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OLYMPIA, Wash. – It isn’t surprising when Kevin Foster-Keddie, president/CEO of Washington State Employees Credit Union, finds a resume tucked under the windshield wiper of his car as he returns to a supermarket parking lot after some shopping. After all, WSECU employees are content enough that during one six-month period last year the credit union didn’t lose a single teller. Employee retention runs in the 85 to 90% range. A lot of that is owed to the CU’s benefits such as paid health insurance and a retirement plan. “I was just at our new employee orientation talking to employees,” Foster Keddie says. “I was talking about the fact people really want to work here, and three of them said, `I’ve been trying to trying to get a job here for years.’” As compared to traditional marketing, WSECU emphasizes employee training. In addition, business development representatives spend a lot of time in front of state employees, teachers and others in the field-of-membership that includes county, city and school employees as well as state workers. The representatives go to work sites to offer one-on-one personal contact. “That works pretty well for us,” Foster-Keddie says. “Normally, if you’re in a meeting like that, a lot of the co-workers sitting there are already members. That co-worker will often turn to a non-member and say, `Yeah, you gotta join. It’s the best thing ever.’” The conventional marketing efforts tend to focus on government employees using the tagline, “You work for Washington. We work for you.” The credit union runs ads highlighting a public employee and what that person has done for the state. The ads tell a story, rather than pushing product. One important outlet is a cable news station that focuses on state politics and legislation. A lot of state employees tune in. WSECU demographics pretty much reflect the overall state population with primarily middle- and lower-middle-income members. Perhaps 9% are in the upper-middle ranks with household income more than $100,000. It’s a relatively young membership, with the average age somewhere in the 30s. One out of every four or five Washington State residents is eligible for WSECU membership, either directly or as a family member. That’s well over a million potential members, so Foster-Keddie sees plenty of potential growth. Membership has indeed been increasing at a healthy 6% a year, so there has been no need to add SEGs or a community charter. What accounts for that growth? “Word of mouth,” Foster-Keddie answers. “Our member loyalty is quite high. We’re in the 99th percentile of all North American companies for customer loyalty. We’re higher than Southwest Airlines, we’re higher than e-Bay, we’re higher than Dell Computer.” Probably the number one challenge, he continues, is maintaining the service level that translates into such strong allegiance. “Our members love us. It’s very difficult to make decisions about where to put branches. We actually have members give us petitions asking us to open branches in different parts of the state. Another challenge is keeping our operating expenses low. As you grow, you don’t want to grow in a way that’s inefficient.” All this doesn’t mean the bar doesn’t keep rising and the credit union can just coast. For example, WSECU recently renovated some branches to improve access for disabled members. The personal experience of a board member sparked that effort. “One of our board members suffered a stroke,” Foster-Keddie explains. “She now uses a wheelchair. As a result of that change in her life, she helped the credit union recognize we needed to change access to our branches. “We’re fortunate we have state employees in our field of membership. We were able to recruit some handicapped people from state agencies who formed a task force. They went out, assessed all our locations and told us what we needed to do. “Some things were simple, some went beyond the ADA requirements. For example, in our home office here we installed a lift elevator because from our parking lot there was just no easy way to get in without going all the way around the building.” WSECU has also been making life a little easier for members whose primary language isn’t English. The need has been increasing. As of 2003, Washington ranked fourth in the nation for the number of newly arrived refugees. In the Seattle office there are employees who speak nine languages. One example is an employee in the accounting department who speaks Vietnamese. Each time one of the 30 or 40 members who spoke only Vietnamese needed help, the employee had to stop what she was doing in order to assist the member. So the credit union contracted with Tele-Interpreters, an over-the-phone translation company that can handle more than 150 foreign languages. WSECU accesses an interpreter through a three-way teleconference with the employee, the member and the interpreter. Another project has involved helping launch First Union of Low Income People, the first credit union chartered in the state in ten years. That credit union is located in Olympia, and there’s talk of organizing others in Seattle and Spokane. Already, through the One Washington Service marque, which with $900 million under management almost equals the credit union in size, WSECU provides mortgage lending, payday lending and member investment services for small and medium-size credit unions. Foster-Keddie started his credit union career as an undergraduate at Reed College in Portland, Ore. “It was literally a one-person credit union,” he recalls. “We had the account cards in a bucket. At the end of the month you took all the cards out of the bucket, added them up, and that provided your balance sheet.” The job actually became available because he was working his way through school as a part-time janitor at a hospital. When Northwest Medical Federal Credit Union was established, the hospital pharmacist approached him and offered the same pay he was earning as a janitor to run the credit union. Foster-Keddie then moved on to Farmers Insurance Group Credit Union in Portland, Ore. Next stop was CEO of the FIGCU home office in Los Angeles, then CEO of Xerox Credit Union for 13 years. After a couple brief periods as CEO at what are now Connecta Credit Union and U.S. Alliance Credit Union, he moved on about five years ago to the CEO job at WSECU. One memory that sticks with Foster-Keddie is his role on the task force pushing for passage of HR 1151. “It was very, very interesting to me to see how the political process worked,” he says. “I was on vacation sleeping in at home when Pete DiSylvester, who has since passed away and was then CEO of Motorola Employees Credit Union, called. My kids woke me up to say Pete was on the phone and wanted to talk to me. ” I got up. I was still groggy and wasn’t really listening to what he said. Something about being in a meeting with NAFCU and CUNA and wanting me to serve on a task force. I knew Pete, so I told him, `If you think it’s a good idea it will be fine.’ “ Then when I got back at my office after vacation the message light on my phone was on. There were 15 messages, all about the task force. I wondered what I had gotten into. It was a lot of work, but it was also a lot of fun. I was so impressed by the Senators, Congressmen and Supreme Court justices. They were very committed, very smart and really wanted to do a good job. It gave me faith in the political process.” -

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