Workers’ CU Marks Anniversary, Pays Back $2 Million
Workers’ Credit Union in Fitchburg, Mass., hasn't had to look hard to find something to brag about lately.
For starters, WCU is celebrating its 100th anniversary. Assets pushed the credit union into the Billionaires Club. WCU gave back more than $2 million to its members, the first such payout in the credit union's history.
Money was deposited into member's accounts Feb. 13, including 30 basis points for checking accounts; 20 basis points for savings, consumer loans and checking account lines of credit; and 10 basis points for mortgages, refinances, home equity loans and equity lines, and CDs.
President/CEO Doug Petersen said as far as he knows, it's the first such dividend paid by a credit union in Central Massachusetts.
“The credit union has always had good financial results,” Petersen said. “We have a very strong capital ratio, 12.3%. At this point we looked ahead three, four, five years. We thought rather than building capital the money would be of better use in our members’ hands than it would be in our hands. This gives them an opportunity to benefit from one of our strategic advantages.”
Petersen laughed as he observed, “One day you wake up and suddenly you’re over a billion dollars.”
So what has put the credit union in such a solid position? Petersen immediately credited the many employees who, he emphasized, do a very, very good job. But it's not just one thing, he continued. The Great Recession presented issues, but didn't hurt the credit union too much. Mergers have played a role in the credit union's growth, and the credit union has always operated under a community charter.
Mortgages have been another factor fueling success. Petersen said he believes WCU has a solid reputation in its market area, prompting members to turn to the credit union when they buy a home.
The credit union has also expanded its external sales staff to boost visibility in the community and meet with real estate agents. Given the number of large banks in nearby cities like Boston, it's easy to assume WCU would face strong mortgage competition. But Petersen sketches a positive picture.
“We’re headquartered in Fitchburg, and they call Fitchburg-Leominster the twin cities. They both have about 45,000 residents. So we’re in a lot of smaller towns. We have great market share in those towns and that helps our visibility,” he said.
Even so, the large banks are indeed competitors. There's also a roster of non-traditional lenders such as Quicken Loans, which is one of the top five mortgage producers in the area. Petersen considers that significant, since Quicken has no brick-and-mortar locations to establish and reinforce identity.
“Today you compete with everyone,” Petersen declared. “The hyper-competition is always a concern. That forces us to be true to our roots and be very, very focused. We want to improve the daily lives of our members, and that's what we live by. It's all about execution, and it goes back to our people.”
Another challenge, or perhaps the word should be frustration, is the current regulatory environment. Petersen cited the example of the recent paybacks, which were based on a percentage of balances in various accounts. The credit union learned there could be a potential problem if there were paybacks on IRAs. So WCU scrubbed the IRA payback and is waiting to see if the rules change.
Petersen considers it an example of how regulations can spark unintended consequences.
Doug Petersen is president/CEO of Workers’ FCU in Fitchburg, Mass.
Comparing WCU to other credit unions, he thinks a lot of the basic strategies are the same. WCU is actively involved in the communities it serves, and Petersen believes the credit union outpaces other financial institutions in providing money to local causes.
In addition to the funds, WCU employees volunteer time in the community.
The credit union's member service scores are always impressive, its CEO adds. Everyone talks about the importance of member service, but Petersen figures SCU is at the top of the class.
The credit union also earns top-of-mind recognition by sponsoring financial seminars. Those meetings have proven to be a good tool for educating members and boosting awareness of the services and products WCU offers. For example, planning for retirement is always on people's minds. So there are sessions for that. Preparing and paying for college is also on the list.
Petersen noted that even after the payback to members, WCU's strong financial position will allow it to continue investing in technology. He indicated that in this day and age, the key is technology from the member's perspective.
At the same time, “the core processor is the baseline for anything you want to do. We’re moving to the OSI (Open Solutions) platform, and we see that software giving us more flexibility to serve our members. We’re about a year and a half behind where we wanted to be because of the system conversion.
“But we did recently launch deposit capture. We have all the toys the big banks have.”
Looking ahead, Petersen said the credit union plans to spread geographically. Although that will include some brick-and-mortar presence, WCU anticipates members will visit branches less often. That means expanding the electronic network. The future will probably see one branch in a town instead of multiple branches.
Petersen has a bachelor's in accounting and an MBA from Bentley University in Waltham, Mass. He launched his credit union career at St. Mary's Bank in Manchester, N.Y., the nation's oldest credit union. He believes that gave him a good start in the credit union industry through both good and tough times.
He then worked as a consultant for a couple years, but when he got married, he decided a consistent paycheck was important. So in 1995 he joined WCU. He's been CEO for three years.
Married with two children, Petersen is busy lately following high school basketball. His son, 16, loves the game so there's been a constantly updated schedule of games to attend.
His daughter, who is 24, is married to a U.S. Navy helicopter pilot who was recently deployed overseas. While he is away she has moved in with her parents, bringing with her a daughter who is not quite a year old and a dog. So the grandparents are kept busy.
When there is time Petersen likes to read. He's also a golfer anticipating an end to the tough winter.