ANNAPOLIS JUNCTION, Md. – Growing up in a small town in Alabama, Martin Breland lived where major cities were four or five hours apart. Today he's president/CEO of Tower Federal Credit Union in the bustling Baltimore-Washington corridor – and he likes it just fine, thank you. "We enjoy Maryland a lot," he states. "There's so much to do here. Shopping. Sports teams. You have the beach within a couple hours in one direction and snow skiing within a couple hours in the other direction. It's a nice lifestyle. "It's also nice to be close to Washington and everything that's going on there. Tower tries to stay pretty involved in political activities. We go down, visit Capitol Hill and stay in contact with our Congressional delegation." The results show up in items such as a news release from Rep. Albert R. Wynn (D-Md.) praising Tower as a pioneer in consumer education. Breland is only the second CEO that TFCU, founded in 1953 as Arlington Hall Federal Credit Union, has ever had. When Arlington Hall became the National Security Agency, the credit union changed its name to Tower FCU. As members pursue products and services to help them cope with busy lifestyles, Breland can relate. He's been married for 15 years and has four children, including what he happily describes as "three of the prettiest little girls east of the Mississippi" and an 18-month-old boy. After graduating from the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, with a major in corporate finance, Breland joined a bank. He also has a masters degree in business from Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore. "I enjoyed banking. There are some good people who work in banking, but I would never go back. I love working for credit unions," Breland says. "Working for a credit union, it's nice to go home at the end of a long day and feel you've done something good in the world for somebody. I like that. I like the challenge of a credit union career, but I also like the fact our underlying purpose is to help people. Credit unions really are here to help people." That fits nicely with his personal philosophy – find something you love doing and always give 110%. Breland joined TFCU in 1988 as CFO. He had some expertise in asset/liability management, skills the credit union wanted. About three years later he became vp/member services. Then in 1988 Bob Byroad, who had been in the credit union industry for more than 30 years, retired. Breland was named to the job. At that point Tower was about half its current asset size. TFCU was a single-sponsor credit union until about four years when a small credit union, Howard County Employees CU, asked to merge with Tower in order to expand member services. Then after passage of HR 1151, TFCU decided to open membership to additional SEGs. "Credit unions in this area tend to have single sponsors," Breland notes. "There are probably fewer big credit unions in this region with community charters than in places like California or Florida, for example." He believes one thing that sets Tower apart from other large credit unions is low loan losses. At about 10 basis points, net loan chargeoffs are one-fifth the industry average. "Our business model is to keep our services relatively simple and honest so members can understand the value. For example, we only have one checking account. There are very few fees, and no minimum balance required. It's very easy for the member to look at it and realize it's a great value," Breland says. TFCU tries to explain up front how an account works so the member can make an informed decision. That means disclosing items such as mortgage fees and how long it will take to process the mortgage. It also means providing literature showing it takes 24 years to pay off a $2,000 credit card balance at 18 percent APR interest making a minimum 2% down payment. Oh, yes, Tower points out, during those 24 years you will have paid $6,397 on your credit card, $4,397 of that in interest. This approach, Breland figures, has helped glue members to the credit union. "Tower's members are tremendously loyal because we do provide great service and great value, and they never face any negative surprises," he declares. "We tend to have a very long-term and dedicated membership. There's a local outfit here called Checkbook Magazine, affiliated with Consumer Reports. Every two years they survey consumers in the Washington, D.C., region and ask about the service and value of their primary financial institution. Each time the survey comes out credit unions totally beat the banks. Tower always rates at or very close to the top." Overall, Breland characterizes TFCU as a conservative organization. "We tend to be fairly cautious in the decisions we make to be certain they're the right decisions," he says. "I think we have a very strong management. We really try to attract and retain good people who really believe in the credit union. Then we set a vision and direction, and try to empower them to make the decisions they need to make to serve the members well." As for his own management style, Breland describes it as a collaborative, team-oriented approach. He believes he's very fortunate to have what he considers some terrific people on board who are a pleasure to work with. Just as members tend to remain loyal to TCU, so do employees. Exactly one-third have been with Tower for more than 10 years. Breland sees retaining their knowledge and experience as a key benefit for the credit union. He adds Tower tries to help employees balance the demands of work and family life – demands he knows well as the father of four ranging in age from 18 months to 10 years. About a year and a half ago Tower implemented flexible work schedules. Employees can work four 10-hour days a week or arrange other schedules with their supervisor. "That's been very well received," Breland reports. "It's been a great success from my perspective. I've been really pleased that it hasn't impacted us negatively at all in terms of getting the work done – and it helps us keep good people." Looking ahead, Breland and the board want to maintain steady growth. During the past couple years those hopes have actually been exceeded, as TFCU has posted membership gains of 15 to 20%. Now Breland figures it would be fine to see 5 to 7 percent growth. What accounts for the double-digit growth during those past couple years? "Tower is perceived as a safe haven by our members, so like many other credit unions we've had a tremendous inflow of savings. That has depleted our capital to the 9.5 percent range, so we'd like to build our capital back up above 10 percent," Breland says. Like other credit unions, TFCU has enjoyed a brisk mortgage business, he adds. "Our mortgages last year were four times any previous year. In the year to date we've already exceeded our total volume from last year. One of our big pushes has been upgrading technology so members can apply for mortgages on-line. We now receive about 70 percent of our mortgage applications through the Internet." As for his own personal priorities, "I'd say they're family and Tower. Fortunately, the kids are happy and healthy. That's the best you can ask for." -


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