Washington State CU Realizes Business Lending Dream
Even during the darkest days of the recession, Terri Salstrom, president/CEO of the $137 million Industrial Credit Union, always had big dreams for her cooperative.
For one, Salstrom believed that the Bellingham, Wash.-based ICU could one day be the source for business lending services in a community Forbes Magazine singled out in 2010 as one of the nation’s top small metro areas for business investment.
Fast forward nine years later and ICU stands on the brink of new growth and development thanks to recently receiving a $1.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Treasury Community Development Financial Institutions Fund.
The grant will be used by ICU for the creation of a business lending department to assist local contractors with jumpstarting new building construction in the community, among other projects, Salstrom said.
ICU was established in 1941 as Puget Pulp Credit Union to serve the employees of Puget Sound Pulp and Timber Co. In 1975, a name and charter change occurred when it was purchased by Georgia Pacific, which was hit by an 18-month labor strike three years later, according to Salstrom.
Labor troubles would highlight the CU’s vulnerability of serving a single sponsor, she noted. A name change to Industrial Credit Union of Whatcom County added 250 select employee groups that would go on to provide significant growth and branch opportunities, Salstrom added.
“With the appropriate branch structure in place, ICU was granted a community charter in 2002 allowing us to build a fiscally strong credit union with seven branches,” Salstrom said.
But with the CU’s foundation based on local industries, management grew quite concerned as one company after another closed in the area. This included the shutdown of Georgia Pacific and the layoff of more than 800 workers as the recession socked the area.
“We saw our contractors with no houses to build,” said Salstrom, adding that electrical firms of 100 or more subsequently were forced to cut payroll and in some cases, the owners of these businesses had to take odd jobs.
The business shrinkage also included plumbing firms and restaurants, which led to area malls becoming empty due to a lack of shoppers, Salstrom said.
Meanwhile, the CU was hearing from members who were unable to get the financing they needed to weather the area’s downturn.
“They would be in the middle of a project and their lines of credit [were] cut off at the local community bank,” said Salstrom, a former banker who joined the CU in 1982 and became its CEO in 1993.
In staking out a new growth strategy following meetings with local leaders, Salstrom said she hired a strategic planning CUSO to do a small business services feasibility study. With the participation of the local chamber of commerce, the Center for Economic Vitality, and the Economics Department of Western Washington University, opportunities were identified for ICU to start a small business services program in Whatcom County.
Still, in spite of a positive press and environmental conditions for microenterprise small business, Salstrom said Washington state remains near the bottom nationally for its microenterprise ownership rates.
“The need for credit and technical assistance is seen as a major cause for the low ownership rate,” she said.
ICU’s quest to provide lending services while protecting the financial stability of the CU was a long but very quick road to travel, Salstrom said.
As a start, she recalled initial conversations at the 2010 CUNA Governmental Affairs Conference about applications for certification as a low-income and community development CU. By the fall of 2010, ICU was working with the strategic planning CUSO on the grant request, which ultimately resulted in the $1.5 million grant to support the program.
“By leveraging grant funds for program development costs and loan loss reserves, ICU has an excellent opportunity to compete in the microenterprise market that is not currently being served,” Salstrom said.
The objective is to deploy $21 million in loans over a two and a half-year period to support small businesses. Salstrom said this measure has the potential to create 1,500 jobs in the ICU area. While the CU has a small business lending program in place now, she anticipates expanding outreach by January 2012.
So far, member response to the CU’s initiatives has been positive.
“Our members understand the opportunity we are bringing to our community,” Salstrom said. "They want the credit union to be here to serve their kids and grandkids in the future.”