SACRAMENTO, Calif. – Henry Wirz, president/CEO of SAFE Credit Union, agrees with many others in the Billionaires Club that once you’ve hit the first billion, the second comes even more rapidly. It’s basic math, he points out. “Assuming we continue our asset growth at 15 percent a year, you’re working off a bigger base. We’re also fairly confident that as we add branches and stature in the community, that name recognition makes it easier for people to find us and have confidence in joining us.” Wirz has occupied the president/CEO’s office at SAFE for more than 20 years. After earning an MBA from the University of California at Berkley, he joined Coopers and Lybrand and found himself auditing credit unions, including SAFE. At the same time, he joined Sacramento Central Credit Union and became a member of their supervisory committee. In 1979 he accepted a job as comptroller of SAFE. Five years later he became the CEO. Originally chartered as a federal credit union to serve McClellan Air Force Base, SAFE converted to a state charter when McClellan closed in 1995. Its community charter now covers 12 counties. “I regret we didn’t get a community charter sooner,” Wirz says. “I think to an extent the old field of membership sheltered credit unions. While being a community credit union is much more challenging, it has made us a better organization and has made it more possible for us to serve the underserved than we could before.” As SAFE reaches out to a broader group, what attracts members? “We think what draws members is our convenient branch locations,” Wirz says. “All of our branches are full-service operations open extended hours and six days a week. The branches are all in great locations either near grocery stores or on key routes as people go to and from work.” Those prime spots aren’t invisible to the competition. In fact, Wirz says large banks have become very interested in retail banking, and it’s not unusual to see Bank of America or Wells Fargo in the same shopping center as the credit union. SAFE’s mystery shoppers visit those banks as well as the credit union’s own branches. “We are finding the big banks have dramatically improved their service quality,” Wirz says. “At one time we all took great joy in the American Bankers Association survey which indicated consumers found credit unions offer the best service and value. Well, we’re not measuring value but we are measuring service. The banks are still behind us but they are closing the gap. “We try to put up new branches in brand new neighborhoods so that as people move in they can begin a relationship with a new financial institution. We’ve been backing that up with very extensive radio advertising. We also sponsor a lot of community events that keep us in front of the public.” One example – a home remodeling contest based on a popular cable television show. Last year the event featured “Mars versus Venus.” Two teams, one entirely of women and the other “men only,” swarmed into two homes in the same Sacramento neighborhood to see who could do the best job of remodeling the family rooms. The result was not only a couple spiffed-up homes but a lot of publicity for SAFE and its home equity and home remodeling loans, which Wirz says got “a big boost.” News media did a before and after profile, and a block party hosted by the credit union for the unveiling of the refurbished rooms drew a television news crew and several radio talk show hosts. While the home remodeling contest was intended to be a fun event, SAFE has been pursuing another effort that doesn’t have anyone laughing. The credit union employs a full-time loss prevention staff that identified potential risks of some $20,000 in 2002. In 2003 the number jumped to $2.4 million, and it pushed $3 million last year. Wirz cites one example of how the loss prevention program works. “We detected that when some of our members were using their debit cards someone was stealing their identity and taking money out of their accounts. Our loss prevention team was able to identify that was occurring primarily at Circle K locations. They helped police build a case against the counter clerks who were skimming the cards members presented. “We got together with all the other financial institutions whose customers were affected. When we first went to the police and other authorities they looked at our losses and it didn’t seem to be a very big deal. But when we presented a unified picture of what was happening, the Secret Service became involved. The people responsible were arrested.” Like the credit union itself, Wirz is heavily involved in the community. He’s been a board member of Consumer Credit Counseling and a local credit bureau. He’s currently a member of a regional foundation that provides grants to local charities. His hobbies include golfing, fly fishing, cycling, listening to classical music and reading. He’s also found himself a member of the “sandwich generation” juggling responsibility for two generations. He and his wife have a son and daughter attending the University of California, one in Davis, the other in Santa Barbara. He and his wife, a teacher, are also helping care for his wife’s parents. Wirz has some definite feelings about issues facing credit unions. “As we become more and more businesslike and more and more professional, sometimes I’m concerned that we find ourselves on the wrong side of consumer issues,” he says. “Credit unions are leading the charge on bankruptcy reform, and I sometimes wonder why. I don’t see bankruptcy as a huge issue for credit unions, but consumers are very concerned that the tables not get turned so much in favor of the lender that consumers are hurt. Most of the bankruptcy problems are being caused by the large monoline credit card companies that are more interested in profit than they are in helping people get out of debt. That’s not a credit union problem, that’s a credit card company problem, yet we’re helping them solve the problem.” He also speaks out about mergers. “Credit unions would be far better institutions if it were easier to merge and aggregate. We have far too many credit unions that are not meeting the needs of their members due to the lack of incentives to merge and take care of that. They’re hanging on way beyond their useful life. After a time that will begin to color the public perception, because we all have the same last name – `credit union.’” – [email protected]

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