Best Practices and the Big Squeeze
“When life gives you lemons, make lemonade” is a proverbial phrase often used to encourage optimism and a can-do attitude in the face of adversity or misfortune. When speaking with credit unions that are facing big challenges especially with earnings or growth, I like to tell them about Teri Robinson and the Pacific NW Ironworkers FCU.
Teri Robinson took over at the helm of Pacific NW Ironworkers FCU in March 2010 – just in time to receive a letter that would forever change her leadership path. The NCUA told her that her small Portland, Ore., credit union was in net worth restoration and had been downgraded.
She told me her credit union was struggling with loan losses and that she, as a new CEO, was wondering if she had set herself up for failure and if it was worth it.
Robinson isn't alone: smaller credit unions make up the majority of our numbers and are facing significant challenges ranging from earnings and growth. And smaller credit unions will need to adapt, learn, adjust, innovate and collaborate in order to survive.
Robinson decided that survival was the only option for her. She said her first step was convincing the NCUA that her credit union was determined to survive and keep its three-branch footprint – one in Portland, one in Tukwila, near Seattle, and one in Spokane, Wash. – up and running.
The second step, Robinson said, was to radically (and creatively) cut expenses. She said she called everybody the credit union did business with and that 90% of them did something to reduce the expense. Robinson also looked for ways she could run more efficiently, enlisting the help of her employees and overhauling the credit union's lending model as part of its net worth restoration plan.
The third step, she said, was getting in contact with the people who would provide support, including the National Federation of Community Development Credit Unions. The Federation leveraged Pacific NW Ironworkers’ low-income designation for secondary capital and, slowly, the tide began to turn.
Now with $14 million in assets, Pacific NW Ironworkers his reporting loans up 40% and an 8% average loan yield. Robinson is one of hundreds of small credit unions leaders that have managed to turn foreboding and hopelessness into success.
And while each credit union turnaround comes with a different set of circumstances, these best practices are key to recovery:
Be willing to change and learn new things. The same actions more often than not lead to the same results. Accept that changes are on the way and utilize the experience to learn new best practices.
Communicate with examiners to find common ground. If yours is a credit union in net worth restoration (or getting too close for comfort), the best thing you can do is communicate with examiners early and often. Robinson said her faith in what she was doing, confidence she shared with her examiners, helped the regulators to relax.
Utilize credit union expertise. Sometimes, it's a matter of being in touch with the right people and looking for every opportunity to position yourself for success. Look to your mentor, your association, or to other credit unions in your area.
Create and commit to a plan. Reduce expenses and mitigate losses going forward. Robinson said her credit union reined in its loan underwriting to ensure the loans it made were no longer going to causes such losses.
Take action. Be willing to roll up your sleeves to save money. Sometimes you have to work the phones and pound the pavement to see your plan come to fruition.
Keep looking to the future: Hard times don't occur in a vacuum. Robinson did double-duty, implementing her plan to save Pacific NW Ironworkers while looking for ways to improve and innovate. In addition to developing new programs such as remote-capture, credit union staff got serious about member recruitment. Pacific NW Ironworkers wasn't taking advantage of its opportunities. Now it is.
Smaller credit unions are being squeezed tighter than ever, but Robinson's story proves that where there is a will, there is a way. The fight to save a struggling charter is not easy. But it's worth it for those credit union leaders who believe that their charter can still be relevant in the lives of their members.
Scott Butterfield is principal of Your Credit Union Partner in Sumner, Wash. He can be reached at (253) 507-2443 or scott@yourcredit unionpartner.com.