Strategies for Credit Unions in a Challenging Economy
SAN DIEGO — Two credit union leaders shared strategies that resulted in record years despite economic challenges at a breakout session during America’s Credit Union Conference last week.
John Cassidy, president/CEO of the $646 million Sierra Central Credit Union of Yuba City, Calif., and Dan Sutton, chief operating officer of the $570 million Kemba Financial Credit Union of Cincinnati, detailed best practice experiences at their credit unions used in 2011. Cassidy warned against overreacting to news, which could cause a credit union to change its investment or lending strategies.
“When watching the news, such as the crisis in Greece or problems with Fed, we’ve avoided making quick financial decisions,” he said. “Achieving balanced financial performance requires focus, communication and efficiency.”
Sutton agreed a disciplined investment and lending strategy is key, saying, “Set a plan and stick to it. Don’t swing for the fences when you can settle for a double.”
The Kemba executive added that effective margin management is important, with timely deposit and loan rate adjustments that correspond to both market changes and member demand, “even when it’s not popular or fun.”
Despite news that the U.S. economy and Northern California housing market are recovering, Cassidy said he still puts aside more than 300% of delinquencies into loan loss allowances.
“We don’t know what’s coming around the curve,” he said.
Cassidy said he meets quarterly with board members, managers and supervisors to discuss the previous quarter’s results, progress toward goals and reports from frontline staff.
“During the crisis when things got tough, we were honest with them about what was going on,” he said. “We didn’t know how bad it would get, and told staff that. But communication between the board, executive team, employees and members was really critical to our success.”
Sutton said he has a team of six business development representatives charged with “feet on the street warfare,” communicating with current and potential members.
“We don’t want to be the best kept secret in town. We’ll send a team to call on a company, sign people up for membership, establish ambassador program, and then send in another team to maintain that relationship,” he said.
Cassidy said his Sierra Central team saw the housing crash coming earlier than most and was able to react quickly.
“We didn’t have to do any draconian cuts, just cut back staff through attrition,” he said. “It was about trimming down and staying efficient because we didn’t know how far the crisis would go. I credit my team with building a plan, tying down the budget and sticking to it. It helped us have a record year in 2011.”
Sutton said remembering that credit unions are spending members’ money is a good reality check in a difficult economy.
“If we wouldn’t spend our own money, we won’t spend our members’ money,” he said. Kemba’s operating expense to average assets was 3.1% in 2011, a little lower than the credit union’s historical average.
Sutton reported that Kemba has had success cross selling members who joined the credit union through indirect auto lending. After trying and failing repeatedly, Kemba found success when one teller began making calls to introduce the credit union first and cross sell second.
“They just wanted a car, not a new financial institution,” he said.
Kemba used scripting for the calls but allowed the former teller to helped develop it.
“She sounds more authentic because she helped write it,” he said.
Sutton said he hasn’t measured the success of the program by comparing products per household numbers. Instead, the employee’s stellar incentive payouts compared to other sales staff tell the story of her success.
Executive Vice President Ronald Sweeney added that the credit union first whittles down the list of indirect auto borrowers before calling, limiting the cross selling list to those who are located a few miles from a branch.
“That increases your chances,” he said. “Instead of calling 1,000 people, she calls 200. We have a better chance of getting them if we’re convenient.”
Sutton called noninterest income “a nice shock absorber to net interest compression.”
Finding a way to generate income from products and services that don’t take money from members is Kemba’s strategy, he said. In particular, CUSOs provide revenue for the credit union. Kemba has five CUSOs that provide mortgage lending services, insurance, indirect lending, document scanning services and tax preparation.
“We put a big investment into optically scanning our own documents, so we thought maybe we could scan for others, collect a fee and offset our own scanning costs,” Sutton said.