How To Complete A Merger … Remotely

Georgia’s Own Credit Union was months away from finalizing a merger when the coronavirus pandemic hit. Rather than hitting pause, the credit union devised a plan to forge ahead.

 
 

Top-Level Takeaways

  • DOCO Credit Union merged into Georgia’s Own on Jan. 1, 2020. Data conversion and training were slated to wrap up by early May.
  • When the coronavirus pandemic forced employees to work from home, Georgia’s Own had to devise a strategy to complete the final steps of its merger.

CU QUICK FACTS

Georgia’s Own Credit Union
Data as of 03.31.20

HQ: Atlanta, GA
ASSETS: $2.9B
MEMBERS: 204,695
BRANCHES: 23
12-MO SHARE GROWTH: 11.1%
12-MO LOAN GROWTH: 10.1%
ROA: 1.06%

A merger requires more than signed agreements, member votes, and new branding. The two parties also typically spend months migrating systems and undertaking technology and service training to complete the union.

The plan for the merger of DOCO Credit Union — a $200 million cooperative in Albany, GA — into Georgia’s Own Credit Union ($2.9B, Atlanta, GA) provided for a systems migration in support of an April conversion. A delegation of trainers from Georgia’s Own was slated to make the 180-mile drive south to train up its new team members on the acquiring credit union’s systems by the first weekend of May. 

“We were intending for everything to happen in person,” says Kevan Williamson, senior vice president of enterprise technology at Georgia’s Own. 

The coronavirus changed those plans.

Albany experienced one of the worst coronavirus outbreaks, per capita, in the United States, and a non-essential travel ban introduced in late March in and around the city effectively made out-of-town travel impossible. Even so, the merger between the two cooperatives was official and as of mid-March the branding at DOCO locations switched to Georgia’s Own. The credit union had to find a creative way to finish the job.

Converting The Core

During the merger, Georgia’s Own added approximately 85 DOCO employees to its HRIS system and benefits. But although they were official employees of Georgia’s Own, they still needed training in the larger credit union’s systems. The technology, too, still needed to be connected. And, of course, none of this could happen in in person.

Kevan Williamson, SVP of Enterprise Technology, Georgia’s Own Credit Union

The first challenge, Williamson says, was the core conversion.

In a typical post-merger core conversion, plenty of work goes into preparing data to migrate from one system into another. When that’s done, Georgia’s Own brings together staff members of the merged credit union in a war room-style environment and shows a side-by-side comparison of the old and new systems and forms to show how are familiar loans and accounts presented in the new organization. In the case of the DOCO merger, Georgia’s Own had to do both remotely. 

“The first thing we did was identify every key stakeholder from both institutions and provide the tools to work remotely,” Williamson says. “Not everyone had that capability.”

The credit union ordered laptops and other equipment, troubleshot access issues, and provided a quick systems training for new employees unfamiliar with the new software. Next, Georgia’s Own made sure its vendor partners, including core and debit system providers, had remote access and strong connectivity. 

“We knew no one would be onsite to resolve potential issues, so we double- and triple-checked remote connections to make sure we wouldn’t have any hiccups,” Williamson says. 

Fortunately, there were no hiccups, and the instillation proceeded smoothly. However, Georgia’s Own still had a quandary. It had to teach its 85 newly merged employees how to use its systems. 

Remote Team Training

Because of the size of the merger and the number of people involved, Georgia’s Own had crafted a weekslong training program that started in mid-March and ensured new employees received the in-person instruction they needed with enough time to practice on the system before serving a live member in early May.

We knew we wouldn’t have a trainer standing side-by-side with a group of participants. How do you provide hands-on learning and facilitation when you can’t physically be there?

Cindy Boyles, Chief Talent Officer, Georgia’s Own Credit Union

The pandemic threw that schedule for a loop. 

Travel bans around Albany stopped the credit union from bringing in out-of-town trainers through early April. Instead, trainers had to present remotely, through WebEx, and slightly rewrite the training itself to fit the new medium. Notably, they had to find a way to address questions without seeing a raised hand, especially for branch employees who had to learn new hardware. 

“How do you provide hands-on learning and facilitation when you can’t physically be there?” asks Cindy Boyles, chief talent officer at Georgia’s Own. 

Another hurdle involved the fact new employees couldn’t train from home; however, social distancing guidelines and travel limitations prevented Georgia’s Own from gathering employees into one central location. So, the credit union spent one day upgrading every system in the nine branches it inherited from DOCO and invited branch employees to train at their own workstations, providing PPE, sanitizer, and additional cleanings to ease troubled minds. Branch lobbies were closed to walk-in traffic at this time, and the training did not impact member service in the drive-thrus.

“It would have been much more difficult had members been walking up to the teller stations,” Williamson says. 

Ultimately, training started three weeks behind schedule under an accelerated timeline. The new video instruction was no longer self-paced — although employees did have practice books that were — and trainers held office hours for two-hour chunks on select days to address questions from new staff members.

“Maybe we wouldn’t have done it like this under normal circumstances, but the important thing was our employees felt supported the whole way through it,” says Boyles, the talent officer. 

Lessons For The Future

On July 1, Georgia’s Own will officially merge in another credit union, with a conversion date circled for the end of that month. Based on their experience with the DOCO merger, both Williamson and Boyles have identified lessons to ease this process and future mergers as well.

Cindy Boyles, Chief Talent Officer, Georgia’s Own Credit Union

For Williamson, he points to the benefit of video conferencing in early phases of data migration. Rather than sitting side by side with employees from the acquired credit union, validating member data across the two systems, Georgia’s Own set up remote calls that saved time as well as money while ensuring the integrity of the project remained solid. And although there are good reasons to build relationships in person, video is an effective and efficient solution when that’s not possible. 

Ultimately, however, relationships are key. In preparing for the merger with DOCO, leaders from Georgia’s Own spent the last several months of 2019 driving between Albany and Atlanta, having conversations, building relationships, and easing concerns. A merger can be emotionally challenging for employees of an acquired institution, being face-to-face with new employees makes the process easier. 

Such was the case with the DOCO merger, Boyles says. Georgia’s Own had laid the groundwork for building relationships in late 2019. When the pandemic forced employees to work remotely — intensifying an already-challenging situation — the pre-existing relationships helped reduce tensions. 

“This was a challenging time, but we were in a good spot,” Boyles says. “Everything changed quickly, but we had already established strong relationships between the teams, and we were able to build on top of that.” 

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