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Ann Brinkerhoff raises some very thoughtful issues. Not all credit unions are in a position to become their members’ primary financial institution, nor would they want to be. Some small credit unions may be better off as a kind of corner grocery store – not a financial supermarket – specializing in specific products their members need. A niche approach can work. The key issue is what do members want? If they’re happy using the credit union as a corner grocery, that’s great! However, the credit union must ask itself whether members will continue to use its services in the face of many attractive options including online borrowing, 30-second loan approval, 24×7 kiosks, and money market checking accounts. Another consideration is whether younger members will find the “corner credit union” offerings inviting and up-to-date. As for partnering opportunities, they exist in every state. For example, CUNA Credit Union in Madison, Wis. mentors the smaller Members First Credit Union, handling many back-office functions without diluting the smaller credit union’s identity. Members First also piggybacks on CUNA Credit Union’s data processing, mortgage lending, card programs, ATM and other services. I’d invite Credit Union Time’s readers to share their own examples as well. Most leagues also sponsor programs to match large and small credit unions, to help install low-cost, turnkey services such as credit/debit cards, home equity and mortgage lending, share drafts and more. Every U.S. league has designated a staff member as its small credit union liaison, to coordinate statewide programs and support. National programs are available from CUNA Mutual Group, CUNA Mutual Mortgage, CUNA & Affiliates, shared service centers and other credit union business partners. Check first with your league – it has the information and contacts to know precisely where partnering should begin. Many leagues report that few of their small credit unions take advantage of these opportunities, so it’s important to encourage small credit unions to inquire, to pursue opportunities, and to tap available resources. As for affordability, it’s understandable that smaller credit unions do not have the resources to invest in expensive programs. At the same time, most are extremely well capitalized. They may be reluctant to use capital to invest in new services for fear of criticism from examiners. Yet most examiners support productive use of surplus capital within the scope of a sound plan. One way to compete successfully is by considering productive ways to use capital to build member service. Thriving small credit unions have convinced examiners that it’s okay to invest in marketing, technology, staff, and other high-gain categories as part of a carefully constructed business plan. They invest more than their peer group in these categories, and they reap greater benefits, too.

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