In 2019, our leadership team and board of directors agreed to a new strategic direction for our branch system that would help us encourage fintech adoption by members in an increasingly digital banking era while maintaining a strong branch presence.
We envisioned a streamlined branch system with smart technology and enough physical space to discuss personal financial lending products such as mortgages, auto loans and personal lines of credit. What we didn’t need was expansive lobbies to accommodate queues of members waiting to make deposits and withdrawals. Even prior to the pandemic, our own member research, national credit union and banking trends, and good old gut instinct informed us about the new role of the branch; namely while smaller, it would still provide members with a personal connection to credit union employees – and physical access to their money.
With the renovation process slated to begin in 2020, we paused to get ahold of ourselves after the shock and reality of the pandemic and its lingering impact began to set in. We acted quickly to put in safety measures for employees and members, adopting a work-from-home strategy when possible – even prior to Michigan’s lockdown – and also closed down one branch that did not have a drive-thru.
While it was not business as usual in many aspects, we were still able to serve our members online and in person, and once we had that under control, we turned our efforts to the planned renovation. Delayed initially by a state moratorium on construction projects from mid-March until late May, we aggressively began the renovation of our headquarters branch in Wyandotte, Mich., in early June. With surprisingly few hiccups, here are some of the salient points of the planning and renovation process.
Enhancing the Member Experience – for Employees Too
Key to the conversations with our architecture and design team was to keep the member experience at the forefront of any design decisions. We also wanted to make the branch look and feel architecturally exciting. Following a theme of a 50’s-style diner prototype, the goal was to emphasize the customer service ethos of a time gone by, showcasing nostalgia and good feelings within a functional space boasting the most modern banking tools available to credit unions. Leading technology, a fun theme and an exhilarating color scheme of blue, orange and green also can’t help but fire up the troops, and we have found that staff who are able to work in the renovated branch are flourishing in their new environment.
While our Wyandotte branch was made into our headquarters and is now larger at 6,400 square feet, the other five branches will be either 800 or 1,200 square feet, depending on the lot size of the branch. Overall, we will be down 21,000 square feet when all renovations are complete. Accordingly, we knew we had to optimize the smaller branch size, and the best way to do that was with a virtual teller platform that will ultimately be available in every branch. It allows members in the lobby or those calling in from their phone or mobile device to connect with a human being employed by Michigan Legacy to provide immediate, personalized service.
In tandem with the downsizing of square footage, we increased our emphasis on mobile and online banking products and introduced an updated mobile app in July that included the video teller. Our strategic plan included a strong push for digital banking products, but the pandemic prompted a more immediate move to online banking, given the added and meaningful physical safety benefit. We had a 38% jump in online banking from March through April alone.
While it was not necessarily tied into the branch renovation component of the strategic plan, we did plan for a branch network-wide replacement of our ATM machines, which began in July. It is a costly effort, but is necessary to replace and upgrade these machines for technology, functionality and user experience reasons. Plain and simple, they just get old!
Expect Delays – and Happy Surprises!
Every renovation project is going to run into some roadblocks. For us, the biggest challenge, besides the shutdown, was the delay in availability of building materials due to supply chain issues. In particular, we used sustainable exterior building panels made in the Netherlands that were delayed in transit in Toronto. These replaceable metal grids, which sound expensive because of their European connection, are actually cost effective due to their ease of replaceability. In all, branch renovation costs may vary based on size and location, but are slated to be priced just under $1 million for the 800-square-foot floorplan. The Wyandotte branch renovation cost $2.7 million because of the extra headquarters space needs, such as the expanded call and video center to assist member/owners, and additional parking – which has always been in high demand.
Here comes the surprise: We were delighted during the demolition project of the branch to discover a photo and cornerstone from the original building dated 1956. We incorporated both into our new branch as a nod to our history and commitment to the Wyandotte community.
Invest In Strategic Planning
The lesson learned for us was to take the planning and commitment required for a meaningful and sustainable strategic plan very seriously. While we would never have anticipated a global pandemic, it is a point of pride for our team that we only had to make a few pivots in the building process and design to meet our branch renovation goal for the first branch project. When we masked up and opened our doors to welcome our Wyandotte members “home” on Dec. 21, 2020, we were one month ahead of our original plan.
Carma Peters President/CEO Michigan Legacy CU Wyandotte, Mich.