How 1 CU Rebuilt Itself After Its Single-Sponsor Closed Big Plant

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Fortress FCU is tearing down the walls, ripping out the moat and busting down the barricades to shed its single-sponsorship past and reach out to a community that hardly even knows it exists.

When the Thomson television picture tube plant closed, the credit union that at its height had nearly 6,000 members and $30 million in assets, began hemorrhaging members.

"We've lost nearly 2,000 members since the plant closed a year ago," said CEO Sondra Farr. "We saw it coming a few years ago, so we got a community charter to serve all of Grant County, but couldn't advertise it because the sponsor didn't want so-called 'foreigners' coming to the plant to use the credit union, since that's where we were located. They didn't want the liability of non-employees coming to the site."

And even if the credit union could have invited the community to come visit its location at the plant, few would have come.

"There are armed guards outside the facility," she explained. "And it's really just not that convenient unless you worked there."

Besides, the credit union wouldn't have known how to market itself back then anyway. "We never had to market before, we had a captive audience by being in the plant," Farr related.

But all of that has changed.

"Last October we moved into our new location that's in town, not in the plant, and in December we hired the first marketing person this credit union has ever had," she offered. "Really, it's a whole new world. It's kind of like when Armstrong stepped on the moon. It sounds like one small step for mankind, but it's been a huge step for us. We went from an office of 2,200 square feet to 7,100 square feet, from no windows to everyone having a window, to having guards outside to no guards, from no drive-ups to three drive-ups. That's a lot of adjustments."

Even the hours have changed. The CU used to open at 7 a.m. in order to catch third-shift workers on their way out and would open at 6 a.m. on Fridays-payday-just to try to get people out of the plant on time.

Now, Fortress has regular 8-5 hours Monday through Friday, with the drive-up open later on Friday (until 6 p.m.) and from 9 to noon on Saturday.

Farr joined the Chamber of Commerce, and the CU participated in a trade fair designed to teach high school students the realities of the work-a-day world.

"The students were given a certain amount of money to spend based on their GPA, and then they had to go through a line," she said. "Their first stop was at the tax man. Their next stop was with us, to set up their savings. Then they'd head down the line spending money on different things they would need to live-and some of them, when they'd get to the end of the line would have to come back to us for a loan because they'd spent too much."

CU employees have also participated in other events in the community, including going to the Tucker Career Center to speak to people who were laid off about what's out there for them in life after the plant closing.

But are all these efforts to refine itself into a community credit union working?

"The consultant we worked with when we were doing our strategic plan [for the community conversion] told us not to be surprised if we sunk to $18 million before we bounce back," Farr noted. So far, the credit union is down to $21 million in assets (from $30 million in the plant's heyday) and 3,800 members (from nearly 6,000 back in the day).

While the CU may be ready for the big bounce, the community doesn't seem to know it just yet. "Well, in the past few weeks we had some new members," Farr offered. "It's going to take time. I was at Loew's the other day, and when I pulled out my credit union information, the cashier said, 'Fortress Credit Union? I've never even heard of that.' Right now we're the best-kept secret in town."

Farr is only the fourth manager the CU has ever had, and the manager just before her, George Dixon, is now on the board. But it will soon be time to hire the fifth manager; Farr plans to retire this summer.

"We have a very strong [board] president, and it's often his way or none at all," she related. "My assistant has seen some of the problems I've had, and I'm not sure she wants the job because of him. I have a few candidates in mind, and I will tell [the board] about them, but I don't know what they'll do."

Even so, Farr believes her departure will be a good thing for Fortress. "It's time for new blood, new leadership with fresh ideas," she said.

So, the question is, has Fortress hit bottom and is just about to bounce back up, or does it still have further to go down before it can head back up?

"Personally, I don't think we've hit bottom, but maybe we never will. I just saw three people drive up," Ralston said, looking out her window at the CU's first-ever, very own parking lot.

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