When Kyle Markland was hired at Affinity Plus Federal Credit Union at the age of 33, he admits that the board took a chance on bringing in someone so young to lead what was then a $357 million cooperative.
That was in 1997, one year before the passage of the Credit Union Membership Access Act opened up a plethora of opportunities for expansion. Those heady days laid the groundwork for new charters, new fields of membership and innovation, and the industry reaped the benefits.
Fast forward to 2011, two years after the country reeled from a lingering recession coupled with the credit union industry feeling the aftermath of the Durbin Amendment and a slow-to-recover housing market.
Last year put many credit unions to the survival test, including Affinity Plus in St. Paul, Minn., but Markland, president/CEO, preferred not to succumb to the gloom of it all. He took a different stance.
“Too often, too many people say what they don’t have or could have,” Markland said. “Everyone is concerned about new regulations. We may have a different approach on how we do things but not why we do them. One of the things we always stay focused on is staying true to our model on behalf of our members, the organization and the employees.”
While some were struggling to build stagnant loan portfolios, in 2011, Affinity Plus approved 5,000 mortgage loans totaling $725 million. The credit union said it saved members more than $7.5 million on closing costs, $6 million in interest for a year and more than half a million dollars in payment savings each month last year. A relationship-based model developed more than a decade ago created a foundation to help members weather through any downturns that could take a hit to their finances.
“We didn’t make a single change on how we loaned money. We look at the individual not as a credit score or payment,” Markland said. “I do hear the struggles from those credit unions that say they are not lending money. I do hear about risk aversion and the best ways to weather the storm and hunkering down. We did the opposite. We should be there for our members during the good and bad times.”
Affinity Plus is also prepping its mortgage servicing to be ready for reforms that are expected to come to government-sponsored enterprises Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Earlier this year, the credit union sold a pool of $140 million residential first-mortgage loans through a loan participation to Mortgage Liquidity Solutions LLC.
Markland said the move will help Affinity Plus secure new liquidity options so that the credit union can continue to meet its members’ needs.
Affinity Plus is now a $2.8 billion financial institution thanks in part to the 17,000 new members who joined in 2011 and the 450 employees who make it happen every day. In December alone, Minnesota’s largest credit union welcomed 1,730 new members, which is a 134% increase over December 2010’s figures. With 27 branches in place, five are expected to open over the next year.
That growth came well before Bank Transfer Day last November. Affinity Plus was thick in its Ditch Your Bank campaign as it courted consumers looking for alternative financial service providers.
New loans, auto loans and checking accounts experienced record growth, according to the credit union. Affinity Plus is now the eighth largest auto finance lender in Minnesota.
Those new members are opening up three to five products, Markland said. While the Ditch Your Bank campaign has proven successful, he pointed out that more than 80% of new account holders came through referrals.
Since he arrived at Affinity Plus, Markland has been on a mission to put the credit union on the map. When he took the helm in 1997, the credit union had $357 million in assets and 70,000 members. Today, more than 138,000 members across the state are served.
If Markland had to pick an issue that challenged Affinity Plus in 2011, it would be how the industry viewed the Durbin Amendment that capped fees on most debit card swipes. Markland said he is 100% opposed to the amendment and voiced his concerns in a comment letter to Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.).
“The free market has never been about the government setting prices. We don’t set prices at the fuel pump,” he explained. “In countries like Australia and Canada, it’s been shown that interchange helps retailers not consumers.”
To that end, Affinity Plus will always have a free debit card and checking account, Markland said, adding the credit union experienced a 37% increase in debit card issuance in 2011.
“No matter what happens with the monetary amount in interchange, we’re ultimately going to make more because the members do more with us."
The backbone of all the products and services offered by Affinity Plus are the people who work at the credit union, Markland said. He is convinced that he has the best senior team in the country. Because of that talent, he gives them room to do their jobs because they understand the mission.
Markland said the most important path to achieving his vision is to build a culture of employee empowerment that gives them the latitude to always do what’s right for the member. Some in the industry have criticized him for this approach, calling it irresponsible and naïve, he said.
“I believe if you have a strong set of values and hire employees who are committed to the organization, they’re not going to want to hurt the organization,” Markland explained.
When it comes to finding those staffers, Affinity Plus seeks out those who come in with the expectation that they are passionate enough to make a difference in the lives of people. They should also get to know the members and to trust their instinct–if something feels right and makes sense, do it.
Employees are encouraged to take the lead on where they see opportunity–from taking initiative on mentoring new employees to selecting branch locations in a new market to closing loans at members’ homes.
“We’ve spent a lot of time on building culture. I can’t say we’re done, but we’re well on our way,” Markland said.
Affinity Plus’ staff deserve just as much, if not more, of the spotlight shining down on the Trailblazer honor, Markland said. He compares it to winning the Oscar.
“I almost feel like the director who wins but the award is really shared with everyone from the actors all the way down to the people who built the sets. Everyone made the movie come together.”
He turns to a quote from civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to sum up why helping members is paramount to the credit union’s mission, “The time is always right to do the right thing.”
Markland’s empathy can be traced back to age 17 when he worked at a credit union for the first time. The Florida native envisioned a different path aspiring instead to be an attorney on Wall Street.
“My nickname was Alex P. Keaton,” Markland said, referring to the young character on the 1980s sitcom “Family Ties,” who loved to talk all things economy and an avidly read of The Wall Street Journal.
It was a sudden turn of events that shifted his priorities. While in high school, his father lost his job, which was in a very specialized field. For a period of time, the family fell on hard financial times. Markland’s guidance counselor told him about a credit union job to help earn some extra money.
“I really thought I was going to work there for a little while and then go to college,” he recalled.
Markland eventually enrolled in college where he worked to pay for tuition and other expenses. During the summers, he would return back to the credit union. By this time, he was convinced that he had made the right career move for the long term.
In his free time, Markland, who has been married for 20 years, said he spends much of it with his 18-year-old daughter and 16-year-old son. He has become reacquainted with running, recently completing two half-marathons and is training to do a full one in October. Any activity outdoors, be it fishing or boating, you’ll likely to find Markland refueling there.
As a Florida native, he got a lot of ribbing from some when he made career moves from year-round sunshine and warm weather to Colorado and Minnesota’s brutal winters. Markland said he sees the transition in the same way he views his life and his tenure at Affinity Plus.
“People would ask ‘why are you going there, it’s so cold’. I saw it as an opportunity to adapt. That’s the outlook I try to always have.”