A New Brand, A Consistent Mission

Element Federal Credit Union demonstrates how small cooperatives can successfully lead their members, their communities, and the cooperative system forward.

 
 

For years, the story of West Virginia was written literally in stone. Much of the state’s history was tied to an abundant coal reserve more than 300 million years in the making, and generations of families devoted themselves to harnessing this precious natural resource, which fueled the engines of progress in a rapidly industrializing America.

Although no one can deny that the strong roots formed in the state’s early mining days — determination, independence, inventiveness, and a loyalty to friends, family, and the community — live on, these traits are taking the state in a number of vibrant new economic directions including a boom in tourism, medical services, network and data communications, and aerospace engineering.

CU QUICK FACTS

  • Element Federal Credit Union
  • HQ: Charleson, WV
  • Assets: $26.6M
  • Members: 4,542
  • Branches: 70
  • 12-Month Loan Growth: 5.68%
  • ROA: 0.56%

Follow those country roads made famous by John Denver (and later made funkier by reggae band Toots and the Maytals) and you’ll likely find yourself in Charleston, the history-filled state capital, home of the mighty Kanawha River, and headquarters of Element Federal Credit Union ($26.6M, Charleston, WV).

Previously known as WV United Federal Credit Union, this rapidly growing institution has established a reputation for itself by going against the grain when there’s a clear advantage in doing so.

Established in 1978 to serve the state’s Department of Welfare, which later became the Department of Health and Human Resources, the original credit union was located in the State Capitol Complex. In 1998, when current CEO Linda Bodie took the helm, the institution had just $2 million in assets and three employees.

“It’s grown and evolved so much in the 15 years that I’ve been here,” Bodie says. “It’s not anything I ever expected, but I’m glad that it happened.” The institution had started out as a single select employee group charter, then converted to a multi-SEG, and eventually gained low-income designation, which allowed it to serve a large portion of the community along with state employees locally and throughout West Virginia.

MARKET QUICK FACTS: CHARLESTON, WV
Population: 51,177
Persons Under 18:  20.1%
Persons 65 and Over:  16.1%
Median Age:  41.3
Percent of Current Population Born In State:  71.1%
High School Graduation Rate:  90.1%
Bachelor’s Degree Attainment Rate:  37.8%
Medium Household Income (Annual):  $46,004
Unemployment Rate:  7.5%
Percentage of Persons Below Poverty Rate:  16.4%
Homeownership Rate:  61.2%  

Source: United States Census Bureau State & Country QuickFacts

The in-house development of the first remote deposit capture app for the iPhone, even before large national players like USAA, helped put the credit union on the radar of cooperative innovators and technology enthusiasts as well as drive a surge of new membership interest throughout the state. But despite years of rapid-fire growth in both public awareness and key financial performance metrics, in 2012, the institution risked its established reputation to undergo a substantial brand revamp.

“There’s a lot of diversity here and it’s a friendly place. But we had historically dealt with a closed membership and a close-knit group of people,” Bodie says. “While we’re still serving our state members, we also needed to find ways to expand and serve more people so we could continue to grow the credit union.”

After hiring a local marketing firm to interview focus groups and analyze the credit union’s standing in the community, it became clear that the WV United name was not easily recognizable for potential members, nor distinguishable from the myriad other financial institutions in the area. “Other credit unions and banks have West Virginia in their name. People confuse us all the time, and if we’re going to go forward and better define who we are, we needed a name that represented that,” Bodie says.

TOP FIVE OCCUPATIONS
1. Management, business, science, and arts (30.7%)
2. Sales and office (24.7%)
3. Service (18.4%)
4.
Production, transportation, and material moving (13.4%)
5. Natural resources, construction, and maintenance (12.8%)

Source: United States Census Bureau State & Country QuickFacts

After taking a gamble with a marketing budget nearly quadruple the amount set aside in previous years, the cooperative built a new brand identity from the ground up, and Element Federal Credit Union was born.

Today, Element represents the evolution of a fresh, friendlier way to handle cooperative financial service, emphasizing openness, intuitiveness, and accessibility through efficient delivery channels. From the moment members steps into the institution’s main headquarters or use its virtual channels via phone, computer, mobile device, or tablet, they are struck by the differences in what they see, hear, and most of all, feel.

Maybe it’s the five types of zombie-themed debit card designs (hand picked by the CEO) that are proudly displayed on large monitors near the entrances. Or maybe it’s the Nintendo Wii- and Keurig-equipped lounge area that looks and feels like someplace you’d actually want to visit. “At first, the members thought these features were just for us employees and we had to tell them, ‘No, that’s for you. Enjoy it,’” says Kristin Miller, a member services representative at Element. “Most members do their errands during lunch, and many only have a half hour. Now, they actually feel comfortable taking their break right here.”

TOP FIVE INDUSTRIES
1. Educational services, health care, and social assistance (25.8%)
2. Retail trade (12.4%)
3. Manufacturing (8.7%)
4. Arts, entertainment, recreation, accommodation, and food services (8.6%)
5. Professional, scientific, management, administrative, and waste management services (7.4%)

Source: United States Census Bureau State & Country QuickFacts

Perhaps these members are drawn to Element because they can see right into the offices of senior management, on the same floor as the rest of the branch, or because their text inquiries are answered personally, even in the middle of the night. Or maybe it’s that as CEO, Bodie doesn’t just wear her loyalty to this institution on her sleeve, she actually has the brand logo tattooed on her arm.

As of 4Q 2012, Element has two branch locations, including a newly redesigned headquarters that focuses on technology-driven efficiency, without sacrificing personality and a human touch.

There, employee-assisted transaction stations and iPad-outfitted “Go” kiosks — where members can do anything from make a withdrawal to open a new account or apply for a loan — have replaced traditional teller lines. This kiosk experience is also integrated seamlessly into the credit union’s online and mobile channels, allowing Element to consistently serve a statewide membership 24 hours a day.

A full 70% of Element’s budget is currently devoted to these remote channels, but it is the efforts of its 13 full-time employees that make these resources a viable option for creating comprehensive, profitable loan relationships.

“A lot of people have misunderstood what we’ve done with technology,” Bodie says. “They’ll say, ‘Oh, you took the people away and you put in a machine.’ We don’t put machines in here that take away the people. That won’t happen.”

Having a small staff means that diversity in personality, skill sets, and expertise is a must, but there’s one thing that all employees, current and future, must have.

“Every single person has to care and want to help somebody else,” Bodie says. “If they don’t possess that, they don’t work here, period.”

Through a combination of unfettered virtual access and sincere personal interaction, Element has achieved 5.7% loan growth as of 4Q 2012 and possesses an average member relationship — i.e., the total value of balances and deposits per member, excluding businesses loans — roughly three times that of its peers.

“We certainly have better rates and lower fees,” says Miranda Nabers, loan officer and member services representative. “But in addition to that, we have that customer service that people love. In this day and age, there are a lot of impersonal transactions, and it’s not like it used to be, where people used to wait on you and get things for you. I think that we provide that link to the public.”

Perhaps no one knows the Element difference better than Craig Richards, current board chair for the credit union and an active participant in its governance system for the past decade. After graduating with an undergraduate degree in accounting, Richards soon found himself financially overleveraged by student loans, vehicle payments, and the mortgage on a small starter home, with a job that did not provide the means to meet those obligations.

“With my history in finance, I knew that this was not the place that I ever wanted to be,” he says. “I never wanted to be looking at a paycheck that didn’t cover expenses, but I was there. So I didn’t pay my student loans, and that is one of those mistakes that is very difficult to recover from.”

Seeking the funding that would help him remedy his default proved nearly impossible, until he walked into the credit union.

“I said, ‘Here is my quandary. Here’s where I’m stuck. I’m in this circle and I don’t know what I can do to remedy it,’” he says.

After a series of face-to-face meetings with a loan officer and even the branch manager, the credit union was able to work with Richards to devise a payment plan that would right-side his finances and, eventually, his credit score.

“At the time it didn’t seem like it was that big a deal,” he says. “In retrospect, looking at what a difference that made in my life, I felt I had to give something back. At a bare minimum, even if it’s not in a governing capacity, I’ll always be a proud member of this institution.”

Looking ahead, the credit union will continue to seek out those new faces as well as new opportunities, to get members and employee groups in the door. Element also continues striving to meet its balance sheet goals as part of operating as a safe, secure financial institution.

However, “the goal isn’t to see how large we can be,” Richards says. “It’s the member experience that will always remain the focus of this credit union.”

 

 

 

April 15, 2013


Comments

 
 
 

No comments have been posted yet. Be the first one.