LANCASTER, Pa. — In a county with roughly 13 credit unions and eight of those under $15 million in assets flagging every single operational penny, Lanco Federal Credit Union felt the timing could not be better to offer a solution for those wanting to enter the small business marketplace.

The $46 million credit union has launched Vision One, a CUSO that will offer business loan and loan participation policies, risk analysis and risk rating services to credit unions with $50 million in assets and up. For those interested, the new provider will also help establish a lineup of business service products.

“We’re reaching out to smaller credit unions in our community through the collaborative approach,” said Barb Fortney, president/CEO of Lanco. “A lot of credit unions in the industry are small with limited assets. If we have the services to offer, why not help them establish business relationships.”

To make it economical, Vision One has developed a program for credit unions under $50 million in assets that can pay a $350 monthly fee for a customized business loan policy and an accompanying participation policy, said Barry Ashenfelder, executive vice president of Lanco and chairman of Vision One. The CUSO will also do up to five risk analyses within the first year of the contract. The offer is limited to the end of 2008.

So far, Vision One, which launched Aug. 1, has three clients. Two are doing business and participations loans while the other has implemented a holiday loan marketing plan, Fortney said. Future services may include compliance support and policy refining.

“There’s so much going on with technology and changes in the industry. This is an alternative to credit unions having to merge,” Ashenfelder explained.

The 30-year banking veteran knows of what he speaks. Starting out as a teller early in his career, Ashenfelder worked his way up to CEO of a bank, a post he held for 10 years before the financial institution was acquired. He made the transition to the CU movement where he established a business service program and CUSO at another credit union. After running his consulting firm for a few years, Ashenfelder’s career path landed him at Lanco.

“Credit unions remind me of the smaller, independent banks,” he said. “They had long-range thinking and were able to provide long-term planning. The [banks now] have such a short-range thinking process.”

Fortney said there are “banks of every size and shape everywhere” in Lancaster County, but credit unions are not worried about them and being able to compete. There are approximately 13 credit unions here with a residential population of just under 500,000. Three have community charters and roughly four fall in the $45 million asset range, she noted.

Fortney said that while competition among the credit unions is healthy, there is also a collaborative spirit. She recalled how a prominent Hispanic community leader approached Lanco with the idea of launching a radio education program to reach the county’s Spanish-speaking residents. The $25,000 annual fee proved too steep. By calling on some of her credit union colleagues, Fortney was able to get a grant for half that amount to form the Lancaster Consortium of Credit Unions, a financial literacy project.

“So, we’re used to collaborating. The atmosphere was more like ‘we can come together to support the Hispanic community,’” Fortney said.

Given the instability in the financial landscape now, Ashenfelder and Fortney agree, as some in the industry do, that a window is wide open.

“In some cases, participations are less risky than traditional loans,” Ashenfelder said. “You have a second set of eyes looking at everything. In most cases, the loans have been on the books for some time so you have a payment history there.”

Fortney was blunter.

“Credit unions need loans. This is a good opportunity now. You don’t want to sit there and do nothing.”

–msamaad@cutimes.com