For Jon Jeffreys, president of Credit Union Student Choice, credit union survival boils down to value and collaboration.
“I think they need to continue to embrace the fact that credit union means something different–a financial cooperative focused on member value and differentiation,” said Jeffreys, who is also vice president of Callahan Financial Services, a subsidiary of Callahan & Associates that provides expanded investment alternatives to credit unions.
“Many credit unions, maybe it’s because of bank envy, try to do what banks do but cheaper and [with] a little tweaking. I think if you step back and look at how we can really deliver value to membership, there’s so much opportunity out there. Credit unions can compete by staying true to their roots and remembering who they are.”
He added that today’s marketplace presents many opportunities for credit unions to shine from touting free checking to helping members refinance their loans.
“If you can help a member save $1,000 a month, that’s real money back in their pockets,” said Jeffreys. “Look for ways you can better align with your community. Partner with groups or organizations that are pillars of the community like schools, colleges and hospitals. Companies may pick up and move or go out of business.”
He advised credit unions to take a strategic annual view of the communities they serve.
“Ask yourself, if our credit union didn’t exist, what would members do?” said Jeffreys. “If the answer is go down the street, then it’s time to rethink your current strategy. You want your members to feel like their credit union is the lifeblood of the community and talk about the programs provided like financial education, local business opportunities, employment, etc. Your members should be saying don’t take my credit union away from me.”
He added that kind of advocacy for credit unions doesn’t happen overnight but is something that has to be earned generation by generation.
“The biggest advantage cooperatives have is the fact that they take the long view, there’s no quarterly shareholder profit,” said Jeffreys. “So a simpler way to put it is if your credit union didn’t exist, would members of the community recreate it and rise up and say we need this.”
According to Jeffreys, there no shortage of good ideas and opportunity in the industry, the real challenge becomes what to take to the market. As part of his role at Callahan Financial Services, he is continuously looking for ways to create new business opportunities, and in 2004, he started looking into government-guaranteed student loans.
“We couldn’t figure it out for two years, there were too many barriers to entry and really we couldn’t figure out the value for credit unions or members, so we backed away. In the summer of 2007 private student loans were growing and we asked how can we offer better economic value,” said Jeffreys. “Once we framed it that way, it took us down a certain path to find out where the market is and if we were to build our own what would be the economic value to the credit union and member and how would we go about executing that mission.”
Driven by a passion to help members of all means have access to education and a strong belief in the network business model of innovation through collaboration, Jeffreys focused on building strategic partnerships with such firms as PSCU, CUDL and Digital Mailer to launch Credit Union Student Choice. The concept was a simple one. With education costs continuing to rise, millions of students rely on loans to pay for college. According to Jeffreys, while federal student loans provide the best financing option, many students also rely on private student loans to fill funding gaps. The Student Choice network would enable credit union partners to provide school‐certified private education loans to students in need of additional financing options, while also providing key information to help families make responsible decisions on the best ways to pay for college.
“We launched in four months and got off to an okay start with all the growing pains that first season. Then in 2008, the financial market imploded so we were fortunate because all these opportunities came our way and accelerated growth,” said Jeffreys. “It was the classic economics 101 of supply and demand–the amount needed to finance education was going up but not as much capital was available so those financial institutions like Citibank could charge what they want, in some cases well over 10%. We were now able to offer superior value an average yield a little over 6%–that’s a four point difference in real money. So it might not be a better mousetrap, but one that was reasonable and fair to consumers today.”
It was also important that the loans could be offered by small and medium-sized credit unions. Jeffreys said the success of Credit Union Student Choice has been a combination of timing, opportunity, value and collaboration. The CUSO helps credit unions
by managing many of the challenges and risks commonly associated with student lending. He added that with 80% of its business conducted during 10- to 12-week periods primarily during summer and between Thanksgiving and Christmas, having partners has been critical. Since its launch in May 2008, CU Student Choice has grown from seven credit unions to now helping some 200 credit unions serve over 21,000 families, representing a member savings of over $1 billion compared to other student loan providers. According to Jeffreys, the network puts credit unions in full control, focuses squarely on member value, and allows credit unions to serve their members and communities in another powerful way.
Today, the organization has partnerships with such state leagues in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, New York and Texas. In addition, credit unions have formed strategic relationships with educational institutions like MIT, Harvard, the Wharton School and Stanford. He added that with the industry focus on reaching the next generation, collaboration will need to continue to increase outside the credit union industry.
“I think it’s a question of course adjustment, we’ve got to look at how we can continue to collaborate to add value to the market,” said Jeffreys. “What scares most is the idea of becoming irrelevant or worse the industry dying a slow death. Running a financial institution today is different than five to 20 years ago. There’s much more competition a different regulatory environment and a new mindset where technology plays a huge role today. I think we need to stay on top of the technology changes and trends from the standpoint of how we can make it easier for folks to do business with us.”
He added that credit unions need to get more young people involved in the industry to help the industry as a whole do a better job of identifying not only the financial products that the next generation needs but how to tailor them across delivery channels based on how they want to do business with the credit union.
“My wife and I got our mortgage through our credit union, and I don’t even know where the branch is. We only met at closing, and it was the easiest process that was only on the phone or via email. It was a huge time saver,” said Jeffreys. “It’s not a one solution fits across all markets. You’ve got to identify where the consumers are in your market, what they need, how you can simplify their financial lives across the delivery channels they prefer.”