Despite Michigan's unemployment rate of just over 14%, Michigan First Credit Union in Lathrup Village, outside of Detroit, posted 130% growth in auto loans in the first quarter of this year. In January alone the credit union closed on 75 car loans, more than triple that expected in what is traditionally a slow month even when auto sales are brisk. In just a day and a half in May, an on-site sale at Michigan First headquarters brought in 81 loans totaling more than $1 million.
President/CEO Michael Poulos said the pace is continuing. In fact, he believes the second quarter will deliver even better results.
With real estate flat, auto loans have definitely been the star of Michigan First's loan portfolio.
Although Michigan is frequently cited as the poster child for tough economic times, delinquencies are modest at about 1.5%.
"We're used to lending across all the credit tiers," Poulos said. "So D and E paper doesn't bother us at all."
Overall, he has seen members being prudent. Michigan First's assets have grown as members have boosted their savings. In fact, Poulos said, they're saving at a rate he hasn't seen in his 20 years in the credit union movement.
How has the credit union succeeded at a time when many credit unions are seeing auto loans, a historically strong point, shrink?
"A couple things," Poulos indicated. "One is we have worked really hard to establish what we call our preferred dealer network, where we have developed strong relationships with about 19 dealers.
"It's indirect lending, but it's different in the sense we don't just take loans from any dealers who send them to us. We have actually developed special relationships with certain dealers. Our members get discounts, and we get the loan. We make sure the dealers are operating with integrity."
It probably didn't hurt that not long before the May auto sale, The Detroit News ran an article stating, "Michigan First Credit Union offers car buyers lower interest rates on loans for vehicle purchases at some Michigan dealerships."
Poulos observed, "There's a lot of volatility in the car financing market. One of things dealers have really liked about us is that we're stable, we're steady, whether times are good or not so good."
Certainly Detroit automakers' sharp cuts in the number of dealerships have made headlines. But the cuts don't seem to have hit Michigan First's dealer network. In fact, Poulos said only one dealer lost one marque.
Other dealers would like to join the credit union's program, but "We haven't allowed that-yet," he noted.
Poulos cited advertising to members as the second factor in the credit union's auto lending success.
For example, at an on-site event offering 100 cars under $10,000, the three-storey headquarters was covered with an ad wrap. All financing was handled right there.
"I'd say that two-thirds of the cars sold were, indeed, under $10,000," he said.
In addition to auto loan information on its regular Web site (www.michiganfirst.com), Michigan First members can tap into michiganfirstcars.com to learn about loan terms and identify dealers in the network. Starting in July the credit union will begin identifying specific cars for the Aug. 14-15 sale, allowing members to select a car ahead of time. Two dealerships, instead of the usual one, will participate in that on-site event.
Poulos said many people, keenly aware of volatility in the banking industry, are taking a second look at credit unions for a number of products and services, including auto loans.
"We're getting a lot of new members directly off the street for that purpose," Poulos said.
"Michigan is a unique market in the sense there's a very strong loyalty to the Big Three here. One of the nice things about living in tougher economic times is it makes you get better at what you do. If you're not a good businessperson, don't run a good business, you might be out of business. It's not going to be this way forever. Michigan is a great market and there are great people here."