Strong Roots Yield Healthy Branches

Employees are the heart of the cooperative, and United keeps its troops engaged by offering the right technology, training, and culture.


Rapid expansion, such as through mergers or acquisitions, brings new marketplace opportunities for credit unions and new standards of service for members. It also requires a significant assessment of how a larger footprint might affect a cooperative’s employee and volunteer network.

In many cases, a credit union must invest additional time and money to keep its growing team capable and cohesive. That’s a standard with which United Federal Credit Union ($1.3B, St. Joseph, MI) is familiar. For growing institutions of any size, United’s experiences offer more than a few best practices.

There are three components to daily operations that hold steady regardless of the institution’s growth environment: the technology, the people, and the cultural support, says Shawn Birch, director of innovation.

“You pull all that together and you make it happen and watch it grow.”

Board And Volunteers

Credit union leaders must learn when to advise and when to listen if they want to support their Board during times of change. United focuses on developing its Board’s role at the helm of the institution. This helps directors maintain the macro view needed to make big decisions and steer the credit union without getting mired in tangential details.

“As a Board, we’ve consciously worked to stay at the strategy level,” says chairman JB Hoyt. “We try not to get down in the weeds and the operational details because that’s not where the Board adds value.”

On occasion, directors will use committees to drill down into an operational facet, but these activities are separate from the Board’s standard operations.


It’s not over yet! The settling period after a major operational move is the perfect time to reassess all aspects of your organization, from staff incentives to community outreach and camaraderie among your Board.

Credit unions shouldn’t underestimate the need for continued onboarding, training, and development for Board members, new and old alike, says Mike Hildebrand, vice chairman of the Board. Use new faces and team growth as an opportunity to readdress how the Board works as a unit. That cohesion is necessary in a growing institution.

In addition to stepping up its onboarding process, United has built a Board pipeline that blends experience with fresh perspectives. The Board acquires talent during mergers and also actively courts potential directors. In interviews with potential candidates, the Board examines whether individuals understand United as an organization, says Hoyt.

United understands it will only get from the Board as much as it gives to the Board. A stagnate corporate culture or ineffective communication chain creates stagnation or desertion among the Board, so the credit union looks for ways to engage its Board.

For Hoyt, who has volunteered at United for nearly 25 years, the volunteer experience has to be rewarding to keep him coming back. Seeing the fruits of his labor in the growing, developing institution is one of those rewards.

“You have to feel you’re providing something to the organization,” Hoyt says.


Rapid growth can present challenges for existing and acquired employees alike, and moving the various pieces to function as a whole in the midst of change can be daunting for leadership. Setting up organizational structures and accountability for smaller projects now pays off as United continues to grow.

“The strategic team sets priorities: Where do you spend your time and focus? If there’s a conflict, what drops?” says Birch. “Those priorities always have to be clear and be communicated throughout the organization.”

In an expansion situation with multiple projects in the air, United defines the roles and responsibilities of each team involved and documents, documents, documents. This helps manage the expectations of staff, members, and the Board throughout the process.

“Being team centric is the key,” Birch says. “Even if you’re a small credit union, you need to formulate that culture now.”

Mergers and acquisitions bring new staff members that need effective communication to drive home the importance of any cultural or policy shifts. Without it, they risk continuing the same behaviors that contributed to their previous employer’s financial distress.

“It’s a matter of messaging,” says CEO Gary Easterling. “Employees are going to see the sign change, and

some of our policies and procedures are going be different.”

Attitude also counts at United. The credit union’s rapid growth and stability has allowed it to glean the market for top-notch organic hires.


“We’ve been able to bring in a lot of expertise while a lot of our competitors are shedding their labor force, trying to pare down their expense,” says Jeff Leep, director of sales strategy and development for mortgage. “We’ve taken some of those talented individuals from other institutions and built skills sets we didn’t have a few years ago.”

But whether it is a new hire or an employee acquired from another institution, the basics of training and culture development are the same.

“We hire for attitude and then train the skills,” says Meg Johnson, collections manager. “It’s easy to teach but not as easy to find individuals who understand and want to be part of a member culture.”

There is energy in the air at a highly functional credit union and if an employee is a good fit, you should get that same energy back from them.

“Prior to our recent core conversion, where we brought on new employees, most of the staff has been with us for an average of six years,” Johnson says.

And when it comes to securing long-term loyalty, employees and employers need to picture a course of development for each person at the co-op. Employee satisfaction surveys and other methods of feedback help put everyone on the same page.

“We’ve grown so quickly, we’re trying to catch up with a more formalized system in terms of employee development,” says Cindy Swigert, chief human resources officer. “Traditionally organizations rank career development as one of the lower scores on their satisfaction survey, but because we’re growing, we have a real opportunity for a win in that space as we get these programs in place.”

For those employees who do not want to advance to management, United offers career goals that are as diverse as its staff.

“We’re developing the idea of becoming a subject matter expert, without the need to become a manager,” says Swigert. The credit union looks to these individuals for opinions, judgments, and mitigation assistance. This system helps dedicated employees resolve difficult situations in their field without having the pressure of managing others.

Tools Of The Trade

As markets and organizations grow, the chance of seeing a familiar face in the crowd typically diminishes. For United, technology is a valuable resource that helps employees connect to new members and one another.

“Our front line is very skilled in using the relationship management systems we’ve developed,” says Tim Bennett, vice president of marketing. “It lets them know what product or service the member has and what is the next most likely product they’ll need.”

CRM and other databases are critical to unlocking employee sales and service potential, especially on the front lines where most member interactions occur. If approached properly, what starts as a simple transaction can turn into a significant change in the member’s financial situation. But employees have to have their head in the game.

“I want branch staff to be focused solely on the member, not on operational pieces,” says Mark Weber, vice president of national sales and service. “They just take the information, put it into the system, and let the support department do the processing so they can focus and engage with the member.”

Technology is also useful for employee training and communication.

“When we have these various times zones that we have to traverse, you have to rely a lot on technology,” says Easterling. For example, the credit union conducts its team meeting through three distinct video conferencing sessions to accommodate the three time zones in which it operates.

The technology is not perfect, but it is critical. And in cases that warrant live visits or on-site training, such as in the upcoming shift to a new core operating system, United brings regional employees and managers onto the corporate campus for group training.

“It’s all about creating relationships right from the get go,” says Easterling.

So whether a credit union is a national player or a one-branch shop, finding the balance between technological investment and cultural infrastructure is critical. After all, laying a good foundation today leads to easier processes in the years of growth ahead.

“There is a cost to operating in multiple markets,” Easterling says. “But we believe the cost is worthwhile because of the value of diversity.”