6 Ways to Grow to $2 Billion
Mergers are one way to quickly grow assets, but there are other proven methods that enable credit unions to grow safely and steadily.
Some institutions set sites on a specific mark and don’t stop until they hit the target, even if it takes decades.
But what are the secrets to hitting a big bulls eye such as $2 billion in assets?
To find advice on devising a successful growth strategy, CU Times consulted two institutions that recently surpassed $2 billion in assets: Grow Financial Federal Credit Union in Tampa, Fla., and Baxter Credit Union in Vernon Hills, Ill.
“We view growth as an outcome of good strategy and execution,” said Tom Moore, executive vice president and chief financial officer for the 190,000-member BCU. “As it relates to growth, more assets enable BCU to drive higher levels of revenue, leading to reinvestment in products, channels and service, as well as our employees, all of which benefit our members.”
“A growing asset base expands the pie, which allows us to offer more products to more members, diversify risk, reduce the proportionate impact of fixed or other mandatory costs, become more attractive as a company for talent and to capitalize on business opportunities,” Moore added.
Bob Fisher, CEO of the 175,000-member Grow Financial, agreed that growth provides credit unions the opportunity to take service to the next level.
“It gives us the resources to keep up with technology, with increased regulations, all the things that credit unions need to do to survive and thrive,” Fisher said. “Our goal wasn’t really to the biggest, but to be the best. So, we’re constantly asking ourselves what we can do better.”
First on the list: Think Like a Big Fish
In the past 20 years, Grow Financial has lived up its name.
In 1996, the cooperative, known then as MacDill FCU, had $431 million in assets. However, the board agreed it was vital to adopt a long-range plan to gain efficiency and economies of scale.
Developing a strategic plan with feasible objectives, established goals and ways to measure performance was crucial, Fisher said.
Thinking “big” was also important, he added.
For example, the organization underwent rebranding in 2007, gained a new name and moved into new 140,000-square foot headquarters. The master plan calls for two more buildings, totaling 500,000 square feet with room to eventually hold up to 2,000 employees, Fisher said.
Grow recently hit its $2 billion goal. With $1.46 million in net income for the first quarter of 2014 and $12.7 million net income last year, the credit union’s bottom line is healthy, Fisher said.
Hitting the $2 billion milestone wasn’t easy, Fisher said, but the credit union overcame challenges, such as the 2008 recession, by focusing on the big picture.
Grow Financial recently expanded into South Carolina, opening one branch in Columbia last year, with four branches set to open this fall in the Palmetto State.
Geographic expansion increased membership and provided protection against natural disasters or economic disasters, such as hurricanes and Florida’s real estate crash, Fisher said.
Read more: Make a good first impression ...
There’s truth in the adage that a first impression is a lasting impression.
That’s why it’s important for credit unions to have well trained professionals on the front line.
For example, Grow Financial hires many employees with retail experience at stores that provide extensive training.
"To me, the employees are the biggest asset of this institution," Fisher said. “You must have the right people on the front line that know how to keep members happy. They have to be personable, professional and not afraid to ask members for business. Give me friendly smiles and good personalities. I can teach them about banking.”
Grow Financial ditched traditional tellers by the end of 2011 by cross-training employees in all branches, he said.
Fisher said another wise move was to hire an experienced public relations professional to assist with marketing.
“We hired a PR specialist, Adrienne Drew, who already had amazing connections with all the media in this area,” Fisher said. “As a result, Grow Financial has received more than $1.4 million in free advertising.”
Rewarding good employees is also important, he added.
Grow Financial recently raised salaries of its front line people, Fisher said.
Even during the 2008 recession, Grow continued to provide annual salary increases, typically 2 to 3%, along with a generous 401(k) match of up to 8%, Fisher said.
Even though the credit union lost money the first year of the recession, the notion of even a freeze on wages was off the table, he explained.
BCU also compensates staff for a job well done, said Carey Price, vice president of sales and service at BCU.
“We are proud that our culture of promoting products and services is very mature,” Price said. “We strongly believe in incentives and are comfortable paying those incentives as we calculate the ROI. It's not uncommon for the average sales representative to earn double their salary in variable compensation.”
The extra labor costs have paid off in huge dividends with member loyalty and increased business, Price said.
Read more: Create a culture of respect and commitment ...
Establishing a positive work environment and creating a culture of respect and commitment are crucial, according to both credit unions.
“It’s all about the people you hire and the culture that exists,” Fisher said. “Everybody must be equally committed to the credit union’s success. You have to get the buy-in.”
For the past two years, Grow Financial has earned top spots in the Tampa Bay Times' Top Workplaces survey. Employees who participated in the survey touted the institution’s employee fitness center, extensive training and tradition of promoting based on potential.
To reinforce connections among staff, the credit union hosts annual cookouts, outings to local sporting events and other community activities.
BCU earned the Chicago Tribune Top 100 Workplace award in 2012 and 2013.
To further improve employee satisfaction and efficiency, BCU recently added a corporate communications position that manages an intranet site and publishes a weekly digital newsletter to lighten the email load and keep everyone informed, the credit union said.
Winning workplace awards means even more than earning $2 billion in assets, according to both credit unions.
“I don’t want my legacy to be about how much money the credit union had,” said Fisher, who is now in his 23rd year at the 58-year-old Grow Financial. “I want it to be about how many members we helped and how many leaders were developed among my staff. I want members to be glad that they bank at Grow Financial and for employees to be glad they work here.”
Read more: Tech is king ...
After bouncing back from the 2008 recession, Grow Financial began investing in mobile banking and other technology, Fisher said.
“You have to look at what kids age 18 are doing and provide the right tools for your staff,” Fisher explained. “If that means adding iPads so more transactions can be conducted, then you have to look closely at the cost factor, but you have to continue to try to move forward and push the boundaries to keep ahead of the competition.”
BCU also benefited by being an early adopter of banking technology, according to Jeff Johnson, senior vice president and chief information officer of information systems at BCU.
For example, the credit union’s infrastructure supports SEG branding, which has strengthened the relationship between BCU and SEGs, he said.
Leveraging SEG relationships is a cost-effective way to improve marketing efforts, Johnson said.
Using technology to monitor performance is also key, which is why BCU implemented solutions that provide robust data, analytics and performance metrics that track toward goals, Johnson said.
BCU also benefited by building strong partnerships with key vendors, he said.
“Embracing Technology means taking measured risks towards lofty goals, aligning with strong vendors, and constant change—and a willingness to occasionally fail,” Johnson added. “A strong and balanced management team pushing the organization to always ‘raise-the-game’ provides an incubator for embracing technology.”
Read more: Find your lending niche ...
Lending is critical to all credit unions, but there’s more to marketing loans than slapping an application in front of a member.
“At BCU, we think beyond loans,” Vice President of Consumer Lending Jim Block said.
“We design products to be relevant with different segments of our membership and ensure each product is competitively superior.”
“While one segment is building savings and establishing credit, another is buying a first home, and another is planning for retirement,” Block continued. “We deliver products with superior service and are constantly investing in distribution channel improvements. A member may join for a loan, but they stay for life, and hopefully encourage their family members to join, because of the service and our full product suite.”
BCU ranked #1 in Illinois and among the top 20 U.S. credit unions in 2012 for first mortgage origination by generating a record-setting 3,353 mortgage loans totaling $769 million, the credit union said.
Read more: Encourage volunteerism ...
BCU and Grow Financial encourage employee volunteerism and support numerous local charitable organizations.
Grow requires every senior staff member to serve on the board of directors for at least one local organization and encourages employees to participate in fundraisers, Fisher said.
“When employees are out in the community, working in a branch, shopping in a grocery store or volunteering with a charity event, they’re carrying your brand, which you need to have good people,” he emphasized.
Many BCU employees and most of BCU senior management also serve on non-profit boards, Vice President of Talent Management Sarah Thorrens said.
BCU provides up to 16 hours paid volunteer time to employees, tracks employee volunteer hours, and recognizes volunteerism with certificates, lunches and donations to the charities chosen by employees, Thorrens said.
As a result, BCU earned its way onto the Companies That Care honor roll, a Chicago-based non-profit that promotes community-friendly employers, for 10 consecutive years, she said.
Last year, the BCU Charitable Giving Committee was launched.
“Meeting monthly, the team has created and published charitable giving guidelines and an online application that allow non-profit organizations in areas where our members work and live to apply for donations in support of three focus areas: Financial education and empowerment, and healthcare and community well-being,” Thorrens added.