John Unangst Finds Growth in Sponsor Diversification: CEO's Corner
When John Unangst joined Franklin Mint Federal Credit Union in 1976, he knew little about credit unions, but he did realize what could happen if the single-sponsor CU failed.
His no-nonsense approach had perhaps been honed by service in the U.S. Army, including a tour of duty in Vietnam as an artillery ground and air observer. His combat medals include the Silver Star, Bronze Star and Air Medal for Valor.
Back in the civilian world, he had seen companies close their doors and his relatives lose their jobs. When the companies ceased to exist, so did their credit unions. So he quickly decided it was vital to pursue other sponsors, or as FMFCU likes to call them, partnering organizations.
Sure enough, in 2004 Franklin Mint closed its Franklin Center location. But by then FMFCU was so diversified the departure had minimal effect.
Today, instead of a tiny office scarcely big enough for the credit union’s two employees, the credit union has 33 branches, more than $700 million in assets, 70,000 plus members, almost 300 employees. And 1,500 partnering organizations. Long gone are the days when it might take several months for payroll to get posted to an account, a week for a withdrawal and maybe two weeks for a loan.
“I remember struggling back in 1976 to make sure I understood the credit union industry,” Unangst said. “I was 29 years old then. I met a gentleman who was probably getting ready to retire. I asked him why he was retiring. He said it was getting too complicated. This was before there were IRAs, ATMs, checking accounts.”
“I don’t feel that way yet. I do believe credit unions have grown and flourished by embracing the regulations that allowed them to diversify from just a simple share account and loan and compete today with mainstream financial institutions.”
Unangst noted there has been a rush to community charters, but FMFCU’s growth has been based on adding SEGs.
“I never thought in terms of $700 million. It took me a couple years to understand what I really had. I’m a very competitive person and was certainly looking to grow and diversify. Over the years I’ve set goals to go from more than $1 million to $1 billion when I retire.”
Perhaps Unangst’s work ethic is reflected in the fact he has not missed a monthly FMCU board meeting in 35 years. He noted that for the first 20 years, when the credit union was much smaller, the board couldn’t meet unless Unangst was there. So meetings could be adjusted to his schedule. In more recent years there have been a couple close calls due to health issues, but the perfect record stands.
What about the attitudes and work ethic of employees? Have attitudes changed?
“I knew the first 15 or 20 employees pretty well,” Unangst recalled. “With some 300 employees today, I don’t know all their needs. I do know, as I turn 65 years old, it’s harder for me to relate to the 19 or 20 year olds.
“When I first got here we weren’t hiring as many young people. We were hiring the housewife who was coming back to the workforce, maybe a family member or friend.
The work ethic of the new generation isn’t quite the same. They want more time off. They want relaxed dress codes. Until this last recession, I think they felt entitled and wanted to know when they could be the president. I told them to ask me in 35 years. and we could talk about it.”
There was also a time when pens, ledger cards and copy machine were as close to technology as the credit union had. As far as Unangst is concerned, technology is all about choices. Today, members can handle financial chores through a 24/7 call center and on-line banking. Most of the 33 branches are now open Saturdays and Sundays to meet member’s schedules.
But Unangst stated the key to deciding whether to roll out any new technology is whether it will be of service to members. Service, he added, is defined by the user, not the credit union.
Today’s big challenge?
“Compliance is overwhelming, and certainly what was imposed on us by the corporate credit union problems. This credit union had low delinquencies, didn’t make bad mortgage loans, and to get slapped with the bill for that [corporate] mistake has really been a challenge. Where will the money come from? It will come from not expanding, not being able to hire new people,” Unangst said.
“I look out my window and I can see two major banks, one a national bank and one a regional bank. We compete with them today.”
Unangst pointed out that when he joined the credit union he had worked at a bank and understood financial institutions. One example of his know-how of back-office operations took place in 1983, when FMFCU started offering its members mortgages. Three years later, the credit union launched State Financial Network Inc. to process mortgages for other credit unions.
“It’s one thing to say you’re going to be marketing mortgages,” Unangst noted in the credit union’s “Choices” newsletter. “It’s another thing to have the back-office to support it. Infrastructure is the strength behind the scenes and behind the people. I know enough about those areas to keep them hopping.”
But he did have to learn credit union philosophy.
Trust, he emphasized, is the big thing when someone selects a financial institution. He believes that’s a key asset for credit unions. He also thinks consumers are more aware of credit unions than they used to be.
Overall, looking back on 35 years, “I’ve loved every minute of it,” Unangst declared.