Efficiency: Simplicity And Tech Can Help
Credit unions needing to serve more members with fewer staff during these hard economic times might consider simplifying their products, increasing their use of technology and cooperating with other CUs.
Those are among the strategies suggested by credit unions that lead the pack in the numbers of members they serve with limited staff (See charts, page 10). In most cases, the credit union leadership stressed that their adoption of these different strategies had grown out of the individual missions and circumstances, but all believed other credit unions could adopt some of them to improve their operations.
For two credit unions, sole sponsorship and a heavy reliance on the U.S. Postal Service plays a large role in their ability to serve members.
The $23 million Good Samaritan Federal Credit Union, headquartered in Sioux Falls, S.D., sole sponsor is the Evangelical Lutheran Good Shepherd Society, which bills itself as the "the nation's largest not-for-profit, long-term care organization." The society provides care for elderly and disabled people living in their homes and also maintains a network of 220 facilities across 25 states, said Good Samaritan FCU CEO Michael Gardner.
Good Samaritan FCU draws its more than 10,200 members from the employees and volunteers at those facilities and relies on a staff of four credit union employees to serve them. Each employee serves more than 2,500 members.
"As you can imagine, with those sorts of dynamics and the numbers of facilities, we rely a lot on the U.S. mail," said Gardner. The CU also uses a website to help get information and documents out to members and allow them to make basic account transactions. But members cannot yet use the Web to make loan applications, though members can still fill them out online and fax them to the credit union's 650-square-foot office in the organization's headquarters.
Good Samaritan used to respond to a member's request to withdraw cash only by mailing checks but now also provides ATM access to accounts through a network, though not one of the national credit union-owned ATM networks.
The credit union also benefits from strong support from its sponsor, Gardner explained. Members can get credit union documents and applications from the facility in which they work as well, he said.
The credit union also strives, like many of the others, to keep things simple, offering no ATM services and only one plain credit card. "Keeping it simple cut costs and takes fewer people to administer," Gardner said. "We tend to keep to what we do well," he added.
As might be expected from its name, NAPUS Federal Credit Union, which serves the members and employees of the National Association of Postmasters of the U.S. also relies a good deal on the U.S. mail to keep in contact with members. But the one branch of the $264 million credit union headquartered in Alexandria, Va., in the same block as its sponsoring association, makes a point of offering a wider variety of products and services than many might expect.
"We belong to the CO-OP Network and shared branching," said NAPUS CEO Becca Cuddy. "We also offer five different credit cards and the full line of loans, including mortgages."
NAPUS FCU has 40 employees, almost 38,000 members and a member-employee ratio of 955.
Cuddy credited the credit union's membership which is familiar with technology and demands a strong suite of products for helping making that ratio possible. Familiarity with technology helped push the use of ATMs and shared branching, which takes pressure off NAPUS employees. The credit union also outsources some of its operations, including some of its mortgage origination process and servicing and will soon outsource some of its burgeoning call center operation, Cuddy said.
She also said that the credit union has already set money aside in next year's budget to develop a mobile banking option. "We have a sophisticated nationwide membership with high expectations," Cuddy said. "Technology is what helps us meet those expectations in an effective, efficient way."
Gary Walcott, vice president for marketing for the School Employees Credit Union, said his agrees with Cuddy's sentiments about technology but would take it to the next level.
The $778 million CU, headquartered in Seattle, has over 78,000 members, 114 employees and ratio of 690 members to each employee. The credit union's chief key to efficiency is not to have branches, Walcott said. The CU has two facilities, one in Seattle and the other in Spokane, where employees handle the credit union's back-office functions but no real branches in the usual sense of the word, Walcott explained.
Instead, School Employees relies on technology to allow it to provide the range of services and products that its members want.
But by contrast with the others, the $1 billion Local Government Credit Union, headquartered in Raleigh, N.C., has a ratio of 3,450 members per each of its 55 employees through a very strong cooperative arrangement with State Employees' Credit Union.
According to Michael Spink, communications manager for Local Government, the credit union had its start as an effort on the part of SECU to draw in local and county government employees in North Carolina. The effort went well until, in the early 1980s, a lawsuit charging that SECU had expanded past its charter by serving local government employees succeeded. In response, the N.C. League of Municipalities and the N.C. Association of County Commissioners got together and sponsored the creation of LGFCU.
The new credit union is completely separate from SECU, offers its own products and services, has its own underwriting standards and a federal charter instead of a state one, Spink explained. But what it doesn't have is any of its own branches. Local Government has a relationship with SECU whereby Local Government pays SECU a fee for using SECU's back-office support and staff to conduct much of its face to face business.
The arrangement works well for Local Government because it allows the CU to efficiently serve in all corners of the state, where ever SECU has a branch, LGFCU has a branch. It also helps SECU by providing the credit union with payments to cover its efforts.
Spink acknowledged that Local Government's structure grew out of its unique history and circumstances, but nonetheless thought that more credit unions could benefit from sharing more of their operations, cutting costs and perhaps picking up additional efficiency as well.
But Lydia Cole, industry analyst with Callahan & Associates, urged caution when equating efficiency with a higher ratio of members per employee. The efficiency ratio is obtained by dividing a credit union's operating expenses by its total income minus interest expenses, and that may or may not be reflected in a high ratio of members to employees, she pointed out.
"A credit union may have a high member-to-employee ratio but have outsourced many of its operations in expensive contracts," she said. "In that case, the credit might not have as many of its own direct employees but pay too much for third-party employees doing the same work. When doing an efficiency analysis, you have to look at different parts of a credit union's whole operation. It's never just one thing."