Challenge: Don't Judge Member By His Cover

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla.-For Betty O'Brien, who has managed branches of the $325-million Florida Commerce CU for the last 11 and a half years, a key job of the branch manager is to make sure staff never prejudge members.

"Appearances can be deceiving," said O'Brien. "Never assume you can pigeonhole a member. I have seen a lot of people judge folks who walk in the door based on what they look like at that moment."

Such assumptions have led front-line staff to assume a member may not want to discuss a first mortgage or financing a second home. "But after speaking with them and having a little consultative conversation, you find you are talking to someone who is quite well off, who is not only looking for a mortgage but some investment products, as well."

Moreover, O'Brien added, assumptions about members based on appearance can alter delivery of service options, which harms the CU and the member.

During her two-and-a-half years running the new Westside office in Tallahassee, and nine additional years at the helm of two other branches, O'Brien said, has made her a stronger manager. She is now more skilled in working with the full range of FCCU products, and working with different personality types and individuals.

"I have run three branches and all three had very different types of members," O'Brien said. "One was in a very upscale part of Tallahassee, one right outside of downtown, and my current branch is on the edge of town in a very populated area."

In the branch that served upscale members, O'Brien recalled doing very few car loans. "A lot of members paid cash for their vehicles. But we did do a lot of second mortgages, home equity loans, and loans for investment property." At the new branch, that scenario is reversed.

The new office was built two-and-a-half years ago to meet member demand after outgrowing a small location in a strip mall without tellers, and then expanding to offer front-line services. "But we were bursting at the seams so we built this brand-new location," O'Brien said.

While the branch was completed right before the recession began, O'Brien said Florida Commerce has never been concerned that it would be an unprofitable move as the economy and members struggled. "I have seen members face a great deal of misfortune, much of it not their own fault."

O'Brien acknowledged that the local economy, supported primarily by government workers in the state capital, has held up much better than other parts of Florida. "One thing we are struggling with, much like the rest of the state, are home values. I really want to make a lot of mortgage loans, but the values are not there. I keep telling members to hang on, as the values will come back in time before the rates rise."

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