Fresh out of college a few years ago, Tyler Leonhardt accepted a position at Bank of America.
He said he is not surprised at how the financial behemoth tried to levy a $5 monthly debit card usage fee.
“At first, when I heard about the fee, I knew exactly what they were trying to do,” said Leonhardt, 26, who is now a loan officer at the $31 million Carolina Federal Credit Union in Cherryville, N.C.
Indeed, in an October statement on its year-to-date financials, Bank of America acknowledged that it wanted to continue to “focus on the retention of profitable customer relationships.”
Several economists and research firms have pointed out customers would have to park on average, at least $24,000 in their checking accounts in order for banks to make any profits from them.
Meanwhile, Leonhardt said he now sees the differences between working at a credit union and a bank. One of them being building relationships based on service, not fees.
With Bank Transfer Day slowly fading into history, many credit unions are evaluating how to turn newly gained members into long-term relationships. Critics have argued that within the nearly 700,000 pool of new members that joined in the month leading up to Nov. 5, many of those that switched were likely considered unprofitable by bank standards.
Leonhardt doesn’t see it that way.
“Once someone gets here and realizes what the credit union is all about, they can learn about all what they we have to offer,” he explained.
For one, even though Carolina FCU is a relatively small cooperative with 3,500 members, Leonhardt said it is considered the dominant financial institution in Cherryville, a town 45 minutes outside of Charlotte, N.C. The one savings and loan there was recently acquired by a bigger bank, he added.
By some standards, the 20 new members the credit union signed on Bank Transfer Day may be considered tiny, but some of them applied for loans, made plans to transfer their direct deposit over and were issued debit cards.
Online banking, including bill payment, e-statements, as well as access to a shared branching network are other channels currently being promoted to new members. A Facebook page has become an active way to woo potential younger members.
The average member’s age is 59, and many are former employees and retirees from the defunct Carolina Freight, the cooperative’s original sponsor.
On the lending side, Carolina FCU is running a promotion to give $100 to those who bring their loans over from other financial institutions, Leonhardt said.
“We still offer small, personal loans. A lot of [banks] don’t do that anymore. And, with our low loan rates, we can do a competitive auto loan or a home equity loan. There are so many opportunities. At some point, a member can be profitable.”
Regardless of the type of financial institution, profitability is an important element especially when it comes to safety and protection of equity capital, said Brian Turner, director of advisory services at Catalyst Strategic Solutions, an investment subsidiary of Catalyst Corporate Federal Credit Union in Plano, Texas and Duluth, Ga.
“The bankers’ message referring to these members as ‘unprofitable’ speaks volumes in my book. If not sour grapes, then it clearly demonstrates that bankers still don’t comprehend the fundamentals of consumer banking or their customers’ needs,” Turner said.
“But bankers would have us believe that there is a natural conflict between the mandate that credit unions have to create member benefits from the services they provide and the fiduciary responsibility they have as a financial institution,” he said.
At the $2.2 billion Virginia Credit Union in Richmond, Va., the focus is not so much on weeding out unprofitable new members but sticking to a welcome plan that has proven effective in building loyal ties, said Chris Shockley, executive vice president.
“It’s really too early to comment, but I know our credit unions and credit unions in general are very interested in making sure we have meaningful conversations,” Shockley said. “It’s going to look different for every person because everyone is at a different stage in their lives.”
During October, 2,300 new members joined Virginia CU and 95 signed up on Bank Transfer Day, according to Glenn Birch, public relations and media director.
New members get the “two days, two weeks, two months” treatment. Two days after joining they receive a phone call to ask about the new relationships. Two weeks later, another follow-up call is made to make sure they received new member documents and to answer any other questions.
At the two-month interval, a more thorough discussion is had that hones in on daily money management, any planned major purchases, preparing for the unexpected and preparing for the future, Shockley said. This is the time to delve into what products and services may help them get ahead financially.
“You may be four months from buying a car or getting a loan. Then, when we talk later, we can follow up on what those initial needs were,” Shockley said.
While the empirical data is still being looked at regarding what accounts were brought over, Shockley said, anecdotally, refinancing and several new loan requests were initiated, according to the credit union’s frontline staff. Even if a checking account is the only new opening, it still takes time to move bill payment and direct deposit over, he noted. It is one of Virginia CU’s goals to make the switch as smooth as possible.
There’s a healthy level of competition between the credit union and community, regional and national banks that dot the area, Shockley said, but one key advantage at Virginia CU is the people.
“They probably don’t know me,” Shockley said about the members. “But we have a lot of longtime front line people that have great relationships with the members. They tell us they trust us, and that’s so important to us.”
That trust permeates to the call center representatives, online banking teams and support services, he added.
For many credit unions, growing loans may be one way to silence those critics of unprofitable new members. Still, the data doesn’t bode well.
According to CUNA Mutual Group’s latest “Credit Union Trends Report,” while the total credit union loan portfolio increased in September and this was the sixth consecutive month-only gain, these seasonal increases were not enough to bring year-over-year growth into positive territory.
At $581 billion, total loans were down 0.2% year over year, as of September, the latest month tracked. Looking even further, a 0.3% gain in real estate secured loans was not enough to offset the 1.7% decline in vehicle loans
CUNA Mutual Chief Economist Dave Colby said he is optimistic about how credit unions are faring during the last quarter of 2011. However, member demand for installment credit will remain weak and the retention of new first-mortgage originations may not remain for the long term.
Turner said credit unions have clearly demonstrated their ability to provide lower loan rates and higher savings rates while delivering their products and services at a lower cost. This structure helps credit unions to avoid the need to charge across-the-board fees for its services, he pointed out, adding noninterest income accounts for less than 23% of total revenues.
“Credit unions don’t have to be everything to everybody, but they can be the best at five to 10 principal products and services that most of its members need,” Turner said. “This requires a complete assessment of member demographics as to best determine specific needs. Many credit unions look to the success of others and try to emulate products and services only to quickly find out that their membership is not interested.”