Reality Check was the aptly chosen name for the New Jersey Credit Union League’s one and one-half day Atlantic City conference. Over the densely packed schedule of deep-dive presentations on topics of current interest to credit union executives, the several hundred attendees heard over and over two stark realities: opportunities are plentiful for credit unions but so are pitfalls and problems. Call this the best of times for credit unions as the public and the media beat up on the big banks. But it is also a trying time as smaller credit unions vanish, corporate credit unions struggle to attain lasting solvency, and all credit unions labor, often with slender results, to win more mindshare of the public at large and more wallet share of members.
For starters, here’s a number a speaker threw out: within 10 years, today’s 7,600 credit unions will shrink to 5,300. Many factors are behind this consolidation. Scale matters in financial services and credit unions are not exempt, but that shrinking number also underlies the problems credit unions face.
Here is another chilling number: credit unions get on average under 10% of the wallet share of members, said Kevin Lytle, a longtime credit union expert.
Put those two numbers together, then factor in a stagnant share of all financial services despite the horrendous image of big banks throughout the financial crisis, and the current credit union picture snaps into focus: A big-time reality check.
An irony, however, is that credit unions are doing a terrific job, according to data presented by Mike Schenk, vice president of economics at CUNA. Schenk’s numbers show that as banks cut lending in the heart of the recession, from December 2007 through September 2010, credit unions increased lending. Total credit union loans were up 7.6%, while bank lending dropped 6.5%. The figures demonstrate, said Schenk, that credit unions continued to serve their members and communities even as banks pulled back. Another slide demonstrated that credit unions, despite lending more, are also more careful lenders than banks, as demonstrated by their much lower delinquency rates.
A last slide from Schenk summed up the case for credit unions: In 2010 credit unions saved their members $6.6 billion compared to the fees charged by banks for the same services and products. Between higher interest rates on savings products, lower interest rates on loans, and fewer and lower fees, credit unions put money in members’ pockets day-in and day-out, said Schenk.
And that kind of news ought to appeal to the 17 million presently unbanked consumers who, said CUNA Mutual financial support consultant Bob Larson, should be a prime target for credit unions in search of revenues, particularly as lending stays in a slump. That means credit unions need more noninterest income, he said, and the good news is that he said there are plenty of possible avenues in addition to pursuing new members.
For instance, selling more credit protection plans, more insurance products, and so-called GAP protection (insurance sold with auto loans to augment collision protection). Crucial to selling any of this, suggested Larson, is fomenting a sales culture internally, which requires a big shift in mindset in many credit unions. Selling needs to be identified with stronger member service and not with being a pest shilling unwanted and unneeded products, he recommended. Making that mental shift and embracing what he called a "consultative culture" just may help credit unions find significant new revenue streams, said Larson.
Next up was Toby Vann, a social media expert who helped create asmarterchoice.org, which guides people to credit unions where membership is open to them. Central to Vann’s talk was the idea that social media are not going away and now is the time to put together a social media strategy.
Vann’s other key point: social media is not about technology, but, "It’s about people being people. This is age-old human interaction. We like to gossip. That gossipy thing we have done for centuries is what social media are."
Put bluntly: "it’s too technical for me" is an excuse that does not fly. If you can type and if you can gossip–offer interesting tidbits of news and perspective–you can put social media to good use, said Vann. "Move beyond the technology," said Vann, who stressed that in today’s social media the technological knowhow required is slim to none.
"It’s all about influence marketing," he added, which means finding ways to use the tools to influence targets. For instance: want to reach out more to younger members? Social media, said Vann, are ideal mainly because they are communications tools of choice for the under-35 crowd.
Vann’s final advice: Use social media to persuade people to want to be a part of credit unions. Master that, he said, and credit unions will probably see big payoffs.
Another session on a hot topic du jour was "When Does It Make Sense to Merge," presented by Chuck Cockburn, president of Credit Union Strategic Planning. He forecast, "Most mergers fail and they fail because the leaders don’t know to merge the two cultures."
Cockburn added that despite perceptions that more credit unions are merging, the opposite is in fact true, due in part to new accounting rules that make it more complex and costly to merge.
Another misconception is that the typical merger is a "merger of equals," said Cockburn, who indicated that in fact is very rare–about 2.3% of mergers, per his numbers. Most common is a small credit union merging with a much larger one.
Shaky finances on the part of one or both merger parties often also are involved, said Cockburn.
When do such mergers work? "When you succeed in merging the two cultures and when you go into this with strategic plan for highlighting the advantages of the merger," said Cockburn. Just merging rarely does much good, he elaborated, but merging with a plan may well produce good results.
And then there is the challenge of getting out the good word about credit unions via traditional media, a topic expounded upon by Credit Union Times Editor-in-Chief Sarah Snell Cooke. Her presentation opened with an eye-popping quiz: Does your credit union have a PR strategy? Forty percent said yes but 50% said no, which underlines a problem the industry has, said Cooke: It is not always proactive about getting out the news even when that news is good news.
She also asked the audience, how do you engage members of the press? Thirty-two percent said they did not engage members of the press, another telltale sign of the industry’s problems with spreading the good word, said Cooke.
Cooke also urged credit unions to do their own PR internally and not to hire third-party agencies. "Who knows your story better than you?" said Cooke.
And she highlighted as a worst PR practice an over-reliance on stale, poorly written press releases. She added never lie to the press.
The bottom line, Cooke said, is that credit unions have an excellent story to tell the media but it is up to them to do the telling.