<p>By P.J. HELLER CU Times West Coast Correspondent CHULA VISTA, Calif. – Walk into a branch of North Island Financial Credit Union during the Oscar season, and there’s a good chance you may be greeted by employees decked out in their Academy-Award finery treating you as if you’re Julia Roberts or Tom Cruise. You might not have been invited to the Hollywood festivities, but the branch offers what may be the next best thing – all while you’re conducting your financial transactions. Or try stopping in one of North Island’s 12 branches on a warm summer day. You might be treated to a free ice cream cone in a setting more reminiscent of a 1950s ice cream parlor, complete with workers in natty white uniforms. “We empower our employees to be creative and innovative and to try to do their own branding from branch to branch,” says Mike Maslak, president and chief executive officer of North Island Financial. “We want them (employees) to appreciate the members, to thank them for their business but to do it in creative, fun ways,” he explained. “We want to engage them so when members leave that office that day they say, `That never happened to me before. It was memorable. It was an experience, not just a transaction!’” Maslak sees that approach as one way the credit union can differentiate itself from other financial institutions throughout San Diego, Riverside and Orange counties, which it serves through a state community charter. He compares it to the kinds of experiences people have when visiting Disneyland, Pike Place Market in Seattle or traveling on Southwest Airlines. “When a member comes to conduct business . . . we try to create a memorable experience (for them),” he says. “What we’re creating is what we like to affectionately refer to the `North Island experience.’”. “We’re very focused on that kind of approach to differentiate ourselves in a marketplace that’s pretty crowded. We’re basically selling commodities and that’s not customized.” It is just that differentiation philosophy – Maslak says that it is part of an ingrained corporate culture – that has helped propel North Island Financial into the rarefied air of credit unions that have amassed $1 billion in assets. Originally chartered in 1940 to serve the Naval Air Station at North Island in San Diego, the credit union today serves some 125,000 members. Assets are $1.2 billion and growing. It is among the 50 largest credit unions in the United States and one of the top 10 in California. “In terms of our formula for success, we believe that in order to really satisfy our members and create loyal members for the future we need to have satisfied, loyal, motivated, well-trained employees,” Maslak said. He said developing that corporate culture has been a major objective since he joined North Island Financial in 1987. He previously served five years as chief financial officer at a large California credit union and another five years as chief operating officer for a credit union in Nevada. When he came to North Island, replacing a CEO who had been there for 25 years, the credit union boasted $300 million in assets. The idea of reaching the billion dollar threshold was never a stated goal, he recalled. “It was more about people,” Maslak said. “The vision was about enriching people’s lives, enriching the lives of our members and the lives of our employees. That was really the vision and we articulate it in our philosophy and our credo card. It’s about people. It’s not expressed in financial terms or numbers.” He is quick to point out, however, that the credit union doesn’t ignore financial metrics. “It’s a balanced scorecard,” he explains. “But the financial metrics do not take precedence over non-financial metrics. They’re both equally important. We look at both. I think that’s what drives our success.” In an interview with CU Times, Maslak repeatedly returns to the theme of having his staff of 350 people create enjoyable and memorable experiences for members. “Fun is one of our values in our corporate culture,” he explains. “It’s part of who we are. We like to celebrate, not only with employees but with our members as much as we can.” He notes, however, that fun is also a serious business, especially when it comes to members and their money. “Obviously financial services is very serious business and we certainly want to treat it that way in terms of respect,” he says. But the fun is expected to continue as North Island Financial embarks on its innovative “Come To The Island” branding campaign. The goal of the campaign is, according to the credit union, to introduce more “fun” through visual and emotional elements during member interactions with the credit union. “Basically, it’s engaging your member in a very positive way, but making it memorable and having fun,” Maslak says. “It’s creating rapport with your member but in an upbeat fun way.” Plans also call for launching a complete business services package which Maslak said will fill the void left by the disappearance of small local independent community banks. Plans for that venture, which will include both deposit and lending services for small to medium size business, has been in the planning stages for five years. “Most credit unions aren’t involved in the business services side of the equation, just on the consumer side, and those who are involved on the business side typically just participate in lending,” he noted. “It’s restricted pretty much to commercial real estate. We’re going to have the full array of products on the lending side and on the deposit side.” The credit union is also heavily involved in the San Diego community. It has been a sponsor for the past three years of the Chrysler Speed Festival at the Naval Air Station, part of Fleet Week during the gala Holiday Bowl. It is also one of the sponsors of the Arco Olympic training center, which is about five miles from the credit union’s headquarters in Chula Vista. As a classic car collector and a race driver in organized car clubs, sponsorship of the Chrysler event is near and dear to Maslak’s heart (the race, which he doesn’t compete in, was cancelled this year due to security concerns). His car collection includes a 1965 Corvette convertible, a 1968 Shelby Mustang and a ’70 Barricuda similar to the `Cuda raced by Dan Gurney on the Trans-Am circuit in the 1970s. “They (collectible cars) are very therapeutic,” Maslak says. “Not unlike the business I’m in, they do tend to appreciate. They are a little bit of an investment.” As for the organized auto racing that he competes in, he describes driving the open wheel formula cars as “safe but challenging.” “It’s not unlike business,” he says. “You have to take some risks to really succeed in life.” Looking to the future, he paints a rosy picture for the credit union. “Our future opportunities are exciting,” he says. “I think credit unions in San Diego in general have great future opportunities to fill the void formerly held by locally owned and operated community banks which are now gone. We have a real opportunity there, collectively as well as North Island specifically. We just need to leverage our resources that we have – both financial and non financial – and continue to grow and expand within the county and of course be good corporate citizen.” He also intends to make sure the credit union continues its fun philosophy for members and employees. “It’s serious business in the sense that it’s a way of differentiating yourself from everyone else,” he says. “Certainly financial business is very important and we need to take it seriously. The members financial welfare, their well being, we want to be a part of that relationship and help them to achieve their milestones in life, whether it’s their dream house, their dream car, their dream vacation, their children’s education, their retirement, all of that. So it’s serious, but we want to have fun in the process. “It affects the quality of life for both our employees and our members.” [email protected]</p>

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