WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. -- To appeal to middle-income Americans, particularly those under 45, MEMBERS Development Co. has launched Brightleaf Financial Network, a set of marketing, training and technology tools to help them execute their financial plans online.
Through Brightleaf and credit unions, members will have access to insurance and retirement tools and the ability create a custom financial plan. Within the plan is the "fit list," a financial improvement task list that targets immediate needs such as building emergency funds, paying off credit card debt, rebalancing 401(k)s and saving for annual goals. The "get list," or goal execution task list, are for long-term goals such as saving for college, a second home or retirement.
Once members have plans in place, Brightleaf will help execute their goals.
"It's not investment driven. We can't sell products," said Bryan Link, president of Brightleaf. "We do digital triage by making recommendations to credit unions on where members can get further help."
Brightleaf will offer credit unions their choice of five online and offline marketing campaigns, which includes banner and point of purchase ads and banners. The campaign carries the credit union's brand and the CUSO works with the internal marketing team to come up with the best approach, Link said.
The $5.3 billion Alliant CU is Brightleaf's newest signee but is not new to the concept, said Mona Leung, chief financial officer. The Chicago-based credit union is one of nine co-owners of MEMBERS Development, a venture created in 1999 by several credit unions and CUNA Mutual Group to develop products and services for the industry. The entity now operates independently of CUNA Mutual although three members of the company's senior executive team still serve on its board.
Leung recalled early discussions to launch an online financial adviser model. After Brightleaf made its debut earlier this year, the timing could not have been better for Alliant, which was creating an investment services channel.
"In the old days, if people wanted financial planning, they would have to go out and find a financial adviser who would probably charge a lot of money and make you feel like a loser," Leung said. "Transactions [today] are becoming more remote. People are more private about it."
Leung said she likes that Brightleaf still has the flexibility of access to financial advisers for those members who still value the face-to-face interaction. Alliant will offer the service for free to members who have online banking, another free service. The credit union is also planning to launch an investment services channel by the end of the year. Brightleaf will be involved in that effort as well, Leung said.
Link said Brightleaf has been in the works for at least four years. In 2003, the original concept was to create retirement centers for middle-income members. However, the logistics behind franchising proved to be too expensive. In 2006, the $1.1 billion Truliant CU had developed Simplify, which launched an online solution for middle-income members. Link is a co-founder of Simplify. MEMBERS Development decided to shift towards a virtual solution with a much broader range of services, Link said.
In fall 2007, Brightleaf was piloted through five credit unions, including a previous beta test with Truliant. Roughly 5,000 to 7,000 members from each credit union used the service. Link acknowledged that some of the IT people were skeptical, but the implementation, report runs and data mining ran relatively bump-free. Much of the work came on strengthening the back-end analytical tools, he pointed out.
Today, Brightleaf has partnered with 10 credit unions, with another five expected to come aboard by the end of the year, Link said. Most of the credit unions have $1 billion or more in assets. However, by the fourth quarter, the CUSO plans to offer a tier of services to credit unions with $250 million in assets. Brightleaf's pricing depends on the asset and member size, with a licensing fee for software access.
"Even at credit unions with financial advisory groups--they don't turn down people--but some are looking for those with significant assets," Link said. "The idea of financial planning for the middle class is talked about, but I don't see a lot of it being done.
Older members may feel more comfortable with financial advisers, but "38-year-olds probably don't feel the need to go there just yet." Brightleaf aims to appeal to the online savvy.
"I'm 37, and I'm much more comfortable doing things online than my mother," Link said. "I bought my insurance online. She would never do that."