NEW YORK – Given its diverse membership base, $1.8 billion UNFCU is confident its recent alliance with Raymond James Financial Services, Inc. will provide the muscle to expand its investment division and serve member needs no matter where they are in the world. The credit union, which serves employees of the United Nations and affiliated agencies, converted its investment division to Raymond James on Jan. 2. After an exhaustive search of other firms, the credit union decided to align with the money management firm for its comprehensive array of products and services, business model flexibility, technology and international presence, said Steve Ryerson, vice president of financial services at UNFCU. Raymond James manages more than $20 billion in assets. “We have an incredibly unique membership with approximately 63,000 members in 210 countries,” Ryerson said. “While we have a high penetration in the U.S., our fastest growth will come from overseas. We certainly understand our need to be global in nature (when it comes to investment services).” Ryerson said 50% of UNFCU’s membership is based in the United States but are not necessarily U.S. citizens, a point worth noting since investment information dispensed to members through its liaison offices in Vienna, Geneva and Nairobi, include data pertinent to those areas. More than 4,000 members are served in Vienna, 3,300 in Geneva and since its launch in April 2003, Nairobi’s office serves nearly 1,200 members. UNFCU also has separate member service toll-free numbers in 19 countries. Having a member base that has a multicultural makeup poses some “interesting challenges” but ones UNFCU is eager and prepared to meet, Ryerson said. Indeed, some members encounter complex legal, tax and estate planning issues and many are G-4 visa or U.S. green card holders. As a result, referrals to firms that have an international focus are critical, he emphasized. More than 50% are technologically savvy and conduct transactions on UNFCU’s Web site. One limitation that the credit union experienced with its previous third-party broker-dealer is little control over the management of the online investment site, Ryerson said. A temporary site went live in January and an enhanced UNFCU Investment Centre site is scheduled to go up by the end of June. Ryerson said because many of UNFCU’s members have questions about retirement concerns, a significant portion of the site will be devoted to that topic. “It was a huge issue for us to be able to have control over building the site,” Ryerson said. While UNFCU has been providing investment services to its members since 1997, the new `centre’ now makes available “the financial planning advice, products and quality service that one would expect from a large investment banking firm with the integrity, attention to detail and personal service to which its members are accustomed,” said Michael Connery, UNFCU president/CEO. UNFCU Financial Services serves 1,700 members and manages $40 million in assets. To that end, four of the Investment Centre’s advisors are bilingual and two are trilingual, Ryerson pointed out. All are currently based in New York and since Raymond James has an office in the United Kingdom, plans are being considered to have a more European-based placement there later this year. “We took a hard look at five to six other firms,” Ryerson said. “In a perfect world, I would have found a global provider. Raymond James has that global presence.” The firm also has a trust services division, which UNFCU is considering, he added. Members needing those services now may be referred to Raymond James or another firm. Since the alliance was launched, the credit union has also received an inquiry to offer private banking services – another area under exploration. Ryerson said he’s talked to a number of international companies that have private banking capabilities and expects UNFCU’s initial entry to come through a third-party firm. UNFCU Financial Services was also recently licensed as an insurance broker in New York. Meanwhile, members around the globe are gravitating to investment Webinars and phone conferences, Ryerson said. Two seminars were held in Vienna last October and more than 90 people attended. When conversion packages went out to members earlier this year, UNFCU was overwhelmed by phone queries about the process, Ryerson said. With assistance from the “member directed services department,” additional support came through UNFCU’s 30-employee call center to walk members through the conversion. With 25 years of investment experience and the bulk of his career spent on Wall Street, Ryerson said this is probably the first time he’s received rousing support to move forward with such an ambitious undertaking. Ryerson came to UNFCU in June 2003. “Its support is unlike any I’ve ever seen in my career, there’s no barriers,” Ryerson said, adding all that the credit union has accomplished has been through a collaborative effort. -msamaad@cutimes.com