Cast A Wide Net And A Long Shadow

A Michigan-based institution walks the line between local appeal and national opportunity.


If you don’t swim, you sink. And if you don’t grow, you stagnate. If you don’t believe it, consider the Dodo bird or the myriad other species that have gone extinct in the course of earth’s history.                             

Trying times require adaptation and bold decisions, but the pendulum of consequence for change swings both ways. Grow too fast or move too quickly in the wrong direction, and you risk leaving your identity, and the people most critical to it behind.

United Federal Credit Union ($1.3B, St. Joseph, MI) has considered all of these factors and more in its development to where it is today. From serving a group of Michigan-based Whirlpool employees in the 1950s to maintaining a  presence in five state markets and membership in all 50, the cooperative has changed dramatically since its inception.

Operating out of a headquarters alongside the shores of Lake Michigan, the credit union knows its hometown market as well as the mindsets and priorities of the communities it neighbors.

From its lakeside attractions to its brimming agricultural communities, the region is as vibrant as it is diverse. “It’s kind of a little secret” Easterling says. “People are very friendly here and it’s amazing to see how the community has grown even in the midst of the recession.”

United has no doubt benefited from the stability of its home-base. But achieving dynamic performance in multiple markets requires more than just economic good fortune. It requires vision.

“From the board down to the leadership team, growth is seen as a proxy for viability at United,” Easterling says. “But we want to make sure it’s smart growth and profitable growth. Not growth for growth’s sake but something we only do when it makes sense.”

This vision has guided the credit union through a series of mergers and acquisitions in the past decade, including its 2009 acquisition of struggling Clearstar Financial Credit Union in Reno, NV, and this year’s announcement of intent to purchase and assume Griffith Savings Bank in Indiana.

“We felt that consolidation of the industry was probably something we should get serious about,” says Chief Operating Officer Duane Nelson. Sometimes United’s capital is best utilized in a merger to create economies of scale, rather than trying to duplicate and compete with other credit unions, he says, especially if there are many credit unions in a single region.

But as much as United has changed in the past several years, its commitment to members’ best interest is one priority that has always stayed the same. One aspects of this is the credit union’s long held policies on safety and soundness, which limits the financial baggage it takes on.

In the pre-recession, when consumers were flocking to home equity loans as an easy source of cash, “members would come in and be mad because we wouldn’t do what someone down the street would do,” Easterling says. “And we would tell them ‘You’re right, we won’t do that because it doesn’t make sense for us and it doesn’t make sense for you.’”

It goes back the heart of cooperative nature, he explains. “If you’re a member, I am not going to put you into a loan that’s going to make your situation worse. You may not like hearing it, but it’s a philosophy we believe in.”

For credit unions and even community banks, it’s these type of values you must adhere to, he explains. United considers its recent expansions as another way to help get those types of localized values and perspectives out into the various markets they serve today and to the markets they plan to serve in the future.

“We have values that we talk about here, but we want those to always be real in Arkansas, or Nevada, or North Carolina or Ohio, or even up the lakeshore here in our Hollard offices,” says Easterling. “We’re always asking how can we make sure those values translate from the boardroom to the front line.”

Get your issue of 2Q 2011 CUSP for access to the full feature and discover United’s strategy for growth as they navigate, operate and meet member’s needs in a multimarket environment.