Growing Gains

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Gung-ho doesn't begin to describe John Santarpia.

Celebrating his first year as CEO of Community First Credit Union, the 41-year-old former real estate broker has already overseen:

* A 33% increase in assets.

* The purchase of three separate properties.

* The design and beginning construction of two new branches.

* A data processing conversion.

* A new indirect lending partnership with car dealers.

* More than $100,000 spent on marketing.

Santarpia has also purged inactive accounts, said goodbye to a few employees who preferred the old way of doing business, hired some fresh thinkers, reduced expenses and become chief cheerleader of good service.

"It's easy to say I've surpassed the credit union I left," he said referring to his former job as CEO of the Department of Veteran Affairs FCU in Washington D.C. DVAFCU had $26 million in assets when he started 11 years earlier, and had grown to $84 million and seven branches in three states when he resigned.

Though Community First had a smaller balance sheet at $72 million when he took the helm, Santarpia saw tremendous opportunities, particularly because of the credit union's community charter. With the lure of "very competitive" CD and money market rates, assets jumped to $96 million in one year, he said.

Two Types of Deposits

"The two things that bring in deposits are convenience and good rates," he said. And, judging from the experiences of the past year, he added, "If you have really good rates, you don't even have to be convenient."

Among Santarpia's first tasks as new CEO was to reduce expenses. He said that meant renegotiating vendor contracts and/or seeking out deals with new vendors. In addition, Santarpia said, his family hung onto the COBRA health plan to save the CU about $800 a month.

"We're doing everything we can to help out," he said, noting that last year's expenses were $100,000 less than the previous year.

Santarpia said Community First attracted "millions" in funds to its money market account product by offering an APR of 3.03%.

The same results were had on its certificates, which at press time were paying a 4.57% APR on a five-year term, among the highest rates in the nation.

His theory: "If you overpay for a five-year CD, at least you have five years to do something with it. If you overpay on a six month CD, it's just hot money."

The goal, he said, is to use that time to turn those CD account holders into full-fledged members. "It gives me five years to do a good job," he said.

Investment In Marketing

To ensure the community is learning about its rates through more than just word of mouth, the credit union has spent more than $100,000 in marketing its CD and Money Market rates- mostly on newspaper advertising and a pop-up ad on the local newspaper's website. It is also planning a big mortgage push in conjunction with new custom homes going up in the area.

Santarpia said another big draw for the credit union is through its partnership with Aimbridge Network. "We more than doubled the number of indirect car loans," he said. "When I started, we were bringing in about $900,000 a month. In November, we brought in $2.4 million. I think the word is getting out."

It hasn't hurt that borrowers get loan approval within 50 minutes. "We still have a long way to go before we stop making loans," he said. The CU has a 71% loan-to-share ratio and a 62% loan-to-assets ratio.

"Our bread and butter is car loans," Santarpia said. "We've booked about $9 million in mortgage loans and our goal is to double that."

He said the CU is solid with 13.5% capital, up from 10.5% just six months earlier. "My predecessor left me with a very strong, highly capitalized institution."

Not surprising, the quick growth has meant a lot more work for a staff that, quite frankly, was more used to just "tending the store," he said.

"In Florida...the people are not so fast-paced," he said of the credit union that is located in a relatively rural area east of Tampa. "When I got here, they kept telling me I needed to slow down." His response: "No, you need to speed up."

Santarpia said his staff needed to become a team, helping each other wherever needed. And while he has hired a few extra people, include VP Arthur Hooper, who served as his COO at the DVAFCU, Santarpia said his staff has proven to be up to the challenge and happy to earn incentives for their efforts.

While he expects everybody to do their job well, Santarpia or "John" as he prefers to be addressed, does not rule with a heavy hand. Quite the opposite, he's cool, lighthearted and willing to give and take ribbing from his staff.

"We're always joking around in here," he said. "I like the environment to be playful."

Last month, the credit union held its first vendor/employee holiday party during which one of the dealers said, "You guys are first class," Santarpia said. "That really made my day."

A 'Defining Year'

While the data processing conversion left members without the home banking they had been used to, Santarpia said he expects a better version that includes a bill payment feature to be online in February.

"This will be the defining year for our credit union," he said. "We are approaching $100 million in assets. I'm excited about it. I want to do things that make us stand out."

The CU expects to open two new branches within the next three months.

Santarpia's perpetual good mood can, in part, be attributed to his short 10-minute one-way commute, down from the three and a half hour he drove daily to and from Washington D.C. from his Baltimore home.

Married and the father of two daughters, ages 2 and 4, he said that extra time is spent with family. Well, that's the idea anyway, despite a workday that begins each morning before 6 a.m. "My family is sleeping so I figure I can still put a long day in and be home by 6:15 (p.m.)," he said. "I might be a little tired when I get there."

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