Atomic Credit Union has raised its pay scale by $4 an hour to an average of $25 an hour — including $17 for starting tellers — taking a $150,000 annual hit while bolstering its commitment to retention and service.
Employees have rescinded resignations and thanked their employer for stepping up in the face of inflation.
Expanded and upgraded locations in an area beset by high unemployment and poverty further improves the employee experience.
When Atomic Credit Union ($533.0M, Piketon, OH) raised its pay scale by an inflation-fighting $4 an hour, leaders likely weren’t expecting such an immediate, dramatic response.
More than 300 people applied online for jobs within the first two days of the public announcement that Atomic had raised its starting pay to $17 an hour. That puts the southern Ohio cooperative just below the median wage for tellers nationwide, which NAFCU put at $17.45 in 2021.
But the increase is not just for new staffers. All but three of the credit union’s 210 employees received the raise, which bumped up the average salary at Atomic to $25 an hour. Three member service representatives who had turned in their two-week notices before the word got out all rescinded their resignations when CEO Tom Griffiths drove to their branches to tell them about it.
Tom Griffiths, President/CEO, Atomic Credit Union
The bump in pay has increased the cooperative’s expenses by approximately $150,000 a month, but Griffiths, who first joined Atomic nearly 30 years ago and has been at the helm for 20 years,says the investment is “absolutely” worth it.
“We need to keep great employees and reward them for their efforts,” the CEO says. “I was asked what we are going to cut to afford this decision. I replied, ‘We aren’t going to cut anything.’”
Instead, Griffiths points to the return for the credit union and its members.
“We’ll have highly motivated employees willing to step up and make this an even better credit union,” he says. “Let’s capitalize on it and ask for more loans, more members, and more checking accounts. Those are the most important revenue generators that will lessen the impact on the bottom line.”
2 Ways To Take On Inflation
Atomic’s new pay scale is the result of a two-piece strategy that focuses on morale and turnover. An in-depth analysis of the organization that included a strictly anonymous survey highlights the first point, especially in light of surging inflation that is suddenly impacting how much everyone pays for fuel, food, and other essentials of daily life.
“Raising everyone’s base pay by $4 an hour wasn’t even on our radar six months ago, but when you read more than 200 employee surveys and the vast majority feel they’re underpaid, then leadership better wake up and do something about it,” Griffith says, adding that the survey made clear that the concerns were about wages keeping up with inflation in general, not necessarily the credit union itself.
Then there’s turnover.
“I believe every industry is battling that issue,” Griffiths says. “We found that for the entry-level positions, it’s all about the hourly rate.”
A social media post highlights Atomic Credit Union’s new beginning pay.
Two years ago, Atomic raised that by two dollars to $13 an hour for starting tellers, but not across the board.
“It was nice for the tellers, but when you do that and don’t include everyone else, it is a little demoralizing,” Griffiths says. “We weren’t going to make that mistake a second time.”
This time around the board and executive team looked inside and out when it ran the numbers and reviewed industry and area salary data.
“We consider ourselves a market leader in everything we do, and it was time to bring salary up to that level,” Griffith says. “That’s what we have to do if we’re going to continue as not just the best credit union but the best employer in our marketplace.”
Of Branches And Benefits
Atomic serves 19 counties in southern Ohio, including some of the poorest areas in the Buckeye State. Created in 1955 to serve a uranium enrichment plant and now operating under a community charter, the credit union is averaging a net gain of 300 new members a month and has a network of 14 branches that will number 17 by the end of 2023.
Such access is critical in its rural service area because spotty internet service can make mobile and online banking unreliable, Griffiths says.
The Chillicothe branch of Atomic Credit Union is a good example of the cooperative’s commitment to providing bright, attractive spaces for delivering financial services in rural communities that are heavily dependent on a physical banking space.
These areas also suffer under high unemployment, with many residents facing the choice of traveling as much as 90 miles to the Columbus area for suitable opportunities, Griffiths says. But Atomic competes on more than just salary to attract and retain staff.
The credit union offers what Griffiths calls “career-defining” benefits, including a 10% match in its 401(k) plan as well as paying 90% of dependent costs for health insurance.
"I firmly believe in putting the members’ money to work for them and not hoard it for a pat on the back by the examiners,”
“No one in our market compares,” the CEO says. “We’ve been able to do this for more than 20 years, and we plan to do it for as long as we can afford it. Ultimately, we know we won’t have a great credit union if we don’t have great people working for it.”
To ensure it can recruit and retain great people, the credit union has chosen to be the market leader on salary and benefits. It also nurtures its internal talent pool as well as draws from outside talent.
According to Griffiths, approximately 90% of Atomic’s job placements are internal promotions and the credit union regularly wins regional and industry recognition as a great place to work. But sometimes, the feedback it receives is more immediate, as when word went out about its $4 hourly pay hike.
“After sending the announcement to the employees, I opened an email portal for any employee wishing to comment directly to the board of directors,” Griffiths says. “It was incredible. There were more than 200 emails sent to the board. Many of them were heartfelt notes of appreciation and personal stories of how this decision lifted a ton of stress from them.”
A Great Deal For 33 Basis Points
The new pay scale will cost the credit union approximately 33 basis points in ROA, but Griffith says the credit union is focusing on using income to improve member products and service. He says during his 20 years as CEO, the credit union has intentionally operated with a lower-than-peer net worth ratio between 7% and 9%, which still falls within the well-capitalized range established by the NCUA.
“I firmly believe in putting the members’ money to work for them and not hoard it for a pat on the back by the examiners,” Griffiths says.
As for a best practice, the veteran CEO looks to advice he has used in his own life.
“The best piece of advice I could give is something I once read by John C. Maxwell and incorporated into my life: Surround yourself with great people, and great things will happen.”
But Griffiths has his own spin to add, too.
“Once you find those people, you should do everything in your power to keep them, by challenging them, rewarding them, and especially paying them! Collectively, as a team, the organization will prosper.”
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