Don’t Miss the Bus

Palisades Federal takes its branching strategy to the street.


Willie Nelson isn’t the only one who can’t wait to get on the road again. For Palisades Federal Credit Union ($161M, Pearl River, NY), a timely acquisition allowed the credit union to take a new approach to its branching strategy.

The credit union has three traditional branches with a fourth, currently under construction, slated to open early next year. Beyond its brick-and-mortar presence, the credit union is also exploring mobile branching. “Our vice president of member services, Sean Jelen, had experience with mobile branches and suggested we look into any opportunities,” says PFCU CEO Mark Welshoff.

Vehicles that are equipped with mobile banking capabilities typically cost upward of $400,000, Welshoff says, but in early January of 2010, Palisades Federal secured a used model from a bank in Colorado for $50,000. With an additional investment – the credit union retrofitted the interior, made mechanical repairs, installed a security system, and added its color scheme and logo to the vehicle’s exterior – the “PFCU One” became an affordable, mobile, fifth location.

“It’s like a tank,” Welshoff says. “Constructed to be a rolling credit union.” When leasing land and office space in the metro New York area, the costs can quickly escalate. PFCU One’s monthly overhead is less expensive than a traditional branch, plus, there are no property taxes and the credit union owns the collateral.

As with any branch there are recurring costs and the credit union must budget for additional expenditures such as fuel, mechanical maintenance, and salaries for a driver/security guard who opens and closes the branch, yet the mobility of PFCU One provides several advantages a brick and mortar location does not.

The vehicle has a teller window, two small offices, and a satellite link to the credit union’s core processor. PFCU One offers the same products and services (with the exception of traveler’s checks or gift cards) members will find at any PFCU location.

For its grand opening, Palisades unveiled the vehicle at a federally subsidized community for the elderly and disabled. “The people there loved us,” Welshoff says. “Many can’t drive or get out to the credit union often.”

Other credit unions use their mobile branches primarily for large events or as an alternative when a branch is under construction, but PFCU is pushing the boundaries of its newfound portability.

“We’re one of the first to develop a strong marketing plan for our mobile branch,” Welshoff says. The branch has roughly one stop per day and more than 20 scheduled locations on its monthly route. It targets current and potential member groups (it is a community-chartered credit union) such as colleges, schools, large employee groups, senior complexes, and health facilities. “It’s a big selling point for potential partners and SEGs, telling them we can come to them and do transactions for their people,” Welshoff says.

PFCU One is also a helpful tool to test undeserved areas, and it’s a responsive disaster recovery strategy. “We can easily set up the branch remotely and get people access if there’s an emergency,” Welshoff says. And when it’s not serving members, PFCU One is a rolling billboard for the credit union.

“We recently had it decorated as a float in a local Halloween parade with more than 10,000 people in attendance,” Welshoff says.“Other times, we’ll have the driver just take it out on the streets to be seen. It’s great exposure for the credit union.”