Utilities Employees CU Capitalizes on Branchless Model
Technology has forced many members of the credit union industry to ponder the fate of the branching model, but few have been as bold as Patricia Zyma, president/CEO of Utilities Employees Credit Union. Her $1.1 billion credit union, headquartered in Wyomissing, Penn., has altogether abandoned the notion that branches are a required part of every credit union's existence or success.
From its beginnings in 1934, UECU has followed a virtual business model, serving its 44,000 members nationwide from a single headquarters building near Reading, Penn., which lies between Philadelphia and Harrisburg, Penn. Its savings and lending products were relatively limited until the mid-1980s, when UECU began expanding its product offerings; it became a full-service credit union in 2002, according to Zyma.
Today, UECU still has no branches, doesn't participate in any shared branching networks and doesn't run an ATM network. Its operating expenses are about one-third that of its peers, Zyma said.
Zyma was with UECU for much of its transition to a full-service credit union. She joined as a vice president in 1997, later rising to CFO and eventually executive vice president. After nearly 20 years with the credit union, Zyma, who is also a CPA, became president/CEO in October 2014. Today she manages a credit union that reported more than $26 million of loan and investment income in 2015, booked $6.5 million in net income for the year and has managed to pay out almost $5 million in distributions since 2011.
Part of that performance is directly attributable to avoiding a brick and mortar existence. Branches that are 3,000 to 4,000 square feet can cost between $600,000 and $750,000 to build; even lower-end branches cost around $500,000, according to the Glendale, Calif.-based commercial construction company Sierra Group. Additionally, the credit union's branchless concept is attractive to millennials, though members of all ages are drawn to it, often because UECU's lower operating costs and virtually nonexistent capital expenditures budget allow it to offer better rates, Zyma said.
“We have actually quite a high demographic of what you consider the baby boomers,” she said. “We pay high dividend rates, so we do have a lot of savings members.”
Members able to put $50,000 or more in an account can earn 1%; checking accounts can pay 30 or 40 basis points, she added. The credit union also rebates ATM surcharges.
Despite the seduction of streamlined operations, fewer capital expenditures and more tech-savvy members, credit unions thinking about going branchless have to do it with their eyes open, Zyma warned.
“While we have a high share of wallet of our members’ loan and deposit business, historically, obtaining the checking relationship without a branch presence has been more challenging,” Zyma said.
The evolution of mobile and online capabilities, particularly mobile deposit, have made these traditional obstacles less of a factor, but a strong marketing plan is still absolutely crucial, she explained. Website marketing, social media, email campaigns and webinars are UECU's primary methods for building brand recognition – and those channels are less expensive than radio, television and billboards, Zyma noted.
“Since we do not have branch locations, we do not have the same visibility that they provide in keeping us front of mind for members or prospective members and in keeping members informed about new developments in the credit union's products, services and benefits,” Zyma explained.
Because prospective members can't walk into a branch to open accounts, UECU's account representatives work closely with sponsor companies in the utility and energy industries, often doing presentations and seminars for employees to gain new members.
A budget for a larger-than-usual IT staff is also necessary for branchless operations to run smoothly, Zyma said.
“We also do a lot of customization in our core system to support our virtual model,” she explained. “That in and of itself necessitates more IT resources.”
But the real challenge for credit unions that want to go branchless is to stay human in the eyes of the members.
“We don't have branches, but we still have that personalized service – that's the message that we get out there through the website or through the companies – to know that they still can talk to someone, if that's the preferred channel for that customer or for that member.”
UECU's call center generally handles questions about transaction activities, and human financial service consultants and wealth management consultants are available via phone or virtual chat.
“We know that millennials like the digital access, but they also still want someone to hold their hand when they’re getting a mortgage or a loan and such,” she noted, adding that local members also come to UECU's headquarters, but that obviously isn't the credit union's niche.
Although many credit unions struggle to keep up with the times, growing industry-wide interest in virtual operations suggests it may be that the times that have finally caught up with UECU. But becoming impersonal and robotic is clearly not where Zyma plans to take the credit union going forward.
“As we consistently read, while consumers, notably millennials, will judge a financial institution based on its digital capabilities, they also still want the personal touch – trusted advisers that will help to guide them through financial decisions,” she said. “Credit unions have historically played an important role in serving as the trusted adviser for our members, and it is critical that we remain focused on this role as our members more often access services remotely.”