Growth Stems From Chance Discovery Of Immigrants

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It took a trip overseas for one CEO to find foreigners in need of help closer to home.

R. Marshall Boutwell, CEO of the $84-million in Gwinnett FCU in Lawrenceville, Ga., had returned home from a trip to Poland with the Georgia CU Affiliates (which has partnered with that country) when he was told the story of a member who had come to the area from Bosnia and had borrowed $1,000.

The Bosnian immigrant had taken that $1,000 check to a used car dealer for a downpayment on a car that came with highly unfavorable loan terms.

Boutwell said he passed the word that everyone should be on the lookout for other Bosnians who might come into the credit union also wanting a similar loan, and soon was alerted to just such a would-be borrower who was sitting with a member service rep.

Boutwell met with that member, and steered them toward financing the vehicle with the credit union. Soon, other Bosnians were stopping in and joining the credit union, which was discovering there was a sizeable community locally of Bosnians who had emigrated from that war-torn country.

Gwinnet Federal responded by hiring bilingual Bosnian, as it was encountering language problems. Boutwell said another Bosnian woman with a degree in finance called the credit union and asked to come to work, taking a 20% paycut in the process.

Today it has seven employees who are Bosnians.

"Over time we've become the Bosnian Bank in our area," said Boutwell. "A lot of our growth has come in word of mouth; they network. We've advertised in a Bosnian newspaper and on a small Bosnian radio station. We've translated some of our loan forms into Bosnian."

Boutwell admitted that, "Frankly, I just stumbled across the situation eight years ago. I didn't set out to do it. But if you really want to know why we did it it's because it's the right thing to do. It fits very nicely with our credit union philosophy. It's created loyal members. NCUA wants us to fulfill our social mission, and this does that."

It must be working. Boutwell noted it has grown to $82 million in assets from $20 million from 1996 through 2004; members have grown to 17,000 (about 10% are Bosnian) from 7,000 over that same time. Bosnians represent 15% of Gwinnett Federal's growth, and have a lower loss-ratio than the overall membership.

Boutwell said GFCU has "pretty much tapped out the Bosnian market," and has seen growth dip into single digits after averaging 18% for some time. Today, he said, he's seeking other markets to serve.

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