Nourishing Its Education Roots Helps Apple Federal Credit Union Blossom
The theme song for Apple Federal Credit Union's strategic shift might have been "Everything Old is New Again."
Several years ago the Fairfax, Va.-based institution decided to refocus on its roots in education. While many credit unions have adopted community charters in order to grow membership and assets, AFCU committed to retaining its core membership while opening its ranks to additional school districts.
One result was the credit union reaching the billion dollar mark in 2008.
"We're trying to position ourselves as a premier education credit union," President/CEO Larry Kelly said. "We want to be the best education financial institution our members can find. It gives us a focus and I guess a lot of meaning to what we do as an organization. We're a niche player and what we try to do is serve our niche."
An example of this philosophy can be seen in the Education Foundation Grant that Apple FCU awarded to the Fairfax County Schools. Hit by budget cuts, the district was about to scrap its Great Beginnings program of orientation and mentoring for new teachers, an effort that has tripled the teacher retention rate. The grant will provide $1 million for the program over five years.
Kelly seems personally convinced of how important teachers are. He recalls a friend of his, a former school superintendent, asking him who the most important person in his life was, other than family members. After thinking about the unexpected question, Kelly answered that it was his seventh grade English teacher. The friend smiled, then asked him to identify the second most important person. The answer was an eleventh grade teacher.
AFCU reaches not only into the ranks of teachers, but of other school employees as well. Walk into a branch, Kelly said, and you'll notice a tremendous mix of people, from cafeteria workers to a superintendent of schools.
"I think the proudest moment I've had in my career was teaching a part-time bus driver who was in her 40s how to use an ATM card," Kelly recalled. "She was very intimidated by the card. We went through the procedure, she got the money, and I could see how excited and pleased she was. For me that was the essence of credit unions. I know Bank of America didn't care about that part-time bus driver."
AFCU also serves students, with 34 branches in local high schools and middle schools. Do these students remain with the credit union?
"We've been tracking it since we started doing student branches in 1995," Kelly noted. "We do have a pretty strong retention, especially for students who go on to college and come back to the community. If they move somewhere else in the country we're not as good at retaining them-although we do have members in every state.
"The real reason members come back is our employees. We have tremendous employees. We run focus groups and try to understand what makes us successful. The bottom line is it always comes back to the employees. If they're not happy, motivated, excited, trained and proficient, we're not going to be successful. We want to be the employer of choice, and that's not just lip service."
It's no surprise Kelly cites the nation's economic struggles as the key issue facing AFCU, leading to losses in both corporate and natural person credit unions. He indicated that credit unions share responsibility, and he considers that a tremendous worry. AFCU thought it was protecting its members by limiting exposure to corporate woes, but the credit union is on the hook for more than $10 million.
He hopes 2010 will be remembered as the turning point toward recovery from the recession. He's not yet convinced the nation has arrived at that point. It seems to him that the situation may have hit the bottom, but he's not certain.
The credit union strives to serve members better, he explained, but the current state of the economy has made that especially challenging. Although it did recently open a new branch, the credit union has actually put the brakes on branch expansion. The economy has also affected what AFCU has considered an exceptional rate advantage for members. Loan rates are now higher than the credit union would prefer, and dividends are modest.
Despite recent struggles, Kelly remains impressed with the credit union movement. He praises how helpful Navy Federal Credit Union has been to AFCU and how much AFCU has learned from other credit unions such as SchoolsFirst Federal Credit Union in California, Suncoast Schools Federal Credit Union in Florida and Teachers Federal Credit Union in New York.
"One of our senior VPs just got back from a trip to North Carolina State Employees Credit Union. They were kind enough to share their best practices with us. We try to learn from industry leaders, and we're anxious to imitate things that are successful," Kelly said.
Actually, he started looking at credit unions while he was in high school. His girlfriend, to whom he has now been married for 36 years, began working as a credit union teller when she was 17. He joined that credit union.
But there was a detour before he became a credit union executive. Kelly worked his way through college as a night stocker at an A&P food store, punching out in the morning and heading for class. He earned degrees in economics from the University of Maryland, in accounting from the University of Baltimore, and an MBA in finance from Loyola College in Baltimore.
Kelly went into supermarket management and eventually administration. As an employee of Giant Food Stores, he discovered the company treated the credit union as an integral part of the employee benefits package. At one point the credit union was having some financial struggles, and Kelly was asked to help them.
"I just fell in love with the business, and that was 25 years ago," he explained. Ten years later, in 1995, he left Giant Food Federal Credit Union (now Market USA Federal Credit Union) as CEO to become CEO of AFCU.
Ask him what he does when he's not at work and he'll quickly reply, "I'm a granddaddy." He and his wife grab opportunities to spend time with their granddaughter. They also enjoy bowling and love to travel. A trip to the Holy Land with a church group is on the agenda, and they adore cruising.
"I'm the luckiest guy in the world," Kelly declared. "I really feel very fortunate to do what I do. I have a great board, great people to work with-it just couldn't be better."