A New Perspective On Financial Services

A former bank executive points to mission and long-term strategy as the primary differences between credit unions and banks.

 
 

Truliant began more than 60 years ago as a credit union for Western Electric employees. The Winston-Salem based credit union now has a multi-occupational charter; it has extended its field of membership to include eight underserved areas and completed mergers with several underperforming credit unions. Truliant currently serves more than 900 select employee groups through 23 branches, a robust contact center, and advanced online and mobile delivery channels. Truliant has approximately $1.7 billion in assets, more than 180,000 members, and five hundred plus employees. COO Todd Hall joined Truliant nearly a year ago after a decades-long career in both regional and community banks. Here, he discusses disparities and likenesses between credit unions and banks.

CU QUICK FACTS

  • Truliant Federal Credit Union
  • HQ: Winston-Salem, NC
  • Assets: 1.7B
  • Members: 181,798
  • 12-MO Share Growth: 6.12%
  • 12-MO Loan Growth: 4.76%
  • ROA: 0.81%

Having come from the banking world and knowing it well, I can say there are several distinct differences between banks and credit unions. A true belief in mission is a significant difference between the two, and it has been striking to me that credit unions truly do put members first. Don’t get me wrong; there are some good banks out there that care for customers, but when they live by the quarter to deliver earnings, their focus can be clouded. Because credit unions are directed by a board composed of democratically elected volunteers and do not have to answer to stockholders seeking higher returns on their investments, credit unions can remain focused on delivering genuine value to their members. It’s refreshing to see employees working to improve the financial lives of the members rather than pushing products or seeking fee income. Having the fortitude to insist that a member-centric focus drive the business model and the proper execution of that model — which then creates the ability to generate positive financial results — is the differentiator between credit unions like Truliant and most banks.

Commitment To A Long-Term Strategic Plan

Another key difference is the unwavering commitment of the credit union to a long-term strategic plan. Banks sometimes have to allow short-term issues to override a longer-term strategy. All banks have some form of a strategic plan, but they are always looking to hit their numbers. If they are falling slightly short near the end of the quarter, they sometimes make short-term decisions that don’t align well with their long-term plan. When faced with similar short-term challenges, credit unions remain focused and continuously strive to meet the long-term objectives of better serving member-owners and helping members achieve their financial goals. I’m impressed with the time and energy expended by credit unions in developing long-term plans.

Truliant recently completed our own strategic planning session, which we conducted in conjunction with the 2013 World Council of Credit Union’s Conference in Ottawa, Canada. Our volunteer board and the credit union’s senior management team traveled to Ottawa to participate in joint strategic discussions. It has been my experience that community banks of similar size do not typically expend as much time and energy developing such long-term plans. And that might be the nature of the beast; banks might strive to make long-term strategic plans but ultimately understand they live on a shorter string that is tied directly to investor return.

Operations And Service Practices

There are subtle differences within certain practices, but in a way, most begin with how you view your mission. Some banks have created efficiencies in certain processes at the expense of service. However, credit unions tend to take a more balanced approach and commit the necessary time with each member to better understand his or her problem and attempt to properly resolve it, thus developing a greater degree of trust rather than pressing for ultimate efficiency. It’s a trade-off I firmly believe is to our advantage.

Possible Missteps

That being said, I believe there are two potential missteps some credit unions might be tempted to take. One is adopting bank-like pricing activities. We have been, and will remain, in a challenging interest rate environment and there is continuous pressure to grow loan balances and enhance net worth. In this scenario, there can be a temptation to increase loan rates, venture into loan products where the downstream delinquency issues are not fully understood, or charge non-interest fees that are not in the best interest of the members; that is, to adopt practices that are not what we are about.

A second possible misstep is moving into areas outside of the core business for which you haven’t acquired the proper talent. An obvious example is member business lending, for which experienced commercial underwriting skills are essential. If you want to offer higher yielding products and services, it would be prudent to have the proper expertise in place to mitigate the risks and minimize potential negative financial impacts.

Employees

On average, bank employees tend to be more monetarily incented than credit union employees. These incentives are usually based on revenue generating numbers, they are almost always product-oriented, and they do drive behaviors — mostly bad. Having said that, I think credit unions more than offset such incentives by offering superior overall employee benefits packages. Here at Truliant, for example, we maintain an employer-sponsored pension plan for our employees, something that is becoming increasingly rare within the financial services industry.

I also believe the internal culture at credit unions is superior. I am happy to have found the credit union industry, Truliant specifically, and I believe most banking refugees feel the same way. The credit union industry has an abundance of good people within it; I’m impressed with those I’ve had the pleasure of working with, and they have revitalized me. Truth be told, in the banking world, many people don’t give credit unions their due respect. They think of other banks as their competitors, but the credit union environment is fantastic!

Regulation And Technology

I see little difference between banks and credit unions in terms of regulation and technology delivery. The benefits credit unions might have in one area are offset by benefits banks enjoy in others. The net advantage comes close to zero. If anyone is at a disadvantage, it’s small credit unions and community banks. They are under a great deal of pressure to remain in compliance with ever-changing regulations and evolving technology, both of which are placing considerable strain on their expense structures.

We could be doing a better job of telling people what we stand for, what we believe, and what our vision is. 

Our Challenge

I think one of our biggest challenges with respect to banks is the experience and education gap among the public; too few people truly know and understand us and the many services and benefits we provide. To increase understanding of the credit union movement and build awareness for the credit union industry, we have to brand and educate better. We could be doing a better job of telling people what we stand for, what we believe, and what our vision is. As banks get larger, their focus has to become more widespread and financially oriented, allowing for less time and energy directed toward the financial well-being of the individuals walking into the lobby. The beauty of Truliant and other credit unions is that we always have the member’s best interest at heart regardless of the situation, and I don’t expect that to ever change.

— As told to Brooke C. Stoddard