Michigan CUSO Finds Niche as Hybrid Service Bureau
If a core processor salesperson comes calling unannounced to your credit union, it's not courtesy of Member Driven Technologies.
"We don't cold call," said Larry Nichols, president and CEO of MDT, a suburban Detroit CUSO that has grown from seven credit unions in 2003 to a client list of 45 credit unions in 19 states running the Symitar Episys platform through its data center.
"We don't advertise or have sales and marketing, either, and in seven years this is the first interview I've done like this. I do go to CUES meetings periodically and have lunch with credit union people, and we put on the occasional WebEx seminar, but other than that, it's all been word of mouth and referrals," Nichols said.
He credits his company's growth to effective, flexible service offerings and economies of scale it offers in group buying of everything from checks to credit reports.
"We're up to 30,000 credit reports a month at 80 cents each. An individual credit union can't touch a credit report for that, typically. We also can deliver the same box of checks for $4 that most credit unions pay around $5.50 for," he said.
Group buying is nice, but Nichols claims what really makes his organization different from the numerous service bureaus in the credit union industry, including several that deliver Episys, is the way it provides the service.
Nichols calls it a "blended hybrid service offering, kind of like facilities management and outsourcing blended together." Each credit union runs on its own server, for instance, so there are no slowdowns when "everyone's trying to do their month-end processing at once. Then no one's happy," Nichols said.
"Everyone can do their own programming, schedule their own batch work, have total control of their platform," he said. "We do the stuff the IT people at the credit unions hate, sort of like changing the oil if you're a mechanic. We can do all the voice response, ATM and credit card platforms, Web services, even provide toner for the printers through our group buying."
The largest MDT user is the $508 million Lansing Automakers FCU. Another is the $248 million OMNI Community CU in Battle Creek, whose president/CEO said "working with MDT means there's one less thing keeping me up at night."
Ted Parson said OMNI Community became an MDT client in 2006 during a merger-driven platform conversion and that he doesn't miss his shop's days on an in-house system.
"We have more flexibility now, and I know if my IT manager were to leave tomorrow, there'll be good, competent people managing my data system. I don't want ever to be in a position where member service can be compromised because one individual was the key," Parson said.
He said other benefits, such as the group consumables buying service, were an unexpected byproduct of the relationship with MDT and that his credit union currently is looking at adding mobile banking next, among other services.
If they do, they can use a range of vendors. Nichols said the Episys platform's integration capacity enables MDT to offer connectivity to a wide range of online banking and other products from multiple vendors. He said MDT's clients want and need choices.
Parson agreed, adding that he found the Episys platform "to be the most user-friendly we've used. We also still have an active relationship with Symitar people, and I like that. I also am confident in the caliber of people MDT has in their leadership roles."
Nichols was hired as MDT's first employee in 2003 after a career with the former Dearborn FCU where he led the creation of a shared branching and ATM system that was sold to the Co-Op Network across the Detroit River in Ontario, Canada.
The staff of about 70 now is working from its headquarters in Warren, Mich., and is expanding to a second center in Southfield, Mich., to handle the growth and hopefully soon provide mirrored redundancy along with its SunGard backup services, Nichols said.
"We're pretty unique," he said. "Only [Maine CUSO] Synergent compares with us in the way we do things as a hybrid sort of service bureau."
Client credit unions also aren't asked to buy an equity stake in the CUSO and are treated the same regardless of size, not based on the size of their investment, Nichols said.
"We have no debt and we don't feel a need to add any additional equity owners," Nichols said. The original owners each put in $1 million to start the CUSO after crafting a business plan based on service rather than profits, Nichols said, and met with some doubters.
That includes Kathy Hooker Burress, then Symitar's national sales manager and now recently retired as president of the Jack Henry & Associates subsidiary.
"I was very skeptical at first," she said. "But they did a good job having their consultant and attorney put together a business plan and then they executed it well. I was surprised at their success after their first five years or so, but I'm not anymore. They've invested a lot of resources and run a good shop."
She said Symitar doesn't see MDT as a competitor, either. "We re-sell them. Our sales force will bring client prospects to them," she said.
Nichols, meanwhile, said MDT-which now serves more than half of the 45 Symitar credit unions in Michigan-has never seen a significant slowdown and that it already has booked six conversions next year, a total he expects to reach eight to 10.
"We don't look for business, it looks for us," he said. "It's been an interesting journey."