SOUTH BEND, Ind. – Thirty-one years ago Richard Rice faced an important career decision. He'd already graduated from Indiana University, joined the Army Reserves and completed his active duty. Rice had received two job offers. One, from Burroughs Corp. (now Unisys) would pay $725 a month. The other, from Teachers Credit Union, came with a salary of $625 a month. At that time the credit union boasted 18 employees and $16 million in assets. He chose the credit union because, in his words, "Ultimately, credit unions are about people. What Burroughs talked about was machines and how much money I could make." Three decades later, Rice is still at the credit union, now as its president/CEO. "I was very lucky to be in the right place at the right time," he says. His proudest moment in his career? Probably when the man he considers his mentor, former TCU CEO Ben Hawkins, announced at the annual meeting that Rice would be the next CEO. As the name suggests, TCU was started by teachers. The first office opened in October 1931 in the home of the secretary/treasurer. A small tin cash box served as the safe. The month ended with shares totaling $67 and two loan applications for $50 each. Each May questionnaires were sent to teachers asking how much they would need to borrow for the summer. After determining loan requirements, the credit union appealed for share deposits to meet the demand. The response always allowed the credit union to grant all requests. In 1936 the name of the CU was changed from South Bend Teachers Federation Credit Union to Teachers Credit Union and membership was extended to family members. Today school employees form about 12 to 14 % of TCU membership. Although that's certainly not a majority, they are the largest single group in the FOM, and Rice says schools are still the credit union's core. "Using the schools as the focal point makes you part of the community," he notes. "It puts you in contact with people through the PTA, the students, the graduates and so on." So TCU sponsors a lot of school events such as athletics and plays, school employee activities and Teacher of the Year programs. The credit union is also taking advantage of a new state law. "Because of the change in Indiana law which became effective July 2002, we can now have both select employee groups and community charters. With the exception of one county, our community charters can be as large as a county. So wherever we have offices we've expanded to include the whole county," Rice says. "We look at select employee groups not so much as a way of getting us more members, but it certainly allows us to market to a group with certain needs and wants because of their pay scales." Who is the typical member? Rice says it's someone you're likely to find shopping at Wal-Mart. They consider themselves average, middle-class people. "One of the things I think they would tell you is we have long lines. But that doesn't bother them, because they're always treated with dignity and respect. That's one of my big pushes with employees," Rice emphasizes. "Not all members are going to get the same pricing on their loan or deposit. But every member who walks in that front door, I don't care how much they have in their account, has the right to dignity and respect at all times. Our members would say that when they get up to the window and talk to someone, they feel they're the most important person there. We don't have people who look at a computer and figure, `I have to treat you this way.'" TCU has an impressive marketing budget of $1.7 million. Most of that money is spent in the Indianapolis market. Television, radio, newspapers and billboards are all part of the media mix aimed at building brand awareness. One measure of the marketing effectiveness is the fact the credit union is number one in retail share of market in St. Joseph County, which includes South Bend. But Rice looks not just at immediate return on dollars, but more subtle payoffs. For example, for 15 years TCU has operated a travel agency. It's never been very profitable, he says, but it's a key link to cementing the credit union's relationship with members, especially senior citizens. "We're getting out of booking individual flights because it appears the airlines want travel agencies out of that and aren't willing to pay commissions. We're getting more into vacation packages. In October next year we will charter a jet to Las Vegas," Rice says. If the idea of running a travel agency that's not a big moneymaker, then adjusting that agency's offerings, suggests Rice is willing to work with something new, you're right. "My strategy has always been, `Let's try something,'" he points out. "When it comes to marketing and marketing new products, what I attempt to do is shoot, ready, aim. The reason is sometimes the things people will tell you in a survey are influenced by what's around them at that particular time. You truly get a response from a member when you actually try something, when you actually do something. "If you market something and it doesn't work out, you have to be willing to stop. But the marketing hasn't been for naught because it does build brand awareness and the perception the organization is innovative and out in front," he says. Of course, a new venture may prove to be a winner. As far as Rice knows TCU was the first credit union in the country to offer rebates on debit cards. The rebate is one-half percent if you want cash and one percent if you use the card for a credit union product. Last Christmas a member who went on vacation was able to pay for the tickets for one of the four family members by using his rebate. "We weren't sure how the transactions would come through. It has increased the number of debit card transactions. You can't give all the credit for the increased number of checking accounts and direct deposits to that, but certainly it has been part of the equation," Rice says. "If you're out there trying things, and you know your downside risk, you're going to win more times than you're going to lose. I like to differentiate credit unions from banks this way: credit unions use money to serve people; banks use people to make money." That emphasis on people perhaps reflects Rice's early interests and training. Before enrolling at Indiana University he was enrolled for five years at a seminary studying for the priesthood. "How much money I can make is not why I work for a credit union," Rice states. As a manager, he says he seeks out very strong people to run their areas. He wants feedback. Why is something working? Why is something else faltering? He then focuses on the strategy and vision of where the credit union should be. In his free time he loves to be on the water and eagerly pursues watersports. He also enjoys golf and reading. Knock on the door on a weekday evening and you're likely to find him reading or watching sports. To find him on a weekend, head for the beach. If he's on vacation, he probably won't be hurrying along with a tour group trying to see everything. He's more likely to be sitting on the veranda, enjoying the view of the beach and a book. Just chilling out, he agrees. -

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