One of the National Credit Union Foundation's more unusual grants this year went to the 28,000-member $201 million asset Carter Federal Credit Union, headquartered in Springhill, La.
The foundation provided $25,000 for the credit union to produce financial education trailers that will run before movies at a film camp popular with local children during the hot Louisiana summers.
But while the idea's unusual creativity and entrepreneurial spirit won the CU the grant, Susan Brunner, director of community development at Carter FCU, said it was entirely in the spirit of Floyd Carter, the man who organized and launched the credit union in 1954.
“Yes, there really was a Carter,” Brunner said. “Floyd Carter, and we think his story is one that would resonate a lot right now.”
Springhill (population almost 6,000) is about as far north and west as you can get in Louisiana and still be in the state. The town sits on the border with Arkansas, in the middle of country dominated by hard-scrabble fields, small cattle operations, pine woods and the occasional oil and gas well.
It was the town's location in the middle of the region's pine resources, Brunner said, that first drew the firm International Paper to the area and helped bring about the start of the credit union.
According to Brunner and credit union executives, Carter Federal Credit Union got its start in the noisy, smelly bosom of International Paper's plant in Springhill and got its name from Floyd Carter, International Paper's paymaster at that plant.
Carter got the idea for the CU, according to credit union executives, because he knew the workers at the plant very well and came to know how their financial lives were often made much more difficult by not having any financial education or access to loans.
“One of the things I remember most about Mr. Carter was the way he knew every man's clock number,” said Joyce Butler, retired teacher and chairwoman of the Carter Federal Credit Union's board of directors.
Butler explained that the plant used to issue checks on payday according to the employee's name and number he used when clocking in and out of the plant. Carter knew the men at the plant so well, Butler explained, that he could look at a man and know the man's name and clock number immediately.
That closeness allowed Carter insight into the pressures the workers often felt that led them to loan sharks and other forms of high interest loans, Butler said.
“He could see that there was a basic need for both education and an institution to help them both learn what to do and to do it,” she said.
Butler remembered Carter and the early days of the credit union well, as her father was one of the first members of the CU's board of directors when she was a little girl. “The credit union has almost been part of the family,” she said, recalling that she had taken her young children and grandchildren to open their first accounts at the CU.
Over the years, the industrial nature of Springhill, the credit union and its members changed. In 1979, International Paper closed the Springhill plant as part of an overall downsizing that had an impact on the whole region.
The closing forced the CU to step up an expansion plan, much of it through mergers, that it had already begun. This expansion led finally to the CU adopting a community field of membership in 2001 that covered seven surrounding parishes (counties in Louisiana) and two counties in neighboring Arkansas.
The expansion also led to some soul searching about the CU's name and identity, with some in the credit union, particularly the CEO at the time, wanting to change the name.
“I think he wanted us to have a name that was more modern and up to date,” explained Butler. “You know credit unions have these fancy names these days. I saw one just a few days ago, Wingvine or something like that, but we didn't want to change the name.”
Instead, when the former CEO left in 2005, Carter FCU hired James Gibson, a longtime credit union professional who had been born in the region and returned home. Gibson was an executive that Butler said took a sharply different approach.
“He liked our name and rather than change it, he wanted to build on it,” Butler said. “He said we are already known as Carter FCU, and we should keep on being known as that, but we should add to what that means,” she added.
One of the things Gibson did was to draw a clearer line from Floyd Carter to the work the CU is doing today. This meant not only keeping the name but also researching and publicizing the credit union's roots in the community and convincing Carter's relatives to donate one of Carter's uniforms from World War 1 to the credit union, where it is reverentially displayed in the lobby of the CU's Springhill branch.
Gibson also saw the credit union apply for, and receive, recognition as a community development financial institution and to start offering more products and services aimed at helping members avoid the pitfalls of payday loans.
“Much like Carter, I believe financial education is key to so many things,” Gibson said. “Good things when you have it, and bad things when you don't.”
The CU also launched a “Salary Advance Loan” product meant to compete with payday lenders by offering loans of between $100 and $500 for 15% APR, a rate sharply lower than surrounding lenders.
Gibson said the CU kept the process of obtaining and repaying the loan as easy as possible to compete with payday lenders and took steps to increase financial education, particularly around savings, so that members will eventually not have to turn to the salary advance loans at all.
Other products that CU launched aimed to help lower income members included loans designed to build a credit history to where they would be able to obtain a share-secured or eventually unsecured Visa cards and college savings plans to help them save for their kids’ educations.
But among innovations that may have the biggest impact, Gibson said, was a member business lending CUSO that the credit union started as a way to build upon and leverage business lending expertise.
Gibson said the idea arose after an examiner had challenged him about the amount of expertise the CU had on business loans, suggesting that the CU should not make them.
But Gibson said Carter FCU knew all too well the need for business lending among its members, particularly those looking to start new businesses. So he sought to pull resources and expertise to be able to offer business loans more efficiently and safely.
Now Carter FCU has 178 member business loans worth over $10 million on its books, according to NCUA, and the CUSO has 10 credit unions participating, he said.
“I am not sure Floyd Carter would recognize everything about what we do,” Gibson said, “but I am pretty sure he would be proud. We are still building on his legacy and still helping members improve their financial lives,” he added.