Anatomy Of A Community Credit Union

For Wisconsin-based Community First Credit Union, putting community first isn’t just a choice of name, it is a strategic differentiation.


What does it take to build a house? What does it take to build a house in a week? In five days? What about in 96 hours?

In August, ABC’s Extreme Makeover: Home Edition visited Neenah, Wisconsin. There, the show – with more than a little help from build partners Community First Credit Union and Lexington Homes – filmed an episode for its Fall 2010 season, complete with a home demolition and a “Move That Bus” revelation.

During the filming, the communities of Fox Valley witnessed first-hand a tangible example of the power of the cooperative spirit. And as a powerful, local cooperative, Community First Credit Union ($1.4B, Appleton, WI) played a major role in helping the project come to fruition.

The credit union offered financial assistance (sponsoring the event to the tune of $50,000) and fundraising support (providing staffing for an auction). During the build, it contributed volunteer support and staffed the volunteer check-in station 24 hours a day, racking up more than 430 staff hours.

“We saw the project as being good for the community as a whole in addition to benefiting the family who was selected,” says Amanda Secor, chief marketing officer for Community First. “We are involved in many events that require community support, and we saw this as being no different.”

The Power of Local

True to its name, Community First is an advocate for the Fox Cities. As a community-chartered credit union, CFCU serves more than 80,000 members in 12 counties in northeastern and central Wisconsin. It is dedicated to promoting wellness in the communities it serves, from financial to physical and everything in between.

For 20 years it has sponsored the Fox Cities Marathon — Festival of Races, which has raised more than $250,000 for the Fox Cities and requires more than 2,000 volunteers every year. Its employees volunteer for numerous organizations throughout the Fox Valley, contributing more than 7,000 volunteer hours to the surrounding communities in 2008.

Being a community-chartered credit union carries an interesting set of responsibilities and approach to business. 

“We are an organization that supports many causes,” says Rick Sense, senior vice president of government and community relations. “We encourage our staff to participate in those causes they feel are important. There’s more to life than just working.”

For its part, the credit union offers financial support to local organizations and fundraising, helping more than 120 local causes. The credit union also has several in-school branches at local elementary and high schools, which gives it an opportunity to provide financial education to the next generation of members.

“We’ve dedicated sizable resources, both in treasure and time and talent, to causes all over the northeast Wisconsin area,” Sense says. “Membership denotes something unique. It’s a special bond between the member and the organization to which they belong – in this case Community First Credit Union. We have to live up to a certain level of expectation in our community, to serve the community in general and make it a better place to live and work and raise a family. We strive to do that on a daily basis.”

Building a Cooperative

Credit unions offer value to their members above and beyond a competitive rate, and that value is ownership. Common ownership makes credit unions different by design. As part of a member-owned cooperative, Community First’s profits end up back in the pockets of its members, and that’s a benefit Community First works to educate its members about.

“If we’re going to have members truly embrace the idea of a cooperative, they need to understand that it’s a give and take,” says Catherine Tierney, president and chief executive officer of Community First. “They have a responsibility here, too. It’s a challenge to educate members and employees, to help them understand what it means to be a productive member of the cooperative. That the more products and services you use, the better off you will be and the cooperative as a whole will be.”

It starts with education and it ends with an amazing experience. One of the credit union’s core values is what it terms “WOW” service. This summer, the credit union wanted to focus on WOW service, so it reached out for member testimonials. It even accepted testimonials about customer service at other area businesses.

During the dog days of summer, it gave the community something to celebrate. The credit union has turned its WOW testimonials into radio spots and is filming them to post on its website and use in future marketing campaigns. The WOW campaign illustrates one way Community First’s members both utilize and return value to the cooperative.

A Strategic Advantage

Although it was not always called “Community First,” the credit union has a long history of serving the communities of Fox Valley. Its community standing is not a position the credit union takes lightly.

“Being a community-chartered credit union carries an interesting set of responsibilities and approach to business,” Tierney says. “When you have a closed charter, you focus specifically on the sponsor group. In a community charter credit union, your base is much broader, there’s more diversity. Some people would say there’s more risk involved because you’re dealing with an entire community. I don’t think they’re wrong, but the focus becomes trying to appeal to the broader base and making sure your products and services have broad-based appeal.”

Its approach to products and services approach must be working, as the credit union is outperforming its peers in many financial performance metrics.

The credit union serves nearly 8% of its potential membership, that’s twice the average of its regional peers (credit unions in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Michigan with $750M-$3B in assets).

“There’s a strong credit union contingent here in the Fox Cities,” Tierney says. “We’re competitors, but we’re friendly competitors. We partner frequently, and I’m proud to say our level of penetration in the Fox Cities is high because there are so many credit unions.”

The credit union is also turning out an admirable Return on Assets for its member-owners. According to data from Callahan’s Peer to Peer software, Community First posted an ROA of 1.02% in second quarter 2010; this is after accounting for the NCUSIF and CCUSF stabilization expenses. Compare this to an ROA of 0.60% for credit unions with more than $1 billion in assets and an ROA of 0.55% for Community First’s regional peers. This community-chartered credit union is holding its own among all charters.

“This is a business and it is our members’ money,” Tierney says. “We always want to be cognizant of how we’re using that money.”

“I feel good knowing we have one of the top Return of the Member numbers in the country, given our peer size,” Tierney continues. Indeed, Community First is ranked No. 8 of 167 on Callahan & Associates Return of Member index for credit unions with more than $1 billion in assets as of June 30, 2010.

“We might be large in size but we aren’t in spirit,” Sense says. “I still think we’re your neighborhood credit union. And I still think people look at us that way.”

Community First’s Historical Highlights

  • 1970 Outagamie County Employees Credit Union, Postal Employees Credit Union, and Zwickernit Credit Union form the Appleton Credit Union Service Center.
  • 1975 The Appleton Community Credit Union is chartered in conjunction with the service center, allowing more people to take advantage of credit union membership.
  • 1978 The 13 credit unions accommodated by the service center merge into the Appleton Area Credit Union.
  • 1983 Appleton Area Credit Union becomes Community First Credit Union.
  • 1991 First running of the Fox Cities Marathon – Festival of Races; Community First is the sponsor of the continuing event, now in its 20th year.
  • 1991 Community First begins providing services and money management for veterans living at the Wisconsin Veterans Home in King, WI.
  • 1999 launches.
  • 2001 Community First opens its first student-run branch in Appleton West High School. The credit union now also has branches in Appleton North, Appleton East, and Oshkosh West high schools.
  • 2006 CFCU expands its charter; it now serves 12 counties.
  • 2006 First Reality Check Simulation Program
  • 2008 Community First hits $1 billion in assets.
  • 2009 Heart of the Valley Chamber of Commerce names Community First “Best Supporting Business.”
  • 2010 CFCU opens its first student-run elementary school branch at Jefferson Elementary School in Appleton.