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RALEIGH, N.C. – If he weren’t CEO of Coastal Federal Credit Union, what career would Larry Wilson want to pursue? Wilson pauses before he answers. After all, he’s headed CFCU for 29 years and has been very happy doing that. But maybe, well, “I think I would have liked to be a professional golfer,” he muses. “I know how challenging the game is. I play as often as I can and it is a very, very difficult game. To play at the professional level you have to be quite good and committed.” Although joining the PGA tour is simply a daydream, as a young man Wilson did change career goals. When he enrolled at North Carolina State, his ambition was to become an engineer. But he found business and economics more interesting and switched majors. After graduating with a degree in economics, he found an underwriting job with Farm Bureau Mutual Insurance. A couple years later he joined CUNA Mutual as a representative in North Carolina. Another two years passed and he hired on at what was then called IBM Raleigh Employees Federal Credit Union. When Wilson joined the credit union in 1974, it boasted $2.4 million in assets. As general manager he supervised three employees. “It was a bit of a risk on my part, but I saw a lot of opportunity,” he recalls. “I’ve had the pleasure of a very supportive board that has encouraged me to go out and participate in state and national activities. I serve on the CUNA Mutual Board of Directors, the NAFCU Board of Directors, and was previously a member of the North Carolina Credit Union Network Board.” Closer to home he’s active in the Raleigh Chamber of Commerce, the American Red Cross, the American Heart Association and the Better Business Bureau. “If I stay busy, I stay out of trouble,” he quips. Although CFCU has grown enormously in almost three decades, Wilson sees at least one common thread. “I think we’re very good at efficiency, and we have been throughout our history,” he says. “With 270 employees we have a very high productivity level. That is due to the fact so many of our members are using automation. “We’ve also focused on service quality throughout my entire career here. We pride ourselves on members telling others what a great experience they had doing business with us. We have our own infranet and I publish on that site every letter we receive from a member along with a picture of the employee they complimented,” he adds. Employees must complete a program called The Customer used by IBM and many other major firms. The training explains various personality types employees encounter and how to respond to them. Wilson believes the emphasis on service sets CFCU apart not so much from other credit unions, but from other financial institutions. “As we get more and more into high-tech delivery systems it’s even more important, because we don’t get that many opportunities to display our willingness to assist a member. It gets to be more and more of a challenge. We have to be sure the technology works, and works very quickly and efficiently,” he says. “Younger people are less tolerant of poor service. They don’t tell you about it, they just leave. Mature members will tell you (about a problem) and stick with you. They’re more loyal.” As for Coastal FCU entering the Billionaire’s Club, the flow of new money into the credit union has put pressure on the capital-to-asset ratio, but it’s still holding at about 12%. CFCU’s growth has been a tale of putting down roots with a single employer, then branching out to related groups. Until 1992 the credit union served IBM employees in the Raleigh-Durham-Charlotte research triangle area. At that point IBM Gold Business Partners, companies in first tier relationships with IBM, were added to the field of membership. Next came all IBM business partners. Then in 1996 and 1997 CFCU began taking in other employee groups from companies such as Cisco and Erickson Telephone. “Most of that growth took place in the 1996-2001 time frame,” Wilson explains. Although the field of membership now includes groups such as grocery store and auto dealer employees, the bulk of the expansion has focused on high-tech workers. Presumably they are comfortable using technology to access their credit union. So the credit union has added two new self-service branches in Durham with ATMs, audio response systems, computer stations, and remote tellers on a video screen replacing the traditional teller counter. While they’re waiting for the next available remote teller station, members can watch LCD screens showing headline news and stock market information. Content can be switched so when a station break occurs, an ad for the credit union’s bill pay, direct deposit or other service appears rather than a commercial on CNN. There’s also a financial mini-theater where a member can sit and select a presentation on financial planning, business lending or a wide range of other topics. The programs are constantly refreshed with current information. Both branches are storefront operations. CFCU plans three more freestanding counterparts and eventual retrofit of all other branches. “Member response is very favorable,” Wilson says. “Only one member has said they would go back to our other branch across town and drive further to get to it. That happened to be a young member, not someone we would expect to reject technology. “Basically, the presence of so many members from high-tech business has definitely helped acceptance of these remote branches.” Approximately 70% of all CFCU transactions take place through automated means or the call center. But there is still a segment of the membership that wants to see people eyeball to eyeball. “Those people are very difficult to serve in a very cost-effective way,” Wilson notes. While there are advantages to a tech-savvy membership, the current economic slump has hit the area’s biotechnology and R&D companies. Unemployment in the Research Triangle is 6.1%, pretty close to the national average. The downturn has affected the credit union. A lot of people have been laid off from their high-paying technology jobs. Many of them have found other positions and are currently employed, but they’re not earning the income they were. “Certainly in the collections area we have had to be a little more forbearing. We have to do workouts with a lot of our members. We also have about 50 percent more delinquency. It runs about .6 and we usually run .4. Our charge-offs to average assets are up to about .3 and we’ve been running about .22,” Wilson says. While happy with his career, Wilson does get impatient with government, taxes and bureaucracy. “Sometimes government officials seem unwilling to deal with problems. I’m frustrated we have so much crime and we don’t seem to really put resources behind controlling crime,” he says. But overall, Wilson sounds a positive note. “I’ve been so blessed with opportunity,” he declares. -

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