TruMark Brings Branch to Unbanked Community
If TruMark Financial Credit Union had evaluated the site of its branch in northeast Philadelphia solely only on the statistics, they may never have opened it.
At least 29% of the area's residents lived beneath the poverty line in 2009, compared to 12% for the Philadelphia metro area overall, according to the U.S. Census Bureau and The Philadelphia Inquirer. Forty percent of the area's children lived in poverty, compared to 16% in the metro area over. Almost 24% of residents had no high school diploma.
But the area was also home to a group of very dedicated residents who sought a different, revitalized future for their neighborhood. When those residents called on TruMark to help bring financial services to a locale that had not had any for over 60 years, the credit union believed it had to say yes.
"There are all kinds of ways you define success," said Chris Roach, senior vice president for member service at TruMark. "Of course, you don't do anything that is going to be unsafe, but sometimes you have to be in the places where you aren't going to make the best money because those are the places that will need you most." he added.
The group that called up on TruMark was the Asociaci?n de Puertorrique?os en Marcha Inc., a local, predominantly Hispanic community organization that had already made its mark in the area through helping to convert blocks of blighted buildings into affordable housing. The organization had tired of seeing its members have to pay fees of up to 30% to merely cash their paychecks and had approached many of the area's banks about establishing a branch there. All of them turned them down until TruMark said yes, Roach said.
To be sure, the partnership enabled TruMark to cut some costs. Because it already had experience with construction, the APM group built the building that houses the branch and rented it to TruMark. The credit union took responsibility for fitting out the building with the interior, electronics, infrastructure and security that a credit union branch would need. The new branch formally opened almost two years ago, on Feb. 2, 2009, and, as Roach explained, TruMark began to learn how much different this branch would be from the CU's other 13 branches.
"Sometimes people say that if you build it, they will come, but, really, they won't," Roach said. "In reality, you have to go find them, and you have to have the cultural language and agenda they need to hear."
Oscar Torrealva, manager of the TruMark branch, expanded on this point, noting that it was not enough to just have tellers and other branch staff who spoke Spanish.
Forging relationships with area organizations was particularly important, Torrealva explained, because those groups often provided the reassurance and endorsements that potential members needed to feel comfortable approaching the CU.
Roach and Torrealva also noted that some of the cultural approaches that TruMark took were not obvious and were, in fact, somewhat counterintuitive. For example, the credit union did not make its branch building or d?cor specifically Hispanic. Instead TruMark took its cues from the APM and other groups, which said that potential members would want to be treated the same as any other members and that they would want the branch to be like any other branch.
Likewise, the branch offers the same range of products and services as other TruMark branches, Torrealva said, not just products especially aimed at lower-income members, though the branch offers alternative payday loans.
Torrealva also noted that, contrary to many preconceptions, the financial education the branch did was more often one-on-one than in classes. "Often the educational moment is when we had to turn them down for something," said Torrealva, stressing that TruMark rarely denies a request without providing options. These provide the educational moments because someone at the credit union can sit with the member and explain what needs to be done.
This often comes with new members around Chex Systems and other checking qualification programs. It is not unusual for a new member at the branch to not be able to open a checking account because of a black mark from Chex Systems, Torrealva explained, but instead of simply denying the application, TruMark will help the member find out where the outstanding balance remained and get it paid off so that he or she can qualify for a checking account.
TruMark has added 1,300 members through the branch, and although the branch lags others in deposits and loan balances, it outpaces the others in terms of impact.
Torrealva recounted one of his favorite success stories from early in the branch's existence. A new member did not have a sufficiently strong credit score to qualify for a credit card, so the branch helped her obtain a secured card. She used the secured card responsibly and obtained other loans until, finally, she was able to qualify for and obtain a mortgage on a small home.
"These are the types of people and stories we most want to help and do help," he added.