Janet Harris Says Small Can Be Beautiful – And More Nimble
When the crowd in a stadium packed with 90,000 fans begins to scream, it’s hard to distinguish individual voices or spot someone in the stands.
But each person in a small group stands a good chance of being heard and recognized. That’s part of what makes Janet Harris, CEO for Newport News, Va.-based Riverside Health System Employees Credit Union, a champion for small credit unions. She was recently recognized by the Virginia Credit Union League for her service to the state’s credit unions.
Harris figures small credit unions are nimble, in touch with their members, and can respond quickly to changing needs.
"Here’s an example of something we did that shows how we stay in touch with our members," she said. "With a staff of five, everybody does everything. We’re a health care credit union, and in late 2008 and 2009, right after the economic mess hit, a lot of people were not doing elective surgeries. The census in hospitals was going down, and a lot of employees were having their hours cut because hospitals were downsizing their staffs. That cut into their income."
"So we were talking about loans and what we could do. We thought there had to be a way to help members and put more money into their paychecks. We came up with an idea that, if you had a car loan with us, we would lower your payments $100 a month. It would extend your loan out, but it would put $100 in your paycheck for 12 months."
"We also said, if you have a car loan someplace else and bring it to us, we’ll write it to our existing standards, then immediately drop the payment $100. That did three things. It really helped our members. It slowed the compression of our loan portfolio. It also said, ‘You know what? We know our members and we know what their needs are. We can design products specifically for their needs.’"
The approach not only kept the loan portfolio from shrinking, it added $1 million to it. Harris noted nobody else in the area had the idea, and it wouldn’t have worked if every local financial institution had been doing it.
Knowing members also plays a role in technology. Harris sees technology as vital to helping small credit unions meet member demands in the 21st century, but that doesn’t mean simply plugging in the latest gee-whiz innovation.
When the credit union wanted a one-minute video, a member who worked in media services at one of the hospitals served by RHSECU produced the video on her flip camera. Harris expected her to show up with a tripod, lights and bulky camera. They weren’t needed.
The theme was "What would you do with $100 more in your paycheck?" One scene showed a board member walking away from his big truck carrying a gasoline can and stating he could now afford to put gas in his vehicle.
The video ran on closed-circuit cameras at each of the credit union’s hospital branches. You won’t find a bill for the video on the Riverside books because the cost was zero.
It has to be the right technology at the right time, Harris emphasized.
"If you look at our website, it doesn’t look like anybody else’s website. I wanted our website to be very focused. The focus is loans, loans, loans, loans. If you go on our website, you better be looking to borrow money. We get probably 85% of our loan applications online."
"We don’t use technology to use technology. We’ve been looking at mobile phones. I surveyed my staff. We have a 23-year-old, a 37-year-old, two 45-year-olds and myself at 61. I asked how many had a smartphone. None."
"Then I asked members coming into the office. No. No. No. Then the very next day information came out that Apple was tracking people on smartphones. I’m not ready to go to mobile banking because everybody is going down that path."
On the other hand, more than 1,400 of the credit union’s 3,100 members are using electronic accounts that have no checks. They do everything ACH, online and by debit card.
"The savings from that is unbelievable," Harris declared. "I have a lot of members in the 21 to 45 age group. In 1999, when I presented the idea of an electronic account, we had to do some convincing of our membership. It was a goal. It wasn’t short-term."
"I figured paper checks were going to die. It didn’t happen as quickly as I thought. But I never have anybody come in here and ask me for a checkbook."
Harris cited regulatory burden as the biggest challenge facing small credit unions.
"The pendulum has started to swing too far," she said. "One of the hardest concepts to understand is cause and effect. Regulators say they understand cause and effect, but I don’t think they really do. The regulatory burden is making it difficult for small credit unions–also large credit unions–and making it harder and harder to do what you should be doing. You just get worn down."
Her competition, she continued, is billion-dollar credit unions such as Navy Federal and Langley Federal. Her members have the option of belonging to a number of credit unions. Harris is convinced there is a future for small credit unions–if the boards see a reason to survive and bring in managers who are willing to think out of the box.
Harris notes her 23-year-old employee is not ready to take over the credit union. But one day she will be. So Harris wants to mentor her and do everything possible to help.
One day Harris was struggling with a loan application. She presented the issues and the problems to the younger employee and asked what she would do. After talking, it was decided to approve the loan. That not only introduced the employee to Harris’ thought process based on 23 years evaluating loans, it also brought a new twist to it.
"When I was on the speaking circuit years ago, my topic was turning a mouse," Harris recalled. "When you’re a billion-dollar credit union like Navy Federal, it’s a whole lot harder to turn than a small credit union. Because you’re smaller and more nimble, you can adjust more quickly.... We can turn much faster if we just realize we can. There is a real value to being small and growing at your pace." n