A New Building For A Budding Culture

A new headquarters is helping Lake Trust FCU establish a culture of innovation and collaboration.


A credit union’s culture is influenced by various factors — membership needs, executive strategy, and employee personality to name a few. When a credit union’s culture develops over years of existence, it becomes a part of the institution’s history. So what happens if that history doesn’t exist?

Such is the case with Lake Trust Federal Credit Union ($1.6B, Lansing, MI). Lake Trust is the byproduct of a 2010 merger between Detroit Edison and NuUnion, two credit unions that were themselves the result of previous mergers. Lake Trust came into being a blank slate with the opportunity to build its own culture .

“We were really a startup because neither of the organizations survived,” says Danielle Brehmer, vice president of strategic innovation, marketing, and public affairs at Lake Trust. “We created a new one.”

Lake Trust currently operates three administrative buildings — one in Lansing, one in Plymouth, and one in Brighton, which houses the leadership team — but is building a single headquarters to centralize operations. The credit union broke ground at the new Brighton location in early July and expects to move into the facilities in October 2015.

The new location will include walking trails, irrigation capabilities, perimeter trees, and a fitness facility. More importantly, technologies and amenities in the vein of tech giants such as Facebook, Apple, and Google will make the new headquarters a reflection of the institution’s commitment to supporting a culture of innovation and collaboration.



Renderings courtesy of Danielle Brehmer

On the advice of The Christman Company, the construction services company responsible for building Lake Trust’s headquarters, the cooperative isn’t letting its new facility determine who it is, it is using the building to make the credit union better.

Collaboration And Creation

Culture building involves comparing competing ideals and deciding which one more closely aligns with the intended direction of the institution. For example, a credit union can focus on collaboration and planning or competition and market. Collaboration requires working together, cohesion, and high-agreement levels, Brehmer says. Competition requires finishing products quickly and getting them to market first. Lake Trust leans toward collaboration.

Building culture also involves deciding whether to embrace creation and adhocracy or control and hierarchy. This is the difference, Brehmer says, between creativity and flexibility and structure and order. The credit union leans toward the former.

But how does Lake Trust, an institution that isn’t yet five years old, know what kind of culture it is developing and what kind of institution it wants to be? This is important information to have when designing a structure that will exemplify the institution’s culture for everyone who sees it. The answer lies in a cultural assessment Lake Trust conducted after David Snodgrass started as CEO in 2012.

“This assessment helped us understand who we wanted to become — this innovative, collaborative institution that drove value to our members,” Brehmer says. “That’s how we made all of the decisions, from how many floors should be in the buildings to what’s surrounding the building to what furniture we selected.”

 Putting It Together

To encourage innovation and collaboration at the new location, Lake Trust formed the Neighborhood Inspiring Collaborative Excellence team (NICE). Represented by members from every department, this team is responsible for the all-important task of choreographing the credit union’s new seating arrangement.

“We are talking about how you inter-disperse departments to get greater creativity and greater collaboration, which in the end benefits the member,” Brehmer says.

Regardless of how NICE determines placement — creative early recommendations included by hair color or amount — the team will heavily consider not only workflow but also company culture. Eventually, the benefits of increased departmental collaboration will make its way down to the member and into the institution’s assessments.

For example, to track how its culture impacts members, Lake Trust looks at a variety of metrics, the most effective being member satisfaction and member engagement. It also conducts a yearly employee engagement survey that measures factors such as teamwork and communication.

“Staff engagement is first, and with staff engagement comes member [engagement],” Brehmer says. “So you should be able to see those as leads and lags in terms of measurement.”

Building Culture

Supplementing the aforementioned aspects of the headquarters, the 100,000-square-foot LEED-certified location will feature community rooms, an outdoor patio, a living wall connected to the surrounding wooded area, and a full-service cafeteria.

But those aspects contribute more to the building’s aesthetic than they do to Lake Trust’s culture. To bring its culture to life, Lake Trust is relying on three distinct features: a grand staircase, a micro-branch, and open space.


Open space environment & micro-branch


Staircase and atruim & fitness facility


Collaboration spaces

The headquarters’ main staircase connects all three levels of the building — from the cafeteria and multi-purpose rooms on the first level to the open office space on the third. It’s designed to spur spontaneous employee conversation and interaction, which the institution believes will strengthen relationships.

“The stronger our relationships are internally, the more we can translate value to our membership,” Brehmer says. “The whole building is designed to create spontaneous conversations and those strong relationships.

The micro-branch is located under the grand atrium stair and will serve as a testing ground for new products, a training space for staff, and a service location for members within the building.

“The idea is that we use this as an innovation center for testing and implementing new features and new technologies,” Brehmer says. “It’s a way to pilot those programs before we launch them in the retail market.”

Last, but perhaps most critical, is the open-space design. There will be no offices, Brehmer says, not even for Snodgrass. Instead, there will be an interspersing of cubicles for call center employees and low-walled pods for everyone else. This open design is meant to encourage more interaction than a traditional office, allowing for a more collaborative environment.