SAC Expands Into Untapped Rural Areas

SAC Federal Credit Union boosted its membership 20% by improving its marketing and employee training. No merger necessary.


When a new member walked into an SAC Federal Credit Union branch to open a new checking account, they’d likely get one with a smile. But a secret shopper survey three years ago found that although the service was friendly, new members were often not offered other products.

Improving employee training to give members the same experience at each branch was one of several changes SAC FCU made in 2009 to beef up membership by more than 21% that year, 15% in 2010 and 14.1% in the second quarter of 2011 compared with a year prior, says Gail DeBoer, president of SAC FCU. The cooperative also tripled its marketing budget and added branches to widen its market area.

“We knew we had a perception issue,” DeBoer says. “We were the best kept secret in Omaha, and that’s not always a good thing.”

SAC FCU ($506M, Bellevue, NE) is the largest credit union by assets in Nebraska. The second quarter, it noted 17.6% 12-month loan growth and 16.63% share growth as membership climbed to 64,623, according to Callahan & Associates’ Peer-to-Peer data.

Click on graph for larger size  |   Source: Callahan & Associates' Peer-to-Peer

SAC received approval from the NCUA in July to expand its market are from four to eight counties, including two in Iowa. The new branches may be smaller versions of SAC’s traditional braches as they’ll have fewer staff. Instead, more staff experts, such as loan officer, will link in through video conferencing from other branches to assist customers. And with at least one new branch slated for each of the four rural counties where SAC is launching its presence, DeBoer says she expects membership growth to continue through this year.

In the past three years, SAC added six branches to the 12 it had in 2008, including one branch in a mature market that surprised executives by becoming its fastest growing branch. It added other branches in grocery stores, finding opportunities to talk with customers about credit union services and membership requirements.

DeBoer became president of SAC in 2007 and said she immediately surveyed the community and membership for areas where SAC could improve. She found members were “very trusting” in SAC, with 97% willing to refer someone, but also found that at least 50% of non-members still thought that membership in SAC required a military affiliation. The 65-year-old credit union was founded to serve military members but changed to a community charter in 1993.

 To improve its image, SAC allocated more money to its marketing budget for billboards, commercials, and radio spots during the recession, a time when the average marketing budget per member declined. It revamped its logo for one with less emphasis on the military and started running light-hearted anti-bank ads in combination with community-focused marketing.

The credit union then added a three-person employee training department, employee training programs, and the ongoing secret shopper critique for consistency in service.

SAC is now focused on constructing new headquarters and preparing to analyze how its upcoming branches in rural counties will fare. Executives are also mulling purchasing and implementing a new core system in the next year to support changing technologies.

“We’re outgrowing everything right now,” DeBoer says.