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<p>As almost everyone in the industry knows, Georgia Central recently experienced a challenging year. Early in 2001, the Board decided to consolidate with Southwest Corporate FCU. After extensive legwork to coordinate the merger, it failed to materialize in the final stage of negotiations. You might think we were a bit discouraged, and you’d be right. You might even believe we’re a little out of sorts.but you’d be wrong. As a matter of fact, right now Georgia Central and its staff are benefiting from an very important strategic resolution that guided its operations during the merger planning process – “business as usual.” Certainly, the process of planning to merge, and related occurrences, brought about created numerous challenges for Georgia Central. Some of them include weakened staff morale, inability to replace key staff or hire for open positions, loss of our CEO half way through the process, delaying completion on certain planned projects and – of course – member reaction to the merger news. Fortunately, we were prepared for all of these things, and our “business as usual” strategy served us well on all fronts. Staff Morale Unlike companies that are covert about their strategic plans, Georgia Central chose to be very open about merger plans and what it might mean regarding the disposition of employees. While our staff appreciated the honest communication, the news definitely created some uncertainty. We realized that the best approach was to continue the routine, which includes ongoing training programs for staff, semi-annual evaluations and structured goal setting. It was important that staff not lose their sense of purpose, or else they wouldn’t have been able to fulfill Georgia Central’s member service mission effectively. In addition to continuing “business as usual,” we bolstered employees’ sense of security by developing a healthy retention and displacement plan. Unfilled Positions Shortly before the Board decided to move ahead with the merger, Georgia Central had just lost two senior level staff members and was in the process of seeking to fill a much-needed new position. Needless to say, with consolidation on the horizon, we weren’t prepared to hire new people in key roles. Fortunately, we benefited from the caliber of the other professionals we already had on staff, many of who stepped up to the plate to take on additional responsibilities. We also hired two non-permanent consultants to help with projects associated with the merger as well as other long-term initiatives. Never at any time did we consider discontinuing any important programs or processes because of the diminished number of staff. CEO Departure It’s difficult for any organization when their chief executive leaves; at Georgia Central, this challenge was magnified by our circumstances. Normally, it would seem impossible to conceive that we could bring in a leader who would be effective immediately in guiding staff, working with the board, and negotiating the details of the merger – especially someone who wanted the job temporarily! But in this case, luck was on our side. The availability of Allen Carver to take on the position of Interim CEO was immensely fortunate. In Carver, we have a leader who is an expert in the industry, highly knowledgeable about corporate credit unions, and especially familiar with the specific concerns of Georgia Central (having worked in a consultative fashion with our Board). Most importantly, Carver’s leadership worked concurrently with the established, clearly defined objectives that had been guiding Georgia Central all along. So engrained were the principles behind our day-to-day operations, the organization did not lose its way despite the departure of its long-time leader in an uncertain period. Postponement/Contingency Plans When you’re planning a merger, some projects must be postponed. It simply would be illogical to expend resources on, for instance, an improved accounting system, new pricing structure or almost any other operational enhancement when there’s the distinct possibility that the work would soon be irrelevant as a result of combined operations. At the same time, it would be imprudent to have so much faith in the occurrence of the merger that you cease to be a forward-moving organization. Decision making regarding about what to pursue, and what to delay, is not unlike walking a tight-rope. At Georgia Central, these decisions were made by first identifying projects that were important to implement in the short term because of substantial member benefit. The staff also pursued projects, the completion of which was so important to our ongoing future that the risk of delay simply wasn’t worthwhile. Management then identified initiatives based on the level of resources that would be required. Finally, one of the most farsighted, and fortuitous, avenues we pursued was establishing concrete contingency plans. From the strategic analysis, to the due diligence process, to the tactical implementation schedules, our contingency plans prepared us to move forward immediately when we learned that our merger would not take place. Georgia Central is in the process of implementing a new phone system, product/technology councils and a modified pricing structure. Member Reaction/Communication Just as we were open with our staff, Georgia Central was very straightforward regarding its merger plans with its member credit unions. The board mailed informational letters to the members even before we had even sent Requests for Proposal to potential merger partners. We dispatched follow-up communications as the process progressed, and announced our selection of a partner at our Annual Meeting to sign a letter of intent. Naturally, some members, accustomed to a high level of personalized member service, were concerned about any change that might impact the location of the corporate or the staff with whom they had contact. We spent a lot time assuring members that there would be a substantial presence in Georgia and of our intention to practice “business as usual” through service, relationship contacts and localized programs. Ultimately, we garnered considerable, though cautious, support from the members regarding the merger. They were willing to trust our intentions, but made it clear that the most important aspect of interacting with their corporate credit union was the service. When merger discussions were suspended, the majority of our members were relieved – so much more concerned were they about their service than the potential for cost improvements. The Future The most important thing we learned at Georgia Central this past year is that loyalty is still paramount to credit unions with regards to their corporate services. Despite the apparent and inevitable movement toward consolidation and competition, credit unions, on the whole, continue to base much of their business decision making on relationships.and for good reason; service is, after all, the very heart of the credit union movement. I don’t mean to say that competition and mergers are bad for the credit union industry – on the contrary; the value of competition and economies of scale in providing financial services is fairly obvious. It is, however, vital to understand that continuance of service levels while undergoing an environmental shift will be key for maintaining and attracting credit union business. This is one of the greatest challenges for a corporate that’s experiencing change, whether they are merging, considering a new product avenue, or starting to seek business from beginning to work with credit unions outside their home state. In 2001, Georgia Central learned that we have the ability to rise to this challenge. Despite the uncertainty created by our pursuit of merger, and all that this decision entailed, Georgia Central experienced its best year ever, financially. And our balances haven’t diminished in the least. At present, Georgia Central’s Board is avidly pursuing the attainment of a new CEO to carry on the corporate’s service tradition. Meanwhile, management is directing projects to ensure our perseverance as a forward-moving organization, and staff continues to take good care of member needs. All of this activity is steering us to what will doubtlessly be an exciting future for the company. And regardless of what that future holds for Georgia Central as an independent corporate, one thing is for certain – we will continue to practice “business as usual.”</p>

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