The lesson this week from two credit union mergers rejected by members is that the message needs to get out early and it needs to convey the benefits that would come with consolidation.
In addition, culture differences among employee groups must be carefully considered to avoid missteps, according to a key participant and an industry consultant.
The members of the smaller credit unions in recent days have turned down proposed mergers of the $63 million Montana First CU of Missoula with the $432 million Horizon CU of Spokane, Wash., and $96 million Main Street Financial CU of Baton Rouge, La., with the $260 million Jefferson Financial CU of Metairie in suburban New Orleans.
In Montana, Christie Sisco, president/CEO at Montana First, acknowledged there were problems making the many government employees in the CU membership fully aware of the advantages of an out-of-state merger.
Some civil servants accustomed to regular informational meetings in the government bureaucracy may not have been used to certain practices in the private sector, she said.
“We felt that an information letter with a FAQ and an invitation to call with a second letter, 60 days later, announcing a special meeting was sufficient opportunity for dialogue,” said Sisco.
But based on the outcry from a group of objecting members who conducted a letter writing campaign in the Missoulian newspaper, that may not have been enough.
“I did learn from the process that one must take into consideration what resonates with the membership,” Sisco said, adding that with U.S. Forest Service employees and retirees as part of its core membership it become known that “in their daily work lives, they have public meetings on an ongoing basis and going forward we will keep their needs at the forefront.”
Sisco also lamented turnout at the Jan. 5 meeting – 18% of 7,200 eligible members.
It is “unfortunate,” she said, that a minority of the membership affected the outcome. She added that many employees at the Jan. 5 meeting who had voted down the plan said they would have reconsidered had they fully understood the benefits of the merger with the Spokane credit union.
Tom Glatt Jr., an industry consultant in Wilmington, N.C., said many CU managers lack a clear vision in understanding member motivation and perspectives.
It is not “always shared” and while Montana First has done well with solid loan and deposit growth making it an attractive partner, their members “are probably content, and content people generally see no need for a change in the status quo,” Glatt said.
For the acquiring CU, that requires extra work to ensure merger benefits are fully understood, Glatt said, and a mere “description” of a merger plan “is quite inadequate.”
The Louisiana situation was different, he said.
“What is interesting about Main Street is that to read their newsletters over the last two years you would never know” that credit union had been struggling financially, he said.
Being candid about “tough times” can be productive “in preparing members for the possibility of tough choices such as a merger,” the consultant said.
Main Street Financial lost $2 million in 2010 after being hit hard by corporate losses but was on the rebound, said its former CEO, Cary Anderson, who retired on Dec. 1.