WALLINGFORD, Conn. — Richard Cassello and Lauren Taft, both CEOs of small Connecticut credit unions, know one thing for sure-the industry is not ready to forsake their future.The Connecticut Credit Union League has found success in stemming the tide of small CU mergers with a new vendor-linked support structure. “We’re not saying that we have all the answers, but our program is showing real bottom-line results for the smallest credit unions, which for the longest time have struggled to keep pace and like many have simply chosen the merger route,” declared Anthony Emerson, president/CEO of the Connecticut trade group and architect of the support initiative.For Cassello, manager/CEO of the $15 Wallingford Municipal CU, merger has not been part of the vocabulary ever since it brought in marketing help under the league’s small CU initiative, which emphasizes the strategic value of key services including marketing, compliance and processing.“We never thought we could see a tremendous 30% jump in our loan and product volume because of what Arga did for us,” said Cassello describing a personalized, pinpoint mail promotion of glossy postcards distributed to members with guidance from Arga Marketing, a Branford, Conn. vendor.On its own, it is unlikely his CU could have created the package or pulled off the promotion but with guidance of Arga the postcard campaign generated millions in new energy, fuel and car loans, according to Cassello.Taft, the manager/CEO of the $3 million C.H.H. Credit Union of Torrington, said the league’s focused approach on aiding small CUs via specialized vendors has been “a lifesaver” on compliance, since the CU can now use daily or hourly consulting services and avoid a costlier full-week package.“For a small credit union like ours, we really need the ALM and strategic budgeting help, and in other challenging areas like managing those regulations on third parties,” said Taft. She called Buckley Technology Group, a Norwell, Mass. a “phenomenal help.” Buckley became one of the league’s newest strategic business partners on June 1.While the vendor partnership idea has been around for years at other state leagues, the Connecticut group never instituted a formal program beyond vendor seminars until Emerson, a former Hampden, Maine CU executive and author and lecturer on customer service, got the league CEO job last March.“We have 97 credit unions in Connecticut under $20 million, and I realized early on that getting support for them was a priority,” said Emerson, who adapted a successful Texas league model but added his own refinements, including a dues-reduction system based, in part, on active participation of vendors like Arga and Buckley.Emerson also touted the board’s approval over the summer of a reduction in dues allowing small CUs to take advantage of up to a 5% discount in exchange for a two-year commitment or paying 5% to the new small credit union support fund.“This initiative accomplishes several important goals,” the Connecticut league said. “First, it is a way of rewarding credit unions for a multiyear commitment to the league, which will in turn help the league plan and budget on a longer term basis. Second, it allows credit unions the opportunity to take advantage of a discount, if they so choose.”Third, said Emerson, “it provides a viable funding mechanism for the ongoing support and advocacy” of the small CU support program, which will be formally implemented in January and runs through Dec. 31, 2010.Also lending aid to the small CU program hasbeen Brunswick, Maine, consultant Jay Friedland, head of M&M Consulting, also a strategic partnervendor. M&M is an 11-member firm that has provided key services with compliance answers to any Connecticut CU that subscribes to the league program,said Emerson.“One thing we do is we provide individual access to every credit union and put our answers in writing, which is something not all firms do,” said Friedland. He said the firm also has clients in Maine and New York, but so far other leagues have not adopted the Connecticut model, he said.Kris Van Meter, business development director at Arga, said his firm shares best practices and coaches each credit union “to maximize the effectiveness of each promotion, and on that we’ve seen credit unions that are well prepared to handle the response to a promotional campaign are able to convert a higher percentage of responses.”Regarding the city of Wallingford, Arga recommended the personalized postcards promoting a single service rather than all services in one mailing, as WMFCU had done previously.“The idea,” he said, “was to make it simple, yet grab a members’ attention and quantify, in dollars saved, the benefits of getting a car loan from the credit union. The call to action was also simple: call or visit the credit union to get pre-approved before going to a dealer to purchase a car.”Another critical part of the campaign, he said, was that the design had to be memorable. After considerable discussion, the CU settled on using a squawking seagull mascot and “it’s been a big hit with members ever since.”The first personalized postcards were sent in mid-March and within a week, loan activity increasedand within a few months loan volumes had nearly doubled.–[email protected]

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