By Aaron Pugh
For a few months every year, bone-chilling weather is a fact of life in Minnesota. Average winter temperatures in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul typically hover around zero degrees Fahrenheit, according to Weather.com, but the lowest temperature ever recorded for the region was an astounding 41 degrees below zero back in 1888. And in 2010, a record snowfall even caused the partial collapse of the roof of the iconic Minneapolis Metrodome.
Despite its wintry obstacles, the region works and plays no matter what the thermometer reads. And from spring to fall, the community comes alive as agriculture thrives, tourism booms, and patrons of the arts, die-hard sports fans, and outdoor adrenaline junkies all flock to their respective venues.
Perhaps the best-known tourist destination in Minneapolis is the Mall of America — a shrine to retail therapy that covers 4.2 million square feet, houses more than 500 stores, and includes an indoor rollercoaster. But locals know of another important pillar in the community; one that doesn’t show up in visitors’ guidebooks.
For roughly eight decades, generations of Twin Cities residents have come to a cooperative institution now known as SPIRE Federal Credit Union ($596.7M, Falcon Heights, MN) for their financial needs.
SPIRE’s history stems from the financial aftermath of the Great Depression, when a man named Edgar Archer grew tired of being bounced from one bank to another in search of a loan. Concerned that existing financial institutions were either refusing people outright or charging exorbitant double-digit fees that created more financial woes than they solved, Archer and six colleagues banded together to solve the issue themselves. In 1934, with a $50 loan infusion to get the cooperative on its feet, Twin City Oil Co-Ops Credit Union was born.
The next 70 years brought a progressive stream of organic growth complemented by strategic mergers with Ellerby Company Employees Credit Union in 1960 and Pioneer Plus Credit Union in 2001. The credit union proved its dedication to member service and technology when it became one of the first Minnesota financial institutions to offer online banking in 1996 and was also the first in the state to offer instant issuance debit cards in 2006.
In 2008, the cooperative rebranded, transitioning from its original moniker to the name SPIRE Federal Credit Union, a name meant to signify the journey of both members and the institution toward their financial summit. Yet the arrival of the Great Recession ensured this new brand’s climb to the top would not be easy.
“We had hit a period where everything was going hunky dory and we, as an organization, were probably too complacent,” says Jim Taglia, a board member at SPIRE for the past 13 years. “The economy woke us up. It pointed out those things we probably should have thought about a lot better at the time we did them. “
In 2009, the credit union lost roughly $11.5 million, partly related to economic complications in its previously burgeoning MBL portfolio. Later that year, longtime CEO John Gisler left the organization. Economic demands fostered an immediate belt tightening, and SPIRE developed better financial reporting processes — such as branch scorecards — to quantify and justify each aspect of its operation. “We needed to be able to put exact numbers to every single service and loan,” says Dan Stoltz, who joined the credit union in 1999 as the chief financial officer. Stoltz served as an interim leader following Gisler’s exit before becoming the full-time CEO in 2010.
As a new leader taking the helm during a period of turmoil, Stoltz had to immediately address myriad financial challenges, yet after cutting nearly $3 million in expenses, SPIRE and its membership emerged from the recession relatively unscathed. Rather than returning to old habits, Stoltz and his team learned from the recession. They re-examined each component of SPIRE’s business model — people and processes, marketing and brand development, loan and income strategies, nothing was off limits — to determine how the credit union could turn previous weaknesses into its most important strengths.
The credit union’s journey of self-examination is just beginning, but early results indicate SPIRE is indeed on an upward climb toward new heights.
By 2010, the credit union had returned to well-capitalized status and had hit a record of nearly $2 million in income after corporate assessments. It topped this achievement with two more earnings records in the years following — including $2.4 million in income earned in 2011 and $4.6 million as of 2Q 2013. SPIRE expects to end this year with a capital level of more than 8% and aims to achieve a capital level of 10% within 10 years.
“A growing balance sheet eats into your net worth, so we’re trying to take a measured approach in that,” says Stan Edwards, executive vice president. “At the same time, we’ve been reasonably aggressive in trying to get new deposit accounts.”
Although much has changed in the past three years at SPIRE, Edgar Archer’s dream of creating a financial institution that is open to all has once again taken center stage. Now that it has a clear path for measured, strategic growth, as well as the financial and cooperative resources to make that vision a reality, the credit union is reentering the community in a big way.
“In difficult environments, like the one we are in now, people are not as complacent about their relationships,” Stoltz says. “This is when credit unions really get the opportunity to shine.”
As a result of the environment, SPIRE has taken a different route than what it was doing before. It is more aggressive in its marketing and in sharing its value proposition.
With 147 employees, 10 branches, and more than 64,000 members, the SPIRE brand has grown in both size and scope to be the fourth-largest credit union in the Twin Cities region. It has achieved 50% checking account penetration — which is a valuable indicator the institution is a member’s primary financial institution — and new offerings such as merchant services, credit cards cobranded with other cooperatives, and mobile apps are continually expanding the definition of what the credit union can be.
“Prior to joining SPIRE, I was on The Cooperative Foundation board,” Stoltz says. “The value of being a cooperative resonates with me, and we’ve had some chances to do great things with others as a result of this model.”
For example, as both an income strategy and a way to give back, SPIRE now consults on balance sheet issues for six other credit unions. Three of these formerly troubled institutions have since been removed from the prompt corrective action status imposed by NCUA prior to their work with SPIRE.
“We’ve gone from being an institution that was scrutinized to helping other credit unions and being a model for those in our market on how to correct certain issues,” Stoltz says.
As he looks toward the future, Stoltz makes it clear SPIRE is not looking for growth. Rather, it’s looking for the strategic, measured performance that creates long-term excellence.
“We want to become the best financial institution in the state of Minnesota, not necessarily the biggest,” he says.
October 9, 2013
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