Billionaires Club: First Financial FCU Keeps a Lid on Costs
If you’re a vendor seeking a contract with First Financial Federal Credit Union of Maryland, be ready to make an attractive–really attractive–offer.
President/CEO Rob Windsor watches expenses carefully, and negotiates aggressively to keep an operating expense ratio of 1.4%, about half of what many peer credit unions have achieved.
“We’re very good at that,” Windsor declared. “We look at every contract we sign and we negotiate everything. We try to keep a lot of things in-house to keep expenses down. One thing that causes us to have very effective use of our employees is what we call our cashless system.”
“We do not issue cash over the counter. If a member brings in a check, they deposit the check, then based on our experience and relationship with them they go to the ATM that’s right there and withdraw up to $100 of the check amount. Why would we want someone to stand in line behind five or ten people just to get cash? Why would we force our members to come here just to get cash?”
“Tellers can take time to solve whatever issues the member has. We do surveys on a regular basis and have a secret shopper program, and we are always in the top 3% of rankings.”
As for hurdles, he joins the chorus of credit union CEOs concerned about regulations and the cost of compliance. Oh, yes, and competition is tougher than ever, spreads are tightening and interest rates have been low for some time.
Windsor has worked in credit unions for more than 30 years, and has seen people dig themselves into financial holes. So from the day he arrived at First Financial, he has supported programs such as student branches to help young people before they could develop bad financial habits.
A high school debit card program has been excellent, Windsor said. The card can be used by students, faculty and staff at several local high schools to make purchases at the dining hall and other on-campus locations.
|About First Financial|
|Primary sponsor:||Original sponsor Baltimore County Public Schools. Now serve more than 90 SEGs.|
|Loan portfolio:||$209 million|
|About Rob Windsor|
|Graduate of University of Baltimore Married, three grown children|
|President/CEO since 1996|
At the same time, as a school credit union First Financial’s members have tended to be “a little frugal,” Windsor said.
“That’s good for them, but not real good for our loans. Like a lot of credit unions, we have to struggle to get loans out. The economy has made people nervous about creating more debt.”
Reflecting time and budget pressures in schools, “We were going to put in another student branch. We needed a supervisor for that branch. I will not put a student branch in a school without a school employee who would do that for maybe an hour a day. Part of a template we have that has worked well for us is that we have faculty support.”
But nobody stepped forward, so the branch didn’t open. A similarly guarded approach has prompted the credit union to move carefully about pursuing business members.
“We looked at it some years ago,” Windsor explained. “I talked with a couple credit unions that had big-time programs. I realized that in order to do that I’d have to bring in a former bank employee earning six figures.”
“I decided that’s not our main function here. It’s not a priority. We have a great situation here with our senior management. We’re all a team. Just for business lending, I did not want to upset the apple cart by bringing in someone from the outside who is used to a different philosophy and individual bonuses. I don’t want to put people against each other.”
First Financial does participate in some business loans, but Windsor describes them as the lemonade stand variety, all secured with real property.
Top management establishes priorities and asks supervisors to identify goals that support those priorities. An incentive program is structured to pay frontline people with the highest percent of salary. At one time the rank and file did not even know there was a strategic plan. They do now and are told why those priorities were set.
At the same time, the credit union has aggressively pursued greater share of wallet from members by rewarding those who make First Financial their primary financial institution.
A Five Star membership program is available to members who sign up for at least five services–checking, an active Visa credit card account and on-line home banking and two other products or services such as direct deposit, e-statements, an auto loan, a fixed-rate home equity loan or a share balance over $20,000.
Five Star members receive an additional quarter percentage point checking account dividend, a 0.5% rebate on signature-based debit card transactions, and a 50 basis point discount on certain loans.
Who is a typical First Financial member? Because of the link to the school system, many members are well-educated but Windsor noted teachers don’t get rich although they are middle-class. At the same time, 47% of new members come from the families of existing members. First Financial doesn’t actively recruit new SEGs, but when a SEG comes to the credit union they are welcomed.
After graduating from University of Baltimore with a degree in accounting, Windsor worked as a CPA. Twelve years later he found himself burned out. He happened to be vice chairman of Johns Hopkins Federal Credit Union at the time the CEO was leaving.
The chairman told Windsor he was retiring and suggested Windsor become chairman. But Windsor decided to apply for the CEOs job, was hired and it proved a good fit. In January of 1996 he moved on to First Financial as CEO.
“I’ve loved it. I’ve been able to do my analysis as I used to do, and I can also see the benefit of changes I’ve made,” he said.
Until some recent problems with his back, Windsor has been an avid tennis player and plays on the team of a country club where he is a member. He also golfs, and he and his wife like to travel.
“We’ve been pretty much around the world,” he noted. “We like cruising on the smaller ships, not necessarily those with 3,000 or 4,000 passengers.”