Since its founding in 1955, most of Ohio University Credit Union's growth has sprouted up through its original sponsor, a connection that germinates to this day.
The $241 million Athens, Ohio-based cooperative has also expanded its membership through select employee groups with ties to Ohio University, a school formed in 1804 with a current enrollment of more than 16,000 students and 950 faculty. For some time, OUCU had use traditional methods to nurture its more than 65 SEG relationships such as through reams of paper materials and limited e-mail messages introducing school students and staff to the credit union.
"It was cumbersome, and the SEG ambassadors really didn't want to take the take to follow through. It really never took off," said Laura Pratt, vice president of marketing.
After Pratt set out on a mission to find other ways to grow OUCU's SEGs, she discovered another Ohio credit union had implemented an online system that all but eliminated paper and appeared to be more efficient. The timing was perfect given that a major growth initiative at one of the credit union's recent strategic planning retreats was to stimulate SEG development and penetration.
Through a contact at the Ohio Credit Union League, Pratt turned to Profound Communications, a Columbus, Ohio-based marketing firm and its SEG portal and ambassador program. With basic, deluxe and supreme packages, the model features a portal homepage that showcases a CU's news, events and ambassador of the month and other specials. An incentive system calculates points for SEG representatives who are especially active in bringing new members with rewards ranging from stadium blankets to flat-screen televisions, Pratt said. Eight credit unions are currently using the portal.
SEG ambassadors can also use the portal to request marketing materials such as the CU's handbook, on-site signups, new posters and links to new member video and online applications. Pratt said she is especially excited about features like an online referral system, being able to schedule events such as luncheons and newsletter access.
The industry may be moving in another direction when it comes to SEG development, said Tammy Holtzmeier, president of Profound Communications. The old-fashioned way typically involved credit unions establishing personal relationships with a person, visiting that person and supplying that person will all kinds of paper materials in the hopes that those things were stilled out to current employees and new hires, she said.
"Years ago, it's safe to say that would have been enough," Holtzmeier aid. "But in this type of economy and with technology, we're now faced with an industry where free membership benefits are not perceived as important."
Pratt agreed adding the old school methods varies with the SEG and their contact. Typically, the liaison is a person in the human resources department or the assistant to an executive "who were not remunerated and had stretched job duties," Holtzmeier explained. "To be fair, there are some cases where the current system works very well. It is becoming less of the rule."
"People are busy everywhere," Pratt said. "Even if they really love the credit union, sometimes it's not top of mind."
Holtzmeier said when the CU rep hangs up the phone with a SEG, the portal takes it from there. A self-reporting feature streamlines the process for everyone, Pratt added.
For OUCU, the unemployment and layoff bubble has not affected its SEG relationships, Pratt said. The small, rural town of Athens, Ohio is driven mainly by the university. Except for a vibrant medical industry, the area does not have a lot of industries, she added. For the most part, Athens has not experienced the unemployment bubble seen in other parts of the country. OUCU recently signed on the city of Athens and Athens County as its newest SEG.
"Our SEGs have been fairly stable. We've seen some layoffs and early retirements and they're been a few cuts at the hospital," Pratt said. "The biggest impact has been on smaller businesses that are not our SEGs."
While OUCU will court new businesses, more attention will be paid to existing SEGs, Pratt said. Profound's portal program is one piece in a larger initiative to make that happen. At press time, the credit union was set to hire its first full-time business development specialist to manage the portal and cement and build new relationships. To that end, the new staffer will work closely with the credit union's investment and tax preparation CUSO to introduce small businesses and existing SEGs to products and services.
Because OUCU is not community-chartered, it relies heavily on SEGs, Pratt pointed out. While these charters continue to flourish, Holtzmeier said another shift may be occurring in the industry.
"The pendulum is starting to swing back. Even credit unions with community charters are going back to the basics with their SEG development."