnership in sort of an odd way," recalled Withers, who is also chairman of PowerTrust. "We've had a relationship with Utah Power for many years because we're on the same data processor. We would always joke 'if you needed to or wanted to partner...' The timing was right for both of us."
This wasn't Meridian Trust's first venture into the Rock Springs area. In the late 1980s, it had a branch located in a nearby location, but it was very expensive to maintain, Withers said. After a depletion of energy resources, such as oil and coal, impacted Wyoming's economy, the branch was closed down and "sold for pennies on the dollar."
Meanwhile, Utah Power's nearest branch for Rock Springs' members was 190 miles away in another state, Pollick said.
"What we found to be interesting is our members really wanted us there [in Wyoming]," Pollick said. "They were literally begging us to have a presence there."
When the discussions began in late 2005 to roll out PowerTrust, it was agreed the credit unions would split the start-up costs down the middle, which came out to be under $100,000, Withers said. Starting next year, PowerTrust will implement a pro rata transaction system. Using a CUSO eventually slashed branch expenses by 70% for Meridian Trust. Net income for the first year of operation was $38,000.
Selling the CUSO to members has been surprisingly easy, said Pollick, who had concerns that some would be leery of doing business with a subsidiary that, when said out loud, did not sound like it had a direct tie to Utah Power. The CUSO is currently averaging 1,000 transactions per month. Nearly 170 new members have joined both credit unions. The average loan balance for Meridian Trust and Utah Power for members using the shared service CUSO is $11,796 and $4,189, respectively. The average deposit balance is $7,338 for Meridian Trust members and $3,512 for Utah Power members.
PowerTrust also ran a number of campaigns to drum up business. Meridian Trust kicked off a "Crazy 8" special where members received 8.0% on a new share certificate that required a $1,000 maximum with e-statements. Utah Power rolled out a "Come in, Cash in" promotion that entered every member transaction into a drawing for $250. Transactions increased 30% the month the promotion ran. More than 200 members came and picked up their free hat, mug or flashlight after the CUSO invited them to stop by during the holidays.
Pollick and Withers said both credit unions looked at other alternatives to starting their own CUSO including partnering with some of the industry's well-known, national shared service networks. It was soon determined that it would be difficult to use the regular route of a shared service center, "because we wanted to establish a center in places where it doesn't make sense for the regional CUSO to establish a stand alone service center," Withers said. Also, at some point PowerTrust may consider expanding beyond deposit transactions.
Utah Power is also looking to expand in other parts of Wyoming through PowerTrust by the end of the year, Pollick said. So far, he admits, the biggest challenge has been the across state lines-commute.
"Administratively, PowerTrust is handled by both credit unions," Pollick explained. "Logistically, the distance creates a little bit of an issue from time to time but our partnership has become so strong that we're able to work through it."
From her perspective, Withers said PowerTrust's biggest hurdle actually came before the CUSO opened for business. The state regulators and banking groups did not like the word "trust" in PowerTrust and the implication that it might be perceived as a trust services CUSO.
"The most difficult thing was getting the name passed in Wyoming," Withers said. "The banking groups were behind this. It took longer than we expected it would."
To appease regulators and bankers, a tagline was added under the PowerTrust logo that reads "credit union service organization."
Another challenge has been the "extremely tight" labor market in Rocket Springs, Pollick noted. The "booming" coal, oil and gas industries in the West have led to more jobs than people and a shortage of housing to keep up with the growth. Pollick said it took quite some time to find and hire PowerTrust's two full-time staffers and to ensure that they would stay for the long term, they were "paid at a premium."
Still, for a CUSO with just under a year under its belt, PowerTrust has proved that collaboration can boost the bottom line.
"We're not small but our size prevents us from doing some things that the larger credit unions can do," Pollick said. "CUSOs can help find the right partnerships. I see our organization developing around the needs of our CUSO."