Continuity Planning Source: Shutterstock.

The ability to react in emergency mode rapidly is often the byproduct of a well thought out plan, as was the case for the $596 million, Clarksville, Tenn.-based Fortera Credit Union.

The planning in this case started well before the coronavirus crisis began. "We had been building toward this for the last five years," Jennifer Ventimiglia, EVP and COO for Fortera, said. Part of the credit union's strategic plan was to build toward a remote work environment for business continuity purposes and, because it has a CUSO, offer support to smaller credit unions, if needed.

"We did a complete forklift upgrade of our network and phone system," Ventimiglia emphasized. "We didn't do it for the pandemic obviously, but for business continuity purposes. I don't think any of us ever expected we were going to get tested in the way that we are being tested." To set up Fortera to shift quickly to a remote environment, the credit union evaluated systems in place, selected new vendors that were easy to deal with and offered some cloud-based technology, and created a stockpile of laptops that were ready to deploy right away.

Jasmin Gammel, vice president of technology, said, "We have up to 45 employees who have laptops. As equipment life cycles renewed, we would look and say, 'What do we need in a disaster scenario?' The laptop made the most sense. That provided us with that flexibility."

Ventimiglia recalled Fortera started planning early for the coronavirus crisis by holding meetings with credit union leaders and stakeholders in late February 2020 and early March. "We knew we had the capabilities to work remotely, but we hadn't actually tested the systems yet." Especially at peak call times.

They worked on getting laptops deployed and setting up every employee who could work remotely. Then on March 10, they tried to strain and break the system. They could not. "It really did go off without a hitch." Instead of just a test, it turned into a trial run for its permanent implementation just days later.

The contact center went 100% remote out of an abundance of caution, Ventimiglia said. However, by the following week they decided everyone who could work remotely would. "We ended up turning this around pretty quickly because things moved so fast." The credit union repurposed employees from closed branches to act as backup contact center support.

Their continuity planning developed from what Ventimiglia described as Fortera's challenges with an end-of-life phone system and getting everyone comfortable with the idea of employees working remotely. "Part of the five-year plan was to have the technology to enable us to never interrupt member service and show the board we don't lose productivity." Ventimiglia pointed out over time they built a lot of trust and rapport with the board and, because the credit union is very metrics driven, demonstrated the system's capabilities.

"I'm sure you've heard from other credit unions where they've got hold times upwards of an hour. Ours on average for the month of March was one minute and nine seconds," Ventimiglia said.

Gammel noted all of its branches, except one in-store location, are open. "Members are able to conduct any type of business through the drive-thru." In addition, Fortera has seen a significant increase in mobile check deposit, a service some members were reluctant to use prior to the virus crisis.

The credit union also went fully remote and online for all of its lending processes. "When you tell people they can't come into the building, suddenly we're able to figure out ways we can actually serve our members in a completely remote environment," Ventimiglia said.

"Strategy and vision, that's great," Ventimiglia maintained. "If it were not for this team of people that we have, the vision isn't really anything."

In addition to its phone system overhaul five years ago, Fortera began executing a paperless strategy but needed vendors that were able to support that environment. Ventimiglia indicated its core provider Symitar, from the Monett, Mo.-based Jack Henry & Associates, was incredibly supportive in helping the credit union go paperless, choose vendors that work the best with the Episys core and plan for today's disaster recovery-type needs.

Fortera has also leaned on its relationship with the Rancho Cucamonga, Calif.-based CO-OP Financial Services, which normally provided after-hours and overflow contact center support, and now supplies 24/7 coverage; and the CO-OP Shared Branch network to service distant members.


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Roy Urrico

Roy W. Urrico specializes in articles about financial technology and services for Credit Union Times, as well as ghostwriting, copywriting, and case studies. Also: writer/editor of a semi-annual newsletter for Association for Financial Technology since 1997 and history projects funded by the U.S Interior Department, National Park Service and Warren County (N.Y.).