PRIOR LAKE, Minn. -- One of the advantages South Metro Federal Credit Union has in its arsenal is it is situated in one of the country's top 15 fastestgrowing counties.
Much of the growth over the past six years has been tied to affordable, picturesque housing, a thriving downtown business district, a regional medical center, and a nationally-recognized public school district, according to the Metropolitan Council, the chamber that serves the seven county Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area. According to the most current U.S. Census figures, Scott County grew from 89,498 in 2000 to 124,092 by July 2006.
For $52 million South Metro, that growth has helped increase its presence in Scott County, which is located 45 minutes southwest of downtown Minneapolis, said Don Crofut, president/CEO. One of the industry's newest cooperatives, it got its start in 1993 by its original sponsor, the Shakopee-Mdewakanton Indian Reservation. Today's South Metro's members still include ties to the reservation as well as an expanded presence in the county.
Even with 2,500 members, there was a need from many of them for investment services, Crofut said. Four years ago, South Metro began searching for CUSOs to link up with. It was important to choose an entity that really understood credit unions, Crofut said. South Metro looked at a few others before tapping CUSO Financial Services, LP for its track record in the industry. With $6 million in assets under management, members' requests range from 529 savings plans, mutual funds and stocks to insurance and long-term care services.
"We have some members who are reaching the retirement age and are in that transition from the work force and are looking at annuity products," Crofut said.
Having an array of investment services available to members complements South Metro's goal of having as many "touch points" as possible with its four branches, nine ATMs and an alliance with a shared branching network. Its "smart branches" are open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. That accessibility is critical since the credit union has gone from $19 million in assets in 1999, when Crofut took the helm, to its current $25 million in assets. The CEO says South Metro's growth rate has been 25% each year.
The biggest challenge to bringing investment services to members has been "an awareness perspective," Crofut said. South Metro's membership looks like "a dumbbell" with many members being in the 25-35 age bracket and just as many in the 55 and older range. The younger members are "very mobile," and are often parents and busy, first-time homeowners. To accommodate them, the credit union constantly holds investment education seminars in the evenings, on the weekend and even on holidays.
The big challenge has not been competing with other financial institutions in the area but competing with itself, Crofut explained, shutting down any questions on how South Metro is able to stand out from its competitors, especially the larger ones.
"Our competition is ourselves," Crofut said. "We try to ensure that our members are being provided better services and value in a cooperative atmosphere. Once you start looking outside [of the credit union], you're not focusing on what is important to your members."
Smaller credit unions need only look to the industry's philosophy for the answer on whether it can
compete with larger counterparts.
"We have the greatest tool in the world to meet our member needs. It's called the cooperative environment," Crofut said. "You have CUSOs that have banded together to do business lending and mortgage lending. Whether you're a $15 million or a $1 billion credit union, you can meet the members' needs."
Banding together helped $32 million CORE CU in Statesboro, Ga. and two other Georgia credit unions bring investment services to their diverse fields of membership. CORE, along with $71 million Fort Stewart Georgia FCU and $56 million Georgia Heritage FCU, are the first to participate in an investment consortium through CFS. A CFS investment representative is shared among the three credit unions.
"We realized that the membership was getting older and it was time for many of them to focus on the bulk of their retirement savings and college savings [for their children] and post-retirement health costs," said Jeremy Hinton,
senior manager of financial services at CORE. "We didn't want them to go somewhere else."
CORE is another fairly new credit union formed in 1974 to serve educators. It now serves 6,500 members, 40 select employee groups and eight counties. Hinton acknowledged it was quite a process to get all credit unions on the same page before rolling out a full investment program mainly because of schedule logistics. The decision was made early on to hire an investment rep with local ties, Hinton said.
It's still a brand new offering for CORE, but there has been some initial interest from members and a marketing campaign is being discussed. Hinton, a former investment rep, was OK with the concept of building an investment program from scratch. It's hard to predict what members will gravitate to, but Hinton said there may be a continued shift to long-term savings if the current "credit debacle" lingers around. Baby boomers are starting to retire and "we may have to make some adjustments for that." So far, CORE
has added investment services to its core offering via its Web site.
One of the bigger initiatives will be appealing to those members who heavily embrace technology and are apt to avoid paper statements and branch visits. CORE also has partnerships with data processing provider Share One, Georgia Central CU and Southwest Corporate to round out its back-end
CORE considered starting its own outfit in-house in addition to looking at other vendors in the industry. In the end, the administration costs of managing an internal program were beyond the credit union's resources, Hinton said. When asked if members may be a bit skittish about turning to their local credit union for investment services, Hinton said that's more of an internal concern.
"We see ourselves in relation to the credit union down the street or the bank across the street. Members don't see it that way. They don't see us as being smaller than anyone else," Hinton said. "It's kind of one of those things we put our blinders on and say 'let's
not look at our asset size but let's look at serving
For smaller credit unions, there are CUSOs doing unique investments such as mortgage-backed securities and loan participations, Hinton pointed out. So there really is no room for them to say "'we're too small to get into that market.'"
"A lot of it comes down to the relationship you have with members," Hinton reasoned on how smaller credit unions can compete. "We do a real good job of bending over backwards and that helps us serve our members."