FORT McPHERSON, Ga. -- When word came that Fort McPherson, a former training ground for troops during the Civil War would close for good after serving as a 173-year old military fixture in Georgia, the rumblings began.
On May 13, 2005, the Department of Defense recommended that the base installation, along with another 181 nationwide close or face realignment under the suggestion of the Base and Realignment and Closure Commission. By doing so, the commission said $35.6 billion would be saved over the next 20 years.
Members were understandably concerned about the future of $24 million FMC Credit Union, which was founded by civilian employees on July 23, 1948. Fort McPherson, the military installation, is scheduled to close in 2011.Would the credit union close too? What would become of their accounts? These were the two main queries, said Klaus Halm, chairman of the credit union. Even before hearing about the closure notice, Halm said plans were in place to expand to other fields of membership.
"The closure list didn't motivate us to grow the credit union," said Halm, who joined FMC CU in 1956 and has served as board chairman for 20 years. "We knew that growing for the sake of growth was not the way to go but we knew we had to stay alive."
Celebrating its 60th anniversary this year, the credit union's lobby was awash in memorabilia from 1948 including a colorful collection of three cent stamps, captured during a recent visit from Credit Union Times. A black and white photo of smartly dressed men and women, who once served on the board, sits in a wooden frame. Military brochures span the table and some of the early founders and managers are highlighted in newspaper articles.
As it remembered its past, the credit union set out on a mission of ensuring its members that it would not only remain open in the future but extend its reach around metropolitan Atlanta. In July 2002, FMC CU merged with East Point Municipal Employees CU bringing in 800 members. Another 4,000 members came via a July 2007 merger with Marta Employees FCU. On May 27, the Georgia Department of Banking and Finance approved a residential group common bond request to expand to the entire city of East Point, a suburb southwest of Atlanta with an estimated 42,000 residents. Keeping that hometown feel continues to be one of its cornerstones.
"Everybody had a little neighborhood bank, then the banks got bought out by bigger banks. You achieve economies of scale but a lot of people feel you lose that personal touch," Halm said. "Our niche has been a modern version of the neighborhood bank."
Members prompted snippets of evolution. Due to a number of requests, the credit union launched its home banking program in the spring of 2005. While there are no exact numbers on how many members signed on, the new service resulted in less foot traffic at the branches, noticed Brenda Daniel-Gibson, vice president and branch manager.
"I remember saying 'do you hear that, the phone's not ringing,'" said Daniel-Gibson to one of the tellers in response to one quiet day at the branch in the early days of home banking.
Debit cards were another heavily requested item, Daniel-Gibson recalled. The credit union provided them but the expenses associated with adding more FMC CU-owned ATMs proved to be too expensive to roll out. Even if the credit union had more ATMs, members would still have to pay fees to use them, she said. Bill payment was also considered but after running the numbers, the costs to implement and run the service were too steep, Daniel-Gibson said. Members are encouraged to go directly to the company's site to pay the bill, which can often be done for free.
"We're trying to cross train our members," she explained.
The credit union has come a long way from a tightly-packed, 700 square-foot office that included space shared by tellers and backroom staff at the same time to a larger, airy facility that opened in January 1993 with a conference room, several offices, lobby and ample teller stations. Two more branches came as a result of the past mergers. As it contemplated moving its main branch, it was discovered that an overwhelming majority of members lived on the south side of Atlanta in neighboring Clayton and Henry counties. But given the stalls and starts that have come with BRAC closures, there is no real rush to locate a new space, Halm said.
"We designed and built the building so we would like to keep it," Halm said. "Right now, the thinking is we may be able to stay here but every time something comes up [with BRAC], we consider moving. We know we have to be ready."
Halm said the credit union found a piece of property for a potential move but the owners wanted too much money. If a temporary space is the short-term remedy, there are the two post-merger branches, he added. At some point in the future, a data processing center might be an additional consideration.
Named for Major General James Birdseye McPherson, the installation served as a meeting place, drill and troop training ground during the Civil War when it was established in 1835, according to the Fort McPherson Web site. Confederate troops destroyed the cartridge factory and many of the barracks during Atlanta's siege. Because of its popularity as a summer encampment, especially for Florida troops, Congress authorized Fort McPherson as permanent military post in 1885. Forty of the original buildings are protected from demolition deemed by the National Register of Historic Place. The installation's closure stands to impact 2,260 military and 1,181 civilians, according to BRAC.
During the Credit Union Times visit, military personnel conducted a thorough search of all visitors including sweeps of car trunks, hoods and undercarriage. Resembling a sprawling college campus, the base's brick buildings dot the sides of winding roads with speed bumps. The credit union is adjacent to a commissary with a Burger King located inside. Turning off the main road into the parking lot, a large white sign--surprisingly with the name of another credit union--is seen on a nearby fence.
This particular credit union, once federally chartered and operating under a different name, has had a branch on the installation for more than 30 years, according to the CEO. Halm said FMC CU was originally chartered to serve civilian employees. When the idea came up to extend membership to soldiers, members voted against it, he said. Fort McPherson approached the other credit union about expanding its membership to soldiers, to which it agreed. FMC CU soon followed suit, Halm said. The Department of Defense would later rewrite its regulations saying only one credit union could serve on a military installation. The grandfathered exception was those bases that already had more than one credit union on site. According to the Defense Credit Union Council and NAFCU, only one credit union and one bank are now allowed to serve on military installations.
Indeed, Atlanta is home to several of the nation's larger credit unions including the $2.7 billion Delta Community CU, which has opened up several branches around the city over the past year. The $927 million Associated CU also has a presence here. Last summer, four more branches sprang up in Atlanta from the $31 billion Navy FCU. FMC CU's staff is aware of the competition all around them but their members see the difference.
"We know who our members are and we take care of them," Halm said. "I tell the staff that if we get a really difficult complaint from a member, to shoot it directly to me. Honest to God, I don't get one a year."
Ernest and Janice Dikilato fall into the complaint-free category. The couple has been members since 1985. Ernest, retired from the military, remembers Daniel-Gibson when she was teller and later a loan officer. Even though she's now vice president and branch manager, the Dikilato always come to Daniel-Gibson for their financial needs. She said she always makes the time. They've seen her children grow from small children to high schoolers. Even if they don't have a transaction, they pop in to see her a few times a week.
"Brenda has such as good personality and she's down to earth," Janice said. "Don't get me wrong, she tells us the truth. She always gives it to us straight."
Ernest is convinced that joining a credit union was the right choice.
"I've tried the banks and didn't like the service. The credit union is convenient. No hassles, better service," Ernest said.
Fort McPherson is supposed to close in three years. Halm said he has seen installations close up to 15 years after they've been scheduled to shut down. Meanwhile, more mergers and a possible name change to accommodate new memberships are always considered, Halm said. The board and staff will continue to review adding products and services and perhaps terminate less popular offerings, if need be.
"We've had challenges, but not something I would call a crisis," Halm said. "Our chief asset is our staff. They're really great people to deal with. When we first started, everything we did was delayed by a few days. Now, we've come up to speed and our staff gets a lot of that credit."