Long-Term Relationships Still Bear Fruit at the Core
As it took hold, open source architecture followed by plug-and-play commoditization had been hailed in some quarters as the beginning of the end of the assumption that long-term relationships with a core processor was the path for all credit unions.
It's not necessarily so. For instance, the average tenure for credit unions on the DataSafe system is about 23 years, said Jeff Hedeman, product line executive for that Fiserv platform that Callahan & Associates data said is in use at about 200 credit unions.
On regular basis credit unions switch core processors typically citing cost, functionality and support considerations.
But, “for the most part there's no reason you can't be on the same core platform for years. We’re evidence of that,” Hedeman said.
That type of tenure is accomplished through keeping the technology up to date and maintaining adequate service, according to some credit union executives and core processors. On the technology side, it's headlined by the ability to add on ancillary services such as mobile banking and check imaging solutions, whether it be from the processor itself or a third party.
That's been accomplished through open source technology, once cutting edge and now, largely taken for granted, some have said.
DataSafe, when it was managed under the USERS brand, was an early adopter, offering SQL-enabled integration on a relational database as early as 2000. The overlay is the relationship factor, including the ubiquitous user groups. One longtime DataSafe user, the $2.1 billion Navy Army Community Credit Union in Corpus Christi, Texas, has taken it a step further.
The 132,000-member institution holds an annual gathering – President/CEO Sarah O’Brien calls it a partnership dinner – with representatives from vendors such as DataSafe, PULSE and Diebold along with local auto dealers and Realtors.
“We get together with 70 or 80 of our closest friends and we tell them our business plan and ask them how they can help us reach our goals,” said O’Brien, a 27-year employee of Navy Army, who was part of the conversion to DataSafe in 1992 and has been working with the same account manager for 20 years.
O’Brien cautioned that while core processors can do a lot, credit union managers ultimately are responsible for the system's success and need to take a hands-on approach when necessary.
“There is the temptation to just wait for them to do everything and hand it over to you and have it work right,” O’Brien said. “But really, you do have to read the documentation and test everything and verify that it's all working the way you want it. Sometimes, things just aren't perfect, but we’ve been able to work together to make everything better for everyone.”
Another venerable name in core processing, UltraData, has a new owner that's set out to up its ante in the relationship game. More than 250 credit unions run on that platform, now owned by Davis + Henderson Corp. after its purchase last year of Harland Financial Solutions, according to the company. Canada-based D+H is getting to know its new clients better by formalizing a program of interaction with credit union CEOs, said Tom Berdan, UltraData's veteran vice president of market development.
“We have a lot of customers who have been with us for a long time, and now we’re helping them deal with that multi-channel piece I refer to as the consumerization of information technology,” Berdan said. “Regular communication is going to help us better invest our development dollars to meet their needs.”
Tom Newins, president/CEO of the $889 million Credit Union 1 in Anchorage, Alaska, said he's pleased with the D+H acquisition of the core platform his credit union has used since 1992, the same year he joined when the cooperative had $80 million in assets.
“I think about us growing up together,” Newins recalled. “In that time, we’ve expanded our branch network three times and became a service bureau to two smaller credit unions. We’ve done a lot with UltraData and now we feel like they’re renewing their commitment to that platform, so we can all look forward.”
He added, “I don't believe there's a perfect core processing solution out there. There are strengths and weaknesses in all of them. We have a firm understanding of what ours can and can't do, and we also have a lot of our own internal expertise that we would lose if we moved. Converting takes a lot of time and money and we’d rather spend that time and money providing services to our members.”
Growing and changing with one core processor also has made the difference for a smaller credit union with a long relationship with its primary provider of technology.
The $114 million Texoma Community Credit Union's experience also varies from the argument that credit unions must go to third-party providers for best-of-breed add-ons. Along with core processing, the Wichita Falls, Texas-based credit union said it relies on other solutions FLEX created itself such as e-statements, remote deposit checking and even a debit card on-off switch.
“Eight or nine years ago, I would have told you that third parties do a better job with ancillary services than do the cores, but my thinking has shifted on that,” said Kevin Scott, COO at the 13,900-member Texoma Community.
Sean Holcomb, SVP at Computer Marketing Corp., which provides the FLEX system to nearly 300 credit unions from its base in Sandy, Utah, said his company is ready to go both ways. FLEX is now based on a service-oriented architecture platform that provides an application programming interface to allow integration with third-party solutions that credit unions now demand, he added.
“Nevertheless, our philosophy of collaborating with FLEX credit union clients in growing the software organically will remain unchanged,” Holcomb said. “Operationally, work flows are cleaner, maintenance is lower and consequently, costs are significantly reduced. The cost/benefit is undeniable, making this far and away the most popular avenue among our credit union clients.”
Scott and Holcomb both pointed to the cooperation that marks the client and core processor relationship at FLEX. Mansur said that kind of relationship is why he has been a FLEX customer since 1988, when he was with an El Paso, Texas-based credit union. Another relationship that has changed is with the member.
“It used to be that the core processing system was just a way to account for member deposits and withdrawals and maybe, just a few more things,” Mansur said. “Now, the members run the core. They run home banking. They run mobile. We have changed from our core being employee-run technology to something that's run by our members, by people, ordinary consumers, who intuitively know how to use this technology.”
Under Mansur's leadership, Texoma converted from an EDS system to FLEX in 1996 and said he plans to stay.
“I had a conversation with another core processor just a few days ago and they asked if I would consider evaluating my core. I told them, ‘Yeah, I did that this morning. I’m under contract with them until 2025.’ That was my way of telling them I wasn't interested in talking to them.”