Growth can mean gaining bragging rights as membership and assets expand.
But some say growth has to be measured not just in terms of member headcount and asset size but in terms of what the increases actually bring to the membership.
Both Heritage Federal Credit Union in southwest Indiana and REALTORS Federal Credit Union, with a nationwide membership, have enjoyed impressive growth. Heritage membership increased 56% from 2002 to 2012, reaching 40,000, and assets sprouted 83% to $400 million. REALTORS, a virtual credit union only two years old, topped Callahan’s list of fastest growing credit unions with a 24.7% membership jump in one year before merging in May with Northwest Federal Credit Union.
Credit Union Times asked Heritage President/CEO Ruth Jenkins how important growth has been to the credit union.
“The easy answer is that growth has been a by-product of some of the other goals we have wanted to achieve,” she answered. “Growth is just one measure of success, that we are indeed meeting the financial needs of the members and the community. One of the things I say here is that banks may build story upon story, but we let story upon story build us.”
Later this year, Heritage will break ground on a new branch in Newburgh to replace one of its first facilities. Jenkins said rather than retrofit the branch, which she describes as dated, the credit union conducted an extensive facilities study.
Then a new administration building is targeted for groundbreaking in the summer of 2013. The headquarters structure, which is less than 10 years old, was at capacity after three years. Conference rooms have been chopped into offices and waiting areas are now filled with work stations.
The two buildings will be next door to each other. Jenkins explained the credit union already owned some real estate to the east of the offices and had an opportunity to buy land to the west.
“Having three parcels of land together gave us a wonderful opportunity to not only build the branch but also expand our headquarters to accommodate the employee growth and allow for future expansion. We can add a third story to the building,” she noted.
Jenkins indicated several factors went into the expansion decision. One was being able to acquire the additional land to build new headquarters. Having the branch and headquarters next to each other helped with cost.
Another factor involved keeping operations going during construction rather than renting and moving into temporary quarters. Using the three parcels, the new branch can be constructed while the old branch continues operating. Once the move from the old to the new branch is completed, the old branch can be razed to begin constructing the administration facility. That current headquarters will be revamped to provide needed space for operations such as lending and commercial services.
“We don’t have to displace any of our employees, we don’t have to displace any of our members, and we don’t have to pay for the communication and advertising that would go into rerouting our members to a temporary operation,” Jenkins noted.
In addition to finding space for additional staff, what other challenges does growth present?
“The challenge is when you have a reputation for success, you can’t allow any back steps. We have to continue providing the community with a high level of service. The other issue with growth is you have to worry about your capital position and other issues based on your asset size. Keeping those in check becomes very challenging,”
“You cannot over communicate to your staff what is going on and why certain decisions have been made. We look at things like deposit growth and loan growth, and the various ratios that are either important to our examiners or are key metrics for the board to measure our success. If employees understand those, it gives them some ownership and buy-in on what is happening.”
Martin Edwards, chairman of REALTORS FCU, has been serving as spokesman since the credit union merged with Northwest. As far as Edwards is concerned, the merger is an opportunity to grow even more rapidly.
Edwards noted REALTORS, chartered only a couple years ago, was launched facing the hazards of the recession. As a virtual credit union serving the National Association of Realtors, REALTORS is able to offer membership to the real estate industry throughout the United States.
“Our members are 99% self-employed and independent contractors,” he noted. “They don’t work 8 to 5. They work when they’re involved in a sale, weekends or nights. The virtual credit union is a very important part of its appeal, and Northwest was building a virtual site.”
“Another thing that fueled growth is that we introduced in November an app you could put on your iPhone. That’s been gaining about 10% a month.”
The idea of a merger with Northwest, he explained, appealed because many of Northwest’s members are also self-employed. “That was a big factor,” Edwards stated. In addition, Northwest is a member of the shared branch network. The REALTORS Federal Credit Union brand will be retained as a division of Northwest, and Edwards expects the merger will speed REALTORS 10-year growth plan significantly.
As the former president of the National Association of Realtors, which boasts 1 million members, Edwards sees growth as positive.
However, “there are certainly regulatory reasons why you’ve got to be careful about growth. Only grow as fast as you can make money. I think the thing that attracted us was that we could merge with someone who would push our goals and expectations up probably five to 10 years.”
“Retaining the REALTOR brand, retaining the ability to market to our members, gaining a seat on their board, are things that will help Northwest grow and help us grow inside Northwest.”
A key question, he continued, is how you define growth. He personally defines growth as being able to offer better and stronger products and services. Counting dollars and members doesn’t necessarily mean a lot. What, he asks, are the members getting out of the credit union? Is the credit union able to make their daily lives better?