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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – When Bill Birdwell arrived at Southeast Corporate three years ago he found a corporate with a lot of holes in its product and service menu. Today not only are those holes gone, but the $3.9 billion corporate offers a number of innovative products that other corporates don’t. “We’re at a point now where we no longer have to play defense. In the corporate (credit union) world today you have to decide to either partner or compete on different things,” said Birdwell. Southeast Corporate has taken a path of both partnering and competing. For example on the partnering side it has formed a CUSO with Georgia Central CU for data processing with Open Solutions Inc. The two corporates will be processed out of a Southeast facility located in Jacksonville, Florida. Southeast went against the grain a bit by selecting OSI, given that U.S. Central selected Symitar to be the new core provider of its system. Southeast is also now a co-agent of the popular SimpliCD offered by a corporate network owned CUSO, and has partnered with nearby corporates on asset liability products. The corporate has become more partner-oriented under Birdwell, but make no mistake, Southeast Corporate is competitive – it has to be based on the aggression it’s facing, says Birdwell. “Everyone wants to go to Florida. It’s a fertile market that has not historically been well served. Everyone is taking a shot at it,” he said. He cited Southwest Corporate as the biggest threat, but also WesCorp, Corporate One, and VolCorp as corporates that he sees going after Southeast’s members. Birdwell,58, believes a little bit of destiny brought him to Southeast to fend off that competition by making the corporate better. “I really think the reason I’m here is what’s going on in the corporate world today. They used to play in their own backyards with high fences around them. Those fences have been dismantled and there’s no longer a limited field-of-membership,” said Birdwell. Southeast has also picked up other corporates’ members. “We have members all over the country now. We expect more to come to us, but we’re not actively going after them yet. We want to first focus on being the best there is in the Southeastern part of the country,” he said. Birdwell has made it easier for credit unions to join Southeast by dropping the investment level required for membership. Filling the Holes One of Birdwell’s first orders of business upon arrival in 2001 was to get Southeast into the item processing game. Though the corporate has been among the top 10 largest corporates for years, it never ventured into item processing. Birdwell turned that around very quickly. He arrived in March, but didn’t fully accept the CEO reigns until July. By August the corporate was signing item processing deals with its members. “We now have close to 150 credit unions using us,” he said, and it is processing $10 million a month worth of share drafts. Item processing is a perfect example of where other corporates have attempted to pick up business from Southeast’s members. Southwest Corporate has an item processing facility in Jacksonville, Florida, located just minutes from Southeast’s facility. Birdwell said item processing isn’t a money maker for corporates any more, but it’s important as a relationship builder. “Item processing is a very mature, low margin business. We’re not going to make a lot of money on it, but it’s a service credit unions need. For us it’s more of a defensive strategy instead of offensive.” On the offensive end are innovative things like business services. Southeast launched Member Business Solutions, LLC earlier this year to get it into the business services game. “We want to offer the services so that a credit union can go to its small businesses and say `we want to replace Bank of America.’ We want them to have all the services that businesses need,” he said. Southeast Corporate also introduced ALMonitor last year, and it’s getting noticed by other corporates. ALMonitor is specifically for credit unions that don’t have a very complex balance sheet. The product is fully automated with Southeast downloading the reports directly from NCUA that are needed to generate specific CU reports. Georgia Central and First Carolina have already partnered with Southeast to offer this product to their members. Also, for more complex balance sheets, Southeast launched corpAnalytics. Investments weren’t a major part of Southeast’s offering prior to Birdwell. The corporate now offers broker/dealer service through a partnership with U.S. Central’s ISI subsidiary and Birdwell hopes to get expanded investment authorities from NCUA. Right now it has Base Plus authority, but will be applying for powers 1,2 and 4. Another service Birdwell brought to the table is custom consulting. The corporate will go to any of its members and offer detailed analysis on just about anything a credit union needs, whether it be regulatory in nature, competitive in nature or some other area. Birdwell describes the financial side of it as giving credit unions a part-time CFO they can call on whenever they want. The consulting also covers strategic planning, charter conversion analysis, and training. He said it’s a service that really makes the corporate a partner in its members’ future. Birdwell likes technology for the time and money savings it can bring. “Most of our services are on the Internet now,” he said. For example there is corpCash, a point-of-entry cash ordering system delivered on the date requested, and corpSafe, Web-based security safekeeping that allows credit unions to monitor their portfolios online with current investment data. The corporate encourages members to use the Internet channel. Case in point, if members invest in their Funds Plus account online, they get one basis point more than if they invested the old-fashioned way. Birdwell said large CUs are obviously tech savvy with most of their products online, but he doesn’t want Southeast to be geared only to large, sophisticated credit unions. “You have to make it easier for even the smallest credit unions to do business with you,” he said. None of the corporate’s forward progress would be possible without what Birdwell describes as a top-notch staff. But it’s here where Birdwell has made one of the most dramatic changes since taking over. When he arrived in 2001, the corporate had a staff of 22 – today it has close to 90. “We’ve been real fortunate to attract some very high quality staff. I feel good about staffing, the senior and intermediate levels,” he said. Two areas that were really beefed up are public relations/communications and member relations. Southeast has attracted staffers from VolCorp, his old stomping ground, and CNBS. With more employees, comes the need for more space. Birdwell hopes to move the corporate into a much larger facility, that it will likely build, in Tallahassee by 2005. The new building will be part of the corporate’s new image under Birdwell. In 2001 it launched a new logo and brand that Birdwell hopes depicts a modern corporate. He said when he arrived Southeast didn’t even really have a logo. Birdwell’s financial career started at a finance company. He remembers very well that the customer service didn’t seem appropriate for people having concerns about their money. “We handled complaints with some 50 form letters we had. I didn’t agree with how they handled their customer service,” said Birdwell. Birdwell eventually made it into credit unions. His first credit union job was with the Texas CU League where he was part of a two-year training program for MBAs. Then Southwest Corporate CEO John Arnold invited Birdwell to take a position at Southwest as an assistant manager. He stayed there for about five years. He then moved to VolCorp as CEO where he was brought in to turn things around. “I was recruited to an organization that was insolvent. It had a 21% deficit with -6% net worth. I couldn’t imagine that happening today. We were uninsured. All the credit unions were withdrawing their membership,” said Birdwell. It was then Birdwell saw how the credit union industry could join forces to help out an organization in need. “The whole corporate network got together and loaned us $21 million at the same rate their assets were earning. I developed a three-year plan. By June 30, 1985 we had positive $695 net worth. It was real interesting because having an organization that is insolvent it’s hard to get credit unions to invest,” said Birdwell. The only way to do it he said, was by catering to members. VolCorp did just about anything to build relationships. “In those days we were even building PCs and selling them. We were the first to set up a LAN and communicate electronically with credit unions,” he said. Ironically, Birdwell made a push for a merger between VolCorp and Southeast while he was VolCorp’s CEO. “I thought I built a persuasive case. I thought it made sense,” he said, noting that under his proposal he wasn’t even going to be the CEO. Today he said that merger probably wouldn’t make sense based on the strength of both corporates. As Southeast’s CEO Birdwell has tried to close at least one merger, with Corporate America CU, but the deal fell through. Birdwell moved to WesCorp in 1996 as COO. Over 400 employees reported to him and it was there where he really learned how a big corporate operates. “I would never have gotten the experience of a large organization. Everyone except internal audit, public affairs and the office of the president reported to me,” said Birdwell who said WesCorp is one of the strongest corporates in the country in terms of what it offers members. Birdwell is certainly not an open book when it comes to his personal life, but he did share some interesting tidbits from his military days as an Air Force Pilot. For instance he went through pilot training in the Air Force with none other than President George W. Bush (see photo). “We were in the same flight squadron, and were flying partners for a while. He was a nice guy. The thing I recall most about him is he knew sports trivia more than anyone I’ve known. He could spout off statistics like who had the most triples in 1974,” said Birdwell. Birdwell served in the Vietnam War, spending 53 weeks in Southeast Asia. He piloted KR 135 SR71′s, which were large refueling planes about the size of a 707 said Birdwell. He planned to fly commercially once out of the military but said it felt too much like “being a bus driver.” Birdwell is a native of Texas, but his father’s work as a Methodist minister meant a lot of movement around the country. As far as the Southeast job goes, Birdwell doesn’t plan on moving any time soon. “Unless somebody removes me, I’m not moving.” [email protected]

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