CU About Town

Register now

In a county described as "over-banked and over-credit unioned," Workers' Credit Union stands out.

Certainly, being the largest home-turf financial institution in Worcester gives it an edge over fleet branches, regional banks and large to small community-chartered CUs that surround it.

But those familiar with its 89-year history agree that most of the credit for the large leap in assets and loan volume in recent years and a year-end record high capital-to-assets ratio goes to CEO Fred Healey, a former banker with a passion for people and the desire to make them happy.

"Everything we learned in the banking world-from how to run a checking account to human resources-is no different here.'' What separates the two industries, he said, is the approach. "Remembering not only what you are doing but why you are doing it and for whom.''

An Ex-Banker Moves On

Since Healey left the banking industry in 1995 after too many "consolidations and meltdowns,'' he has led WCU into the 21st century and comfortable growth using technology, modern facilities and community exposure.

What drew him back, perhaps, was the philosophy he learned "back about 100 years ago'' when he started his financial career with Rockland Federal Credit Union, Rockland, Mass.

"I learned a lot about the credit union philosophy and just assumed that was the standard of the (financial) industry,'' he said. "But I found out later that credit unions are uniquely different.''

OK, so it took him 30 years to return to his roots, but now that he's back, Healey appears firmly planted. Under his command, Workers Credit Union has watched assets grow to $435 million from $250.1 million. In addition, total loans made grew to $299.5 million by the end of 2002 from $124.1 million in 1994. The CU also boasts its strongest capital position ever at $47.2 million with capital-to-assets at 10.77%.

Admittedly, it took some effort, an extremely supportive and knowledgeable board of directors and top-quality staff to get to this point, Healey said.

"Over a period of three years, when all of the existing managers relocated or moved on, they were replaced by top-quality people who had managed higher asset-sized institutions,'' he said. "That was the key.''

The board shrank to nine members from 11, implemented term limits and charged Healey with appointing a nominating committee to identify key members of the community who might serve the CU well.

"I am so blessed to have a board that works with management,'' Healey said. "And management that works with the board.''

Talking Turkey With The Chairman

To keep the lines of communication open, the top staff and board chairman attend a team-building retreat sponsored by the Credit Union Executives Society (CUES).

"You get to talk turkey with your chairman,'' he said. "I wouldn't miss that for anything.''

While there is no power struggle, he admits it took some time for him to earn their trust. And there was that one disagreement.

"Way back, the management team put together a nice draft of a proposal that we would embrace a local supermarket chain and invite ourselves in,'' he said. "Coming from a commercial banking world, this was the norm.''

Unfortunately, Healey said, the board did not agree. "Conceptually, they thought it was a good plan, but we didn't have a consensus so we abandoned it.''

While he doesn't have regrets, Healey said he occasionally feels pangs of jealousy when he walks into a supermarket and sees a bank in there.

There were so many other changes to be made that they did agree on, this one seemed relatively minor. For starters, they had to bring technology into the present.

"When I got here, there were only two PCs in the whole credit union,'' he said. "We immediately went to work on that infrastructure.''

By 1996, the CU had an interactive website with online banking capabilities. A year later, the board of directors each had their own personal computer and a website full of CU-related information such as CU policies and procedures and up-to-date meeting minutes.

In 2001, the CU formed Workers' Financial Services, a wholly-owned CUSO that provides stocks, insurance, auto leasing, a 24- hour phone link with a Spanish language option, a 24-hour mortgage line, loan by phone, and mortgage lending automation, for starters.

Investments were also made to upgrade or rebuild branches that Healey said "lacked curb appeal and the aura of credit unioning. "We went from branch to branch, tore down the old and rebuilt the new. In one case, we closed the branch and donated the building to the local YMCA. That was a thrill to do that.''

Healey said the main office redeveloped and expanded to include a multi-lane drive up area for members and a cafeteria for employees. The latter, he said, was part of the plan to become the employer of choice.

"Happy employees make happy members,'' he said, adding that staff treat new employees as people who "choose'' WCU over many other companies in this competitive financial market, not the other way around.

Careful Hiring Process

That said, the CU staff is careful about whom they hire. "Every employee goes through a battery of testing on aptitude and how most likely they are to behave in certain situations.''

Healey also hired two full-time training professionals to oversee Achieve Global, an ongoing training program designed to keep employees up to date and prepared to deal with all kinds of personalities.

"We expect our people to be the best resource our members have,'' he said. "To accomplishment that-training, training and more training.''

The 171 employees are often tested via mystery shoppers to determine where they are shaking hands, making eye contact and cross selling. So far, Healey said, he hasn't been disappointed.

And, according to a recent member satisfaction survey that scored at nearly 100%, efforts aren't going unnoticed by members, either. Healey and his board agree that being involved in the community has provided tremendous exposure.

"Right after being hired I was put onto the Chamber (of Commerce) board, the United Way board and the Nashua Valley Council of Boy Scouts,'' he said. Since then, Healey and his wife of 35 years, Rosemary, have had their hands in several other community foundations, including the Fitchburg Art Museum, Community Study Circle, Rotary Club and Thayer Symphony Orchestra. And, he said, they still find time to sing in their church choir.

"Yes, it's work, but it is great,'' he said. "Everywhere I go, I'm known as the guy from Workers' Credit Union.'' He said since setting the standard, he has looked over his shoulder to see many associates joining him.

"I think much of the credit for that goes to the board,'' Healey said. "When they went in search of their new president, they wanted some things to change. And high on the agenda was to make the credit union an active corporate citizen.''

One CU's Wish

Prior to his arrival, he said they described the CU as a "nice little credit union that wasn't an active corporate citizen.''

Healey said he continues to be "heavily involved'' with state and federal credit union issues as well. He serves on the Filene Research Institute's council and CUNA's subcommittee for state credit union issues.

If he could grant one wish within the industry, Healey said he would break down the barriers between the state and federal trade associations so they would all sing the same tune in harmony.

His goal on the home front is continue his aggressive, but member-friendly approach to keep the 58,000 members of WCU happy and at the same time, develop new relationships within its community FOM.

"We've been very successful on what we need to get to the next level,'' Healey said. "We don't want to be a good credit union. We want to be a great one.''

For reprint and licensing requests for this article, click here.