WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – Building credit union branches in Alaska is an exercise in creative problem solving. “The challenges are all solvable,” said Bill Payton, chief architect of Fairbanks, Alaska-based architect firm Design Alaska. “Colder weather and longer winter problems are easily solved by adding insulation and the grayness of winter is balanced by making sure interior spaces maximize the natural light. It is all about achieving a balance up here.” Design Alaska Vice President of Business Development John Poirrier says a short season also really characterizes the whole construction process in Alaska. “During the construction season we have bountiful daylight and long days so what usually happens is that work is stretched beyond the eight hour day to sometimes 14 hours and decisions are made very rapidly. Decisions normally made within a one-week cycle in our season happen in three days,” said Poirrier. Other challenges range from dealing with permafrost, shipping certain materials and the transportation costs associated with that, to seismic shifts and understanding prevailing wind conditions so branches are designed to protect members from it and subsequent snowdrifts. Easy solutions around such problems can include elements such as winding driveways and heated rooftops, drive-thrus and parking lots. “What is also interesting is that the licensing for architects is more rigorous, and since there are no state building inspectors the architects are expected to do it themselves,” said Emick Howard and Seibert Principal Paul Seibert. “And with regard to credit unions here I think they recognize like other parts of the country the importance of branches it is more difficult there because of the pockets of small communities but the key is to design a branch that will connect with the audience and tap into what is unique about the environment and their membership.” According to data from Callahan and Associates, as of December 2003, there are a total of 78 credit union branches in Alaska, and land and building costs shot up from $61 million in 2002 to $78 million in 2003. “It is such a unique part of the world. You’re in the American frontier surrounded by all this unspoiled land and yet the market is surprisingly progressive and technology oriented,” said Kevin Blair President of design/build firm NewGround. Denali Alaskan Federal Credit Union Vice President of Operations/Financial Services Brit Bolsinger says the market in Alaska can be described in one word-competitive. “I can look out my window and see five financial institutions, not only Alaska USA Federal Credit Union but big bank heavy hitters like Wells Fargo and Key Bank,” said Bolsinger. “I think in the lower 48 states credit unions for a long time took the approach that they’d have that member for life and were almost offended that their members could switch over to the competition. The good news is that the number of credit union members are higher here than the rest of the country and because of the competitive environment we’ve always known that we could lose that member.” That knowledge has sparked many credit unions in the area to launch progressive branch designs. For example, Denali Alaskan FCU did away with the traditional teller line using teller pods instead and included such features as an automated queue, Internet and coffee stations, and a concierge greeter. The entire branch is set up as a “theater-in-the-round” retail environment that Bolsinger says has helped the credit union “walk the talk” of its brand of service that goes “Above and Beyond.” Bolsinger says member reaction since the unveiling of the branch last fall has ranged from “I love it” to “Is there a branch here”. With a recent poll revealing that 90% of members love the branch plans are underway to build two more retail branches bringing the total number of branches to 11 and expand into other markets in the next few years. “We first set up a branch where titles were changed and employees multi-tasked and found that turnover not only dropped considerably but employees were also more excited about what they were doing,” said Bolsinger. “So we decided to do this retail branch and I think the most difficult part was conveying to staff my vision for this branch-the more I talked about no teller lines, staff rotating from greeter to sales positions on the floor -the bigger their eyes got. But after about two months of training and once the branch opened the employees really understood it and have been so enthusiastic. We are really pleased with the results now my only fear is that it will catch on and won’t be as unique anymore.” Over at the largest financial institution in the state Alaska USA Federal Credit Union 12 more branches are soon to be added to its existing 32 including a 92,000 square-foot financial services center. According to Alaska USA FCU Senior Vice President of Marketing Nancy Usera branches are a great way to build member relationships while demonstrating the convenience of banking with the credit union. “For our free standing facilities we try to make them compatible with the environment so they have a similar feel but with the community’s flavor, ” said Usera. Usera adds that the credit union’s in store retail branches are the big hit and have been very successful. “ Being where people shop has worked out really well for us and those branches are an important part of our strategy,” said Usera. “Every store has different square footage and configuration and the greatest challenge has been to put as much member service and sales units in such a small space. The key to success at those branches is being open seven days a week it takes a real commitment to the member’s convenience to make it work otherwise there is no point in executing that type of strategy.” -mdigiovanni@cutimes.com