Tech-Savvy Small CU Finds Happiness in High-Tech, High-Touch Niche
Judy Makela gets by with a little help from her friends-in this case, the vendors that enable her little Oregon credit union to offer high-tech tools while maintaining its high-touch approach to its small membership.
Makela is president of the $29 million Sunset Science Park FCU in Portland, a 2,000-member institution that offers mobile banking through its iPhone app. The credit union also offers such sophisticated features as the ability to move between business and personal accounts through a single sign-on, online banking, e-statements, bill pay, debit cards, home loans and HELOCs, the Fynanz student lending program, but does not offer shared branching.
"We're on the main highway to one of the major beaches here. If we did shared branching, we'd have a lot more people coming in, and right now we pretty much know all our members, and we like it that way," Makela said.
And with all the ways Sunset Science Park FCU members have to interact with their credit union, they may not need to go into another branch. For instance, for several years the credit union has offered honor deposits that allow members to credit their accounts online before mailing the check in.
Makela said she credits her relationship with vendors and the loyalty of her own small staff-most of them 10- to 20-year employees-for the success of the credit union, which has consistently ranked high on the list of asset performers.
Sunset Science Park is located in a small building it owns only several miles from downtown Portland. It's growing slowly, she said. Having just passed the 2,000-member mark while establishing itself as a strong presence in the Cedar Mill neighborhood, the credit union has not set its sights much beyond its immediate area.
"We don't want to be controlled by our growth. We like the size we are now, but we also have a tech-savvy membership and our credit union began with those kinds of companies, so our members want those kinds of tools, and we need to provide them to them and to the younger generation, if we're to continue being their primary financial institution," she said.
To be able to offer those kinds of services, Makela depends on her relationship with vendors who specialize in small credit unions-such as Database Management Services Inc., the Idaho-based provider of the HomeCU online banking service to more than 350 credit unions; core processor CompuSource; and a local firm, iParse, which just produced an iPhone app for Sunset Science Park FCU.
iParse is Rex Stevens' company, and he said he's been to his client's office several times. "The personal rapport they have with their members is very unique," he said. He said his own company is about one year old and is targeting credit unions and community banks with applications that don't cost a lot to deploy.
"It's a no-risk proposition for them," he said. "They don't have to install any software connecting to their core, and they pay us only when members actually use the application."
Sunset Science Park also has a browser-based mobile solution, but Makela said the native iPhone app seems to be easier to use and feature-rich.
"If you want to delight your members, give them a full-featured native iPhone app," Makela said. "With ours, there are no security issues, no software to install, just a gorgeous, easy-to-use app to offer our members. It's been simple and fun."
Makela said she plans to add new smart phone applications as members request them, and said that's just the latest of a long history of her vendors making leading edge service possible. The credit union is considering making an Android-compatible application available next.
She also points to her long relationship with DMS and its HomeCU online banking service. "I remember reading in Credit Union Times 10 to 12 years ago that home banking was the 'thing' and that we had to get into it. But it was going to cost us $25,000 at least, and we were what, a $5 million credit union then? I couldn't imagine such a situation.
"Well then I read about DMS and all the small credit unions in Idaho that were using them, and we've been with them ever since, too. It's worked out for us. I know right now that we're saving about $7,000 a year just in e-statements, and that's a lot for a small credit union like us," Makela said.
Makela, who leads a staff of five full-time and three part-time employees, likes dealing with small organizations herself when she can. She's found that in iParse and CompuSource, and in DMS, where the phone voicemail lists staff members by first names.
"We're a small company, with only about 10 people, and I guess you could say we're 'credit union-y' because of the personal level of service we provide," said DMS Vice President Jan Brinkerhoff. "Our customers call us and expect to talk to me or the president of the company. It's the same sort of comfort level, I guess, that our customers' members have with their own credit unions."
Joe Pearson, DMS president, said his company started out with a "Main Street approach to the Internet"-and has kept it that way-"making sure we were making enough money from the start to pay for itself, instead of using venture capital money to produce a line of products with no client base to pay for them," he said.
Their sales approach also appeals to small credit unions like Sunset Science Park, Brinkerhoff said. "We try to provide them everything the big boys have, but we don't push them. They're big boys and girls. They know their membership and they know what they need to serve them."
Makela agreed. "We don't want to be the biggest credit union around. We know 99% of the people walking through our door. Our niche is our personal service. And that's the same mentality we look for in the vendors we do business with. It's worked for us."