Sandy Lingerfelt, CEO of the $60 million Clinchfield Federal Credit Union in Erwin, Tenn., said that one of the biggest challenges her small credit union is facing is keeping up with its growth.
"We're growing and thriving and trying to keep up with compliance and make sure we're doing right by our members," she said.
Lingerfelt added that her credit union is approaching the issue by focusing on continuing to stay true to its small credit union roots and providing a high level of personal service to its 6,000 members.
As is true at many other credit unions, Clinchfield has members who have lost jobs they never thought they would lose. The credit union has a list of members that have lost their jobs so that credit union staff can call to ask what the CU can do to help.
"We've always tooted our horn saying, 'We'll be with you through the good times and the bad.' We're trying to prove that. There's never been a better time to sing the credit union song," Lingerfelt said.
Clinchfield has no automated phone system. Lingerfelt instituted a policy that the phone must be answered after three rings so members get a person on the phone every time they call.
"We all answer the phone. Every time it rings it's an opportunity. We're doing everything we can to help people. We even have $100 loans to help people fill in the gap."
Hank Hubbard, CEO of Communicating Arts Credit Union in Detroit, said that being a small community credit union located in one of the poorest cities in the country puts a strain on his staff of 25 employees. Communicating Arts has $25 million in assets and serves 7,500 members.
"For a small credit union, 25 employees to 7,500 members is a good ratio, but being a low balance-high traffic credit union, I'm concerned about burning my employees out," Hubbard said.
According to Hubbard, more than 5,000 of the credit union's members have less than $500 in deposits-savings and checking accounts combined. The credit union has good penetration in direct deposit, but the money comes in and goes right out.
"There's always someone out there waiting, and I wish we could serve them faster, but my employees don't even have time to sit down. I'm trying to figure out how to make it work better."
Even in this economy, Hubbard said he's having a hard time finding good employees to fill open positions. Right now, he's in need of a collection manager and has been unable to find a qualified candidate.
"In a city with a 20% unemployment rate, you think there would be a lot of people out there. I put an ad in the paper and get a ton of people, but none of them have experience."
Strain and burn out is something Hubbard said he sees not just among his employees but also among other small credit union CEOs he knows.
"A lot of small credit union CEOs I know are just tired. It hasn't been an easy period for us, and there hasn't been a lot of indication that it will change for the better, like the good old days. It's a matter of either embracing the new environment or not."
For those who choose not to embrace it, Hubbard said he feels there is truth behind the prediction that the industry will be seeing more and more small credit unions merge. Small credit unions though, he said, serve an interesting purpose because they connect with the community in a way that larger financial institutions can't.
"Something someone tells me in line in the lobby could cause us to change something that we do. You can't do that at a Chase or even at some large credit unions. You have to go through all sorts of communication and red tape."
Lingerfelt said that she hopes small credit unions don't start disappearing because she feels they are the life and blood of the industry.
"If small credit unions go away, there'll just be another industry that will come along and fill in the space. There are lots of larger credit unions out there that share resources and experiences. As long as the industry pools together, we'll make each other stronger," Lingerfelt said.
Teresa Halleck, CEO of one of the largest credit unions in the country, $7.5 billion-The Golden 1 Federal Credit Union in Sacramento, Calif., said that she has seen an increase in the number of small credit unions seeking mergers.
"We're seeing more merger opportunities than mergers that are a strategic fit. We have to look at long term if it fits with our plans for expansion. It's difficult because we want to help everybody, and I feel bad when we have to say it's not a good fit, but we can't do everything."
When it comes to the issue of employees, The Golden 1 has the opposite problem from CACU.
With a year-over-year decrease in transaction volume, Halleck said that the credit union is under a hiring freeze, has shifted staff among branches, eliminated 50 positions through attrition and laid off another 25 people in positions affected by volume decreases.
Halleck said she will also be continuing to examine volume in branches and call centers to see if there is enough volume to support staffing levels.
In North Carolina, State Employees Credit Union CEO Jim Blaine said his biggest challenge right now is an unemployment rate among members that is continuing to rise.
The $18 billion-SECU has an unemployment rate of 11% in North Carolina, which Blaine said is not typically a high-unemployment state. Over the past eight months, the unemployment rate has doubled in the area.
"North Carolina is a high-manufacturing state, and these jobs are going by the wayside without jobs opening up to replace them," he said.
Most families that are credit union members had dual incomes, good credit ratings and on-time mortgage payments for years, but some are now falling behind because one spouse was laid off, Blaine explained.
To help members, Blaine said the credit union has created a mortgage assistance program where employees are actively calling members if a member is 10 days late on a payment.
"What we're finding is that most people are like deer in headlights. They're scared and don't want to admit they're in trouble."
SECU is looking for new, innovative ways to help its members. One idea Blaine said that the credit union is working on is a way to become a partner in home ownership. If a dual income family has a spouse who loses a job, Blaine said he wants to figure out a way for the credit union to go in and own half the house to enable the family to only be responsible for half the payment. Then a few years down the road, the credit union would provide a way for the family to buy out the credit union's half to regain full ownership.
"I think that potentially things may get that bad. Nobody wins if we have to take the house back."
When it comes to the economy, Halleck said that she is trying to look on the positive side.
"One thing I know is that every day we're one day closer to the end of the downturn."