Kick The Tires And Light The Fires

San Francisco Federal Credit Union reaches new markets at the San Francisco International Auto Show.


San Francisco. The “Paris of the West.” It’s the thirteenth-largest metropolitan area in the United States according to data from the 2010 U.S. census, and it’s arguably the technology capital of the world. It’s also a competitive lending market for financial institutions, one in which it’s easy to get lost.

“We’ve been [in San Francisco] for 60 years and there are just some people who didn’t realize we were here,” says Rebecca Reynolds Lytle, senior vice president and chief lending officer at San Francisco Federal Credit Union ($848M; San Francisco, CA). “We’re just kind of the quiet little unknown credit union. But we’re not little.”

With $848.1 million in assets and nearly 32,000 members, the credit union is not little by industry standards. Although its general lending activity is similar to its asset-based peers, there is one area of the portfolio Lytle is working to improve: auto loans. As a credit union that aspires to become the lender of choice for its community field of membership in San Francisco and San Mateo counties, SFFCU is building relationships with local dealerships to grow its auto loan business. It’s also looking for other ways to reach potential members, so when a consultant for the San Francisco International Auto Show approached SFFCU to sponsor the event, the decision to accept was easy.

“When I looked at it, I jumped on it,” Lytle says. “We need to get out there and be more recognized … We need to be known as a serious player.”

SFFCU holds a combined $26 million in new and used auto loans on its balance sheet. That’s significantly less than the $140 million held by peers with $500 million to $1 billion in assets. Credit unions in California hold slightly more than SFFCU in autos as well, a total of $44 million. So, although SFFCU can’t make loans at the Auto Show, it does see the benefit in being able to drive awareness to both its auto program and the benefits of credit union lending.

“We want to talk about the benefits of credit union financing at the dealership for everybody who walks into the show,” Lytle says. “They might not all be eligible for membership in our credit union, but they are eligible for membership in some credit union. That’s a benefit to everybody who walks through the door.”

Working It

The 2013 auto show was a five-day event that took place from Thanksgiving Thursday through the following Monday. Next year, the event will span eight days across consecutive weekends, which provides a new set of staffing challenges for the credit union. For 2013, SFFCU employees signed up to work two-hour shifts with four or five co-workers. In total, the credit union had 22 representatives —including board members — working over the holiday weekend, chatting up credit union members and non-members alike.

As the primary sponsor and the only financial institution in attendance, SFFCU had a large booth near the main entrance of the Moscone Center. Its presentation included iPads, laptops, a TV, and signage. Its goal was to increase awareness, but the credit union could not simply rely on signage or technology to get its name into attendee’s minds. Its representatives needed to have conversations. So it attracted passersby with swag such as free candy, gift bags, chocolate, car-themed merchandise, and a grand-prize drawing for a two-night stay at Squaw Creek Resort in Lake Tahoe with transportation provided by Jaguar. With such incentives, Lytle felt the credit union was able to get its message across.

“It was a good opportunity to talk to a lot of people about [the benefits of credit union financing], how to get credit, how credit works, and things like that,” Lytle says. “I’m always amazed by how many people are afraid of their credit report, so the chance to talk about that and how they’re in control of their financial life, it’s a good conversation.”

Lytle wouldn’t disclose the total costs associated with the sponsorship, though she did say they weren’t prohibitive. “It was more like, ‘you’re kidding? That’s it?’” she says. “Because of the exposure to all those people … it makes a lot of sense for us.”

Awareness And More

SFFCU went in to the Moscone Center expecting to drive awareness, but, unexpectedly, it turned awareness into relationships. Lytle says the credit union pre-approved $175,000 in loans and opened an unspecified number of new memberships. It wasn’t much, but it was more than nothing.

“It wasn’t as if we expected to open up 100 memberships or anything like that,” Lytle says. “That’s not what we wanted to do. It was more about exposure, name recognition, getting our brand out there, and getting people to know who we are and the importance of credit union financing when you are a dealership.”

The auto show marked SFFCU’s first foray into the sponsorship of a major event. Anticipating the unexpected, the credit union focused on mitigating growing pains and noting best practices for next time. After all, the credit union retains its sponsorship in 2014 and 2015. Whether by watching what other organizations were doing to attract attention — the San Francisco Chronicle had a money machine with $2,500 in cash — or finding ways to stand out among the throngs of people and organizations, SFFCU left the five-day show with no shortage of ideas.

Lytle declined to reveal specifics but named obvious changes the credit union would make. For example, the cavernous space of the Moscone Center made SFFCU’s television appear tiny. So, SFFCU will use a larger one next year to allow more attendees to view the informational video. Other things it will do include wearing brighter clothes to stand out in the crowd, bringing more giveaways that sport the SFFCU name and logo, and displaying sturdier, more visible signage.

“Silly little things that don’t cost a lot of money can draw people into your booth,” Lytle says. “And we want the opportunity to have the conversation.”

SFFCU will enter the 2014 auto show with a year of invaluable experience under its seat belt. It will go in with a deeper understanding of the best booth positions (in front), what times it can expect heavy crowds (late-morning, early afternoon), how many employees it needs to work the booth (fewer in non-peak hours), and how long employees have to make an impression on attendees (10 seconds, not 10 minutes). Also, asking for additional resources or help is never a bad thing.

“We got a lot of good information from the auto show folks,” Lytle says. “They’re very helpful, and there’s more to be had if you ask questions.”