For at least the past four years, small business owners have gotten to know just how resourceful Affinity Federal Credit Union is when it comes to meeting their unique financial needs.
The $2 billion cooperative in Basking Ridge, N.J. has had a working relationship with the Small Business Development Center at Raritan Valley Community College since roughly 2007 hosting sessions that appeal to established and budding entrepreneurs. Free counseling is also available to those who have specific questions about any direction they may need to go in to build their businesses.
“The relationship is alive and well. It’s really working for us,” said Patrick McDermott, assistant vice president of Affinity Business Solutions, the credit union’s business services department. “It’s a source of new referrals and we can help our business members grow.”
On an ongoing basis, Affinity FCU lists the SBDC’s sessions in its e-newsletters. McDermott said seminars on topics such as learning the accounting software QuickBooks and writing a business plan are among the more heavily attended ones. Instructors range from certified public accountants to those who have been in business for 30 years and want to share their wisdom and mistakes.
“A lot of people have lost their jobs and some aren’t ready to retire so they’re looking at other options such as different franchising models,” he noted.
McDermott said the credit union works hard to understand a person’s business model and any challenges they have. Whether it’s writing a business plan or needing assistance with procurement or other specialized needs, that person will be referred to the SBDC for free counseling. In those talks, revelations may come up on how Affinity FCU can step in to fulfill requests such as providing a micro loan.
While Affinity FCU doesn’t track the number of persons that are referred back to the credit union for business service inquiries, McDermott said the traffic has been pretty steady. There are approximately 5,000 business members at the financial institution.
Part of the SBDC’s mission is to secure strategic partners and build exposure in the community, said Bill Harnden, the center’s operations director at Raritan. Any spotlight is appreciated since the center has no funds allocated for advertising. In addition to Affinity providing space to conduct the sessions, the credit union has also allowed attendees to use equipment such as computers to learn software programs like QuickBooks.
“Affinity has been very proactive in helping their clients succeed in business and on a personal level,” Harnden said. “What we’ll do is sit down with them and they ask us to develop courses that can help with their [client] needs.”
Another arrangement that has benefited members is when the SBDC sends its counselors to Affinity FCU’s branches, Harnden said. For some, the commute is shorter than having to travel to the center’s home base in Bridgewater, N.J.
That convenience may come in handy as the SBDC has seen an increase in attendance at its seminars and counseling sessions, Harnden noticed. The larger turnouts are linked to lingering high, unemployment rates, he added. More people are now considering self-employment and becoming consultants. If there is a bright spot that has emerged from the slowly recovering economy, Harnden said consumers are taking the time to learn all they can.
“Individuals are doing their homework. They’ll take every entrepreneurial course out there,” he said. “A few years ago, people would just hang their shingle out and wait for business to come. Many times, it wouldn’t lead to success. But now money is hard to come by and they’re doing their homework.”
For instance, those who worked exclusively in sales, may not be familiar with marketing or accounting, Harnden said. “When you’re self-employed, you wear all those hats.”
Meanwhile, Affinity FCU is continuing to expand its reach within the small business sector. Earlier this year, it hired a former banker with more than 20 years of experience to expand the growing commercial lending division. It continues to work with the U.S. Small Business Administration’s loan programs. The agency named McDermott its 2011 New Jersey Financial Services Champion of the Year.
Launched in 2006, Affinity Business Solutions offers a suite of services including commercial deposit and checking accounts and commercial loans, lines of credit and leasing options. Members also have access to insurance plans, 401(k), retirement and investment plans and business management services.
McDermott said the relationship with the SBDC is in line with the many affiliations Affinity FCU has across New Jersey. The cooperative commands a significant portion of market share, which is especially important now as banks continue to keep their eyes on how their stockholders will benefit the most.
“If you break out our mission, it’s service, convenience, time and pricing. We’re always going to be competitive on price because we’re nonprofit. Affinity wants to compete on service and what will benefit our membership the most,” McDermott said.
For the SBDC, alliances with the credit union industry have proven to be strong ones, Harnden said. The center also has a partnership with the $397 million Financial Resources Federal Credit Union in Bridgewater.
“The credit unions are more community based and more community friendly,” he pointed out. “They will embrace all types of opportunities. From what I’ve seen, they’re looking for good [members] with good business plans. That’s why the relationship is working because we want the same things.”