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DETROIT – Nearly three years ago, members at Michigan First Credit Union were used to hour-long waits in teller lines and waiting up to a week to hear the status of their loan applications. The credit union faced a possible exodus of members if changes weren’t made soon and implemented quickly, said President/CEO Michael Poulos. “The board felt the changes had to start with top management,” Poulos said. The CU has a storied past. In 1944, with $3.5 million in assets, Michigan First CU – then known as Detroit Teachers Credit Union – was considered very big by industry standards. Chartered in 1926 by nine teachers from a sociology class at Detroit Teachers College, its membership was initially open to Detroit Board of Education employees. Over the next few decades, a series of industry milestones were achieved: in 1960, it became the first credit union in the world to reach $25 million in assets and the first in the state to install a computer. Since 1970, Michigan First CU grew rapidly adding layers of services and products to its offerings along the way. By the late 1990s, assets hovered at $290 million, making it one of the largest credit unions in the state. Then, something started to seriously unravel. As membership grew, service soured, Poulos said. Letters from members complaining about rude service poured in and long lines were the norm. Management didn’t consider the complaints high enough of a priority to address them. The board of directors urged top executives here to make changes but progress was slow, if at all, Poulos said. Frustrated by a lack of commitment to improve member service, the board got rid of most of its top managers – from the president/CEO to several vice presidents and managers – and hired a consultant to run the credit union until new executives were systemically hired, Poulos said. Enter Poulos in 2000. A former president/CEO of Syracuse Postal FCU and three other credit unions, trained in accounting and an MBA graduate, the New York State Credit Union League named him Credit Union Professional of the Year in 1995. “A year prior to my coming here, the board had made some strategic decisions to regain (the credit union’s) greatness,” Poulos said. “The way it was explained to me was they wanted Nordstrom-type service.” That meant immediately identifying five critical areas in dire need of attention: a higher quality of member service; more money towards improving the quality of staff, upgrades in technology and call centers and a new name that would be easier to market. Service standards were established on how long members should wait in line, loan decisions went from two days to less than 10 minutes – with a live person, not automated, Poulos emphasized. More than $40,000 was spent on employee training including $250,000 in 2003. The credit union also converted its computer network to Symitar, a data processor and IT solution provider, installed a new call center, upgraded all of its computers and launched an intranet. “We were literally racing to make up for the last few years,” Poulos said. Probably the most significant change came in April 2001 when the name Detroit Teachers Credit Union, deemed restrictive and a hard sell to potential members, was axed and replaced with Michigan First Credit Union. Its core group is still employees of Detroit Public Schools, Wayne State University, University of Detroit and hundreds of other schools and educational groups in Michigan. Poulos said the credit union went from adding 200 new members each month to 5,000. To accommodate the rapid growth, more drive-thru lanes were added to existing branches and all received a more appealing and contemporary upgrade. The credit union is close to securing a location for its new main office scheduled to open in the first quarter of 2004. By far the most ambitious thrust to woo more members will come through the credit union’s lending programs, Poulos said. The finances were in “good shape regarding ROA” but the credit union was heavily dependent on investment income. Since 2000, Michigan First’s loan-to-share ratio went from 40% to 70% thanks in large part to “aggressive cross sells” in the quest to “get all of (the) members’ business.” Poulos said the credit union is hoping to court people in their 40s (the borrowers) to offset the savers, which tends to be Michigan First average member aged 50. In April 2003, a marketing partnership with LemmonTrees Enterprises Inc. was secured to capture younger members. “We really kept the focus on getting the lending up,” Poulos said. “Within three years, we’re projecting $50 million.” An alliance with Aimbridge Indirect Lending that summer linked members with more than 100 car dealers to get the best financing. The credit union has also expanded its indirect lending program to boats. Nearly $15 million in new loans have been secured through indirect lending programs, Poulos said. A home banking program with Digital Insight resulted in 12,000 members signing on. Six Wincor Nixdorf enhanced ATMs that cash and deposit checks and provide cash and coins will be installed by the end of the year. The upcoming year will also see a variety of checking account additions, enhancing the credit union’s credit card program and continued penetration of the existing field of membership. In addition to four full-service branches, Michigan First has three student-run branches with plans to add three more in area schools. Six months after Poulos arrived, a shift could be seen from shorter lines to fewer complaints from members. “The entire management at the top had been removed,” he said. “It was hard for some employees at first because some of the (top) people had been there for years but very few changes had been made in over 15 years.” It took nearly 18 months to hire new management and middle managers. In spite of its disarray with member service, the state’s regulator never had to step in and take control, Poulos said. Every decision made was purely board-driven. “If the board of directors had not made some courageous decisions, we wouldn’t be where we are now,” Poulos said. “But management needed to by into it and it wasn’t easy at times.” With the rapid-fire changes made in a short amount of time, Poulos kept assuring the 150 employees that they would be happy with the results. “I told them that we were going to get fewer complaints, members were going to be proud to call Michigan First their credit union,” he said. “The majority of employees started to buy into it.” Today, the credit union has 65,000 members, $350 million in assets and is ranked fifteenth in the state. [email protected]

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