Shine On! A New Culture Means Brighter Days At Sun Community FCU.

Simple changes make it clear this California cooperative is in the people business.



Sun Community FCU
Data as of 12.31.19

HQ: El Centro, CA
ASSETS: $454.4M
MEMBERS: 38,643
ROA: 0.44%

When Gary Ahlgren joined Sun Community Federal Credit Union ($454.4M, El Centro, CA), aka "Sun," as CEO in February 2017, he kickstarted a seismic cultural shift.

In the past, employees of the California cooperative, which serves the Imperial and Coachella valleys, were accustomed to a strict, heads-down work environment. Beginning in 2018, they were encouraged to put people first and act as leaders, regardless of their titles. Small acts, such as playing music in the office and wearing jeans on Fridays, snowballed into bigger changes. 

“At first, no one reacted,” says Patsy Ramirez, brand experience manager for Sun. “Then, our whole mindset as an organization began to shift.” 

As part of the credit union’s strategic planning, the board of directors and leadership team set the cooperative on a new course, updating its vision, values, and strategic pillars to reflect that change. Ramirez joined forces with other leaders to create a  big audacious meaning and a purpose anthem, which form the basis for all internal and member-facing branding. 

Sun Community communicates its vision, values, and strategic pillars to staff and members via colorful flyers.

Breaking Down Barriers

Over the years, standards and systems had evolved that prevented Sun employees from operating as a cohesive team. So, according to Ramirez, the first step was to begin “dumping the dumb rules.” 

Nothing was too trivial for a closer inspection. According to Melvin Wong, member experience manager at Sun, small changes to things like the parking lot made a sizeable difference. Previously, the credit union assigned specific parking spots to management. Non-management staff parked in the leftover spaces. A fence prevented non-members from entering the lot at all. To reflect its new culture, the credit union tore down the fence and replaced "do not enter" signs with bilingual "thank you" signs. 

“Letting everyone park together as one team and welcoming people from the community — members or not — has made a huge difference,” Wong says. “Titles don’t matter, it’s how we show up. Everyone can be a leader.”

The parking lot and signage are two external examples of how the new culture has permeated through the credit union. One internal example is the quarterly meet-and-greet sessions the executive team, called the "advisory squad," hosts to get to know colleagues with whom they wouldn't otherwise interact.

Striking The Right Balance

Sun Community’s vision statement underscores the importance of changing lives and providing extraordinary experiences. In everyday life at the credit union, that vision translates to exuberant titles, such as chief evangelist, member experience champion, and finance enthusiast. Enterprise projects also carry distinctive names and tie back to the credit union’s purpose. For example, Project Illuminate is an initiative that aims to optimize processes for improved efficiency and better experiences for members and employees. 

Sun Community FCU’s Vision Statement

To be the most trusted and respected financial institution in the communities we serve by changing lives through friendly, easy, and extraordinary experiences, options, and solutions. Because we care!

Although playfulness is baked into its values, Sun strikes a healthy balance between conducting business and having fun. 

“Member experience always comes first,” says Kimberly Caldwell, finance enthusiast. “We ensure there is always support team coverage, and we hold staff events before or after hours.” 

The cooperative also values integrity and getting things right, not just done. That’s one of the reasons Sun built a strong foundation for experience delivery. Ahlgren’s first message to the leadership team was that the cooperative is in the people business.  Every decision they make must have the member’s best interest in mind.  

“We wanted to fast track our culture and define service standards to help us live out our new vision and values,” Wong says. 

Letting everyone park together and welcoming people from the community has made a huge difference. Titles don’t matter, it’s how we show up.

Melvin Wong, Member Experience Manager, Sun Community FCU

In 2018, the credit union launched the Creating Member Loyalty program from CUNA. Nine non-management staff members from member-facing as well as support teams customized the loyalty program by tying it into the cultural transformation that was already taking place at the credit union. These “sun scouts” defined what it means to “serve the Sun way.” 

Letting The Light Shine

While the Sun Scouts were working on creating member loyalty, the marketing department collaborated with a company that focused on brand strategy. The company helped the cooperative conduct an internal brand believability study to find out what employees thought about the Sun brand and how to communicate the organization’s purpose. Together, they came up with the big audacious meaning, purpose anthem, and "Shine On" rallying cry. 

What’s a big audacious meaning? What’s a purpose anthem? Click here to read these two statements and see how they inspire the culture at Sun Community.

After communicating these elements to the staff, the marketing team created a video for members and incorporated "Shine On" into the credit union’s logo. Sun rolled out this new look and messaging to members in 2019. 

Beyond setting service standards for inside the organization and refreshing the brand externally, Sun wanted to become a more meaningful participant in the community. It set its sights on nutrition and education as two avenues in which it could became more active. Today, its community outreach includes serving food to the homeless in the border town of Calexico and creating a family atmosphere during the holidays for Imperial Valley Community College students who are in the foster care system, homeless, or separated from their families. 

“We work with the IVC team to serve these students,” Caldwell says. “Although we’re not the financial institution on campus, we want to make a difference and change lives in our community.” 

Building A New Experience From The Inside Out

According to the Sun team, it all starts with culture. Beginning its cultural change from the inside first made a huge difference in what it could accomplish next. 

“Our members feel everything our employees are experiencing,” Caldwell says. “If employees are happy and excited to come to work, if they’re engaging with one another as colleagues, that enhances the experiences our members have.” 

To deepen the happiness employees feel toward their work, the cooperative has started actively celebrating individual goals and achievements and working consistently to maintain open lines of communication.

“It’s a totally different atmosphere now,” Ramirez says. “We consider ourselves a family.” 

Purpose = Impact

Purpose-driven organizations outperform the market, have an easier time attracting and retaining employees, and are changing the way businesses think about their roles and responsibilities to society.

Sustainable Business Strategy with Rebecca Henderson teaches credit union leaders that being purpose-driven is more than being a community-forward organization and helps them re-examine their part in ensuring the long-term prosperity of members, employees, communities, and the environment.

Learn More About This Course

In 2019, the credit union appointed brand ambassadors to help coordinate a five-week contest to increase awareness about Shine On and the credit union's member communications about what it means to serve the Sun way.

Employees participated in weekly activities in which they answered trivia questions about the cooperative, presented the credit union’s vision in pictures, or handed out tokens to employees who best represented each value. The brand ambassadors rewarded highly recognized employees and departments with gift cards and lunch.

There’s quite a change taking place inside Sun, and members can see it from the outside. The credit union has won Best Bank or Credit Union in the Imperial Valley for each of the past two years. It also won Best Customer Service among all retailers, not just financial institutions, in 2019 in the Imperial Valley. Membership growth has also increased, with the cooperative achieving 108% of its goal last year.

Lessons For Credit Unions

When it comes to advice for other credit unions, the team at Sun encourages other institutions to check their egos at the door and include everyone in cultural and brand initiatives. Insights contributed from individual employees are vital.

“No one is smarter than all of us put together,” says Jennifer Donatt, vice president of people experience. "It takes a village." 

At Sun Community, that means no one is “just” a teller. Everyone is part of the organization and everyone’s input is important — from the corner office to the front line. In fact, Wong says, teller input might be the most important because they know what members are saying and can identify small ways to make differences. 

“Many tellers have contributed to our improving culture at Sun,” Wong says. “Don’t discount small, simple acts as they can become catalysts for bigger changes.”

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