Chartway Federal Credit Union approaches mergers like a very careful matchmaker.
It isn’t enough that the two prospects are attracted to each other. What about their values? Do they believe in the same things? Will they be able to support each other emotionally?
Chartway President/CEO Ron Burniske believes the credit unions that have merged with Chartway are indeed a perfect fit.
“There are really two ways to grow your business–organically or through mergers and acquisitions,” Burniske said. “For the first 40 years, we grew organically by gaining business from people who were already members. Now, the financial market has been flooded with competitors.”
“So about six or seven years ago. we got into the mergers and acquisitions business. We spent about two years laying out what we were looking in terms of credit unions we were looking to acquire. What should they bring to the table? More importantly, how can they advance the success of our credit union?”
By the time the business plan was developed, the economic downturn had made some credit unions available. In effect, economic conditions that were a serious challenge to many presented an opportunity.
Chartway identified HeritageWest in Utah as a potential partner. Actually, Chartway had looked at six or seven other prospects, but none of them made the cut. For about six weeks Chartway did its due diligence.
“That meant not only due diligence from the financial standpoint but from the standpoint of the culture and values of the people who work there. We could make most of the numbers work, but if we had to try to merge two different cultures or values, that wouldn’t work.”
“I interviewed probably 90% of the employees, asking what values were important to them and what the culture of the organization was. We found HeritageWest fit perfectly with us,” Burniske added.
Since then, Chartway has added two more Utah credit unions. Burniske noted that Chartway recognized how important brand was, so–like a bride retaining her maiden name–the credit unions merging with Chartway have kept their identity.
In a couple earlier mergers, one in Rhode Island and one in Texas, the Chartway name was adopted. That resulted in a question: Who is Chartway? Chartway spent lots of money trying to establish the name. By contrast, with the HeritageWest name still on the door, there were only about five calls the first week asking about the HeritageWest merger.
Yes, a member in Texas may walk into a branch wearing a cowboy hat and boots while someone in Virginia Beach may sport sandals or flip-flops. But Burniske believes they’re still buying financial products for the same reasons.
Burniske indicated a couple more mergers may be in the works. He added the NCUA has been very helpful and understanding in putting mergers together. It grasps what Chartway is trying to do, he said.
If mergers have become a fact of life for many credit unions, how does Burniske see the future of small credit unions?
“I think small credit unions are the heart of what credit unions started out to be,” he said. “Unfortunately, most small credit unions were tied to a single sponsor and many of those sponsors are going out of business or being merged with someone else. But I think they have a better chance of surviving than the middle of the road credit unions, the $300 million, $400 million, $500 million credit unions.”
“I believe credit unions 15 years ago were serving the purpose of what credit unions were all about. Business started getting a little tough for some credit unions. They started to look around and got into business lending. They lost focus on the core. They lost the advantage they had in the marketplace and the payday lending people took it over. We were established and built on Main Street America, and I think there’s been a tendency to forget about that.”
“When I got into the business, there were 23,000 credit unions. Today there are 5,000 or 6,000 left. There will probably be 1,500 left maximum, and I think there will be a lot of big ones and a few small ones.”
From the employee viewpoint, Chartway offers an attractive range of benefits.
“We’re going our own way, and we’re staying true to what we believe is important,” Burniske says. “There are two things that make us successful–our employees and our members. You look at our fee schedules, our products, our employee benefits and compensation, and we have not cut back on any of them. It’s like having a good runner and saying, ‘I’m going to cut off your left foot because I can no longer afford a shoe for it.’ You’re not going to be a good runner any more.
“Our employees meet our members every day. We don’t want them to say, ‘We just got our 401(k) benefits cut because Ron didn’t know how to run our company.’ I should be fired if that happens. Anyone that cut benefits was greedy and didn’t understand the business. We’re a very conservative credit union. We’ve never lost money. We’ve never laid people off. We’ve never cut benefits.”
Chartway is very involved in philanthropic efforts. A key one is the We Promise Foundation, which makes dreams come true for children struggling with serious illness, disabilities or hardship. The foundation stages a black-tie gala and golf tournament every year. When it began 12 years ago, the event raised $8,000. This year’s events are projected to net $700,000, and Burniske expects the total to soon reach $1 million.
If you’d like join Burniske on an evening or weekend to talk about this, you might want to start an exercise program before you set a date. He’s a self-described sports fanatic, and that doesn’t mean sitting on a couch to watch the game of the week. He rides his bike probably 28 out of 30 days, getting up at 5 a.m. to peddle for an hour or more. He’s 56, and most of the guys he rides with are in their late 20s or early 30s. He lifts weights, runs once or twice a week and plays golf.
“Days I don’t work out before I come to work, I feel like a lizard on a lounge chair,” he observed.
Whether the credit goes to those pre-office workouts or to Chartway’s atmosphere,
“After 26 years of working here, I still come to work excited every day,” Burniske declared.
About Chartway Federal Credit Union
Assets: $1.9 billion
Capital-to-asset ratio: 6.41%
Loan portfolio: $1.1 billion
About Ron Burniske
Married, two daughters
Graduate of Massachusetts College; master’s degree from Duke University
CEO since 1986