How 1 Large CU Attempts To Keep The Small Touch

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With new corporate headquarters that features a branch, three drive-thru service lanes, an ATM, a cafeteria, fitness facilities and a parking garage, it's hard to think of Affinity Federal Credit Union as anything but large.

Why then, is this billion-dollar financial institution still trying to act small?

"It's our philosophy to serve members that are very high level and that just takes a human touch," said CEO John Fenton. "One of our tenets is that we have to act small."

Never mind that Affinity Federal is the largest CU in the state or that it has more than 240 SEGs, including AT&T and Lucent Technologies, or that it has 25 branches with more in the works.

"We want to be able to foster long-term relationships with our members," Fenton said. "And to do that, we have to be able to maintain that personal touch."

How? Besides focusing on member satisfaction by providing extensive employee training on everything from products and services to friendliness, Fenton said, his credit union gives employees a lot to smile about.

For starters, "We have a very elaborate compensation and benefits package that is above scale," he said. "And we treat our 360 employees like one big family with a lot of events."

The result, he said, is a credit union that is 100,00 members strong and a financial institution with a very low turnover rate of employees, "even in our branches."

Fenton, 48, said Affinity Federal has something else really positive going for it-"a board that knows its role."

Any governance process should be a dynamic living process, he said, adding, "Ours definitely is." Patterned after the John Carver Model- "although we did not follow it to a 'T'"-Affinity's board of directors stay focused on strategic areas and leave the management to the managers.

"Some boards try to tell you how to run the credit union and tell you what they don't want to happen, creating executive limitations," he said. "This method keeps the board out of the operations."

Affinity also imposes term limits, with each member limited to a maximum of nine years.

Fenton said he is a big believer in planning, thus requires staff to attend an annual planning retreat. "One of the things that makes not only myself but all of us successful is planning," he said. "It's something we do on a regular basis."

With 20 years of credit union industry experience behind him, Fenton said he's very happy about the new sophistication of credit unions. But, at the same time, he said, more large credit unions need to reach out and help the smaller ones.

"It's not bad to be a mom-and-pop shop, but you really need to have the tools," he said. "Twenty years ago, we ruled by gut. Today we rule with management systems."

He said technology only helps those who can afford it. Affinity does its part by offering a CUSO that offers wholesale automotive, mortgage, insurance, financial and marketing services to at least 90 other credit unions. Its subsidiary, AFS CUSO, received Operational CUSO of the Year Award in 2001 from the National Association of Credit Union Service Organizations.

But Fenton does have one gripe: "There's a lack of unity amongst the trade associations in our country for credit unions. If credit unions could work together and cooperate together, we would all be a lot better off. But, trade associations are not fostering that environment."

Affinity Federal CU was charted in 1935 as CHQ Federal Credit Union. Following the Bell System divestiture of the mid-1980s, the name changed to AT&T Employees Federal Credit Union. Then in 1995, the name changed to Affinity Federal Credit Union to reflect the changing membership base. He said the new three-story headquarters that includes 106,000 square feet of office space-the previous one had 60,000 square feet-has been designed to handle growth for the next 10 to 12 years.

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