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RALEIGH, N.C. — As credit unions digest news of the largest merger ever-Suncoast Schools and GTE Federal-Larry Wilson isn’t terribly surprised.The growing number of large credit unions is “certainly not a bad trend,” he said. In fact, he expects more mergers will occur. While he would like to see fresh charters issued, he acknowledged starting a new credit union today is challenging.As president/CEO of Coastal Federal Credit Union, Wilson has witnessed growth firsthand. When he joined Coastal as what was then general manager almost 35 years ago, the credit union had three employees and $2.7 million in assets. Today the figures are 485 employees and $2.2 billion in assets.But size alone can’t shield a credit union from a troubled economy. Wilson indicated unemployment in the Coastal marketplace has been accelerating, reaching 7.5% in the Raleigh-Durham area. In some parts of North Carolina it has hit 10.0%.Wilson joined many other credit union CEOs in citing uncertainty about the economy as the biggest challenge he currently faces.“We believe in our members and we believe in our economy and our country,” he said. “Yet, with unemployment numbers continuing to grow, we don’t know who is going to be able to repay their loan and who isn’t. With the current increase in savings deposits, we’re not sure there will be enough consumption to drive loan demand to match loans with deposits. There’s a lot of uncertainty.”One impact has been on business lending. As layoffs grow a lot of people are investigating starting businesses.“But we’re being very careful in making sure they have a good business plan and the intelligence and skills to handle a business,” Wilson said. “Of course the No. 1 business that fails, and we get a lot of requests for, is restaurants.”The credit union is also keeping a close eye on branch performance. In late January Coastal announced plans to close four branches.“The branches have been open for about five years. We had an overall goal for deposits in those branches, and they didn’t reach that goal. We had to look at the data, look at growth patterns and decide whether we wanted to continue,” Wilson explained.“We decided we had picked bad locations, and were too far away from where people worked and not close enough to where our target audience lived. Looking at our longer term strategy, we do plan to open a new branch in the Research Triangle area. We’re going to try to exploit the market we already have.”Local press coverage when the closings were announced pointed out the credit union enjoyed a solid year in 2008, adding 18,000 members and increasing assets by $261 million or 14%.Are branches important to members? After all, Coastal was founded to serve IBM employees, who are likely quite tech savvy.“We have a segment, like all financial institutions, who rely on branches. But younger members and the newer members we’re attracting are focused on technology,” Wilson responded.So the credit union has introduced features such as a revamped Web site, www.coastal24.com. Designed after input from focus groups, the site offers members advanced security and single sign-in access to all accounts from checking to credit card.Other technology rolled out in 2008 included express teller, which allows a member at a branch to speak directly to a teller at a central location, using the Internet. From the member’s viewpoint, it has allowed Coastal to expand hours at express teller branches. At the same time, the credit union is able to deal more efficiently with peaks and valleys in traffic at various branches.Wilson noted when power went out for several hours at one branch, battery backup allowed express teller in the vestibule to continue operating while tellers behind the conventional counter found themselves staring at blank computer screens. As costs come down, Coastal envisions express tellers in employer sites or shopping venues.One goal is to deepen member relations to the point where at least 25% of members are using five or more products. Currently there is a lot of single-service activity. To achieve that target, Coastal is focusing on employee engagement with cross selling and an incentive plan.Wilson can certainly be counted among the credit union’s long-time employees. After graduating from North Carolina State University with a degree in economics, he worked for CUNA Mutual, assigned to an area that included Coastal FCU. In 1974 he accepted the top job, then called general manager, at Coastal.Although he considers himself pretty easy-going, he does admit he has a low tolerance for people who don’t take their responsibilities seriously.Off the job, Wilson delights in golf, a hobby he shares with his wife. In fact, he enjoys all sports, and although as a native of the South he didn’t necessarily grow up playing hockey, he has been learning about the game in order to more knowledgeably follow the Carolina Hurricanes in the National Hockey League.He and his wife are also avid dancers.“We’re not quite ready for ‘Dancing with the Stars,’ but we can handle most of the dances popular here in the U.S.,” he quipped.Wilson is pleased with the expansion Coastal has seen since he came on board. He commented on that progress in a statement when the credit union hit $2 billion in assets.“When you’ve been around for more than 40 years, you can achieve this kind of growth,” he said. “Compare that to the average community bank, which is around just over five years before becoming an acquisition target. We’re quite the opposite; we’re committed to be around long-term and plan to continue serving the community for another 40 years.”–[email protected]

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