How One CU Became A Haven For Its Community

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Community First CU here has the dubious honor of having been through three of the four hurricanes that have ravaged the state of Florida in the last six weeks, making the credit union something of an expert in disaster planning and recovery.

Of the 25 financial institutions in the area, CFCU boasts of having stayed open the longest prior to each of the storms and reopening the quickest afterwards, according to CEO John Santarpia.

"Some of them were closing down a day and a half early, when the sun was still shining, and it was a perfectly nice day and people needed service, so we were here for them," he related. "When we opened for business on Monday and realized no one else was, we put a sign out that said: 'OPEN 9/27' so they would understand that we really were open that day; that it wasn't just a sign that had been left up from before the storm. We ran out of cash at our ATMs right before Frances because we had too many foreign transactions, so at some point we had to shut that down and make sure we still had cash to serve our members."

But the one thing CFCU had that was more precious than cold, hard cash was: cold. "We have a monster generator with 500 gallons of diesel," Santarpia explained, noting that the generator has the capacity to run the CU's air conditioning. With that amount of fuel, CFCU could have continued to run on "full power" for up to eight to 10 days, while most other businesses could only run their computers and lights while sweltering in the full heat of Florida's brutal extended summer.

"I inherited this branch and this generator," he said. "I really have to applaud the foresight of my predecessor and our board. We are building a branch in Bartow right now, and you can be sure I'm going to make sure it's got a serious generator, too."

Indeed, when the 13,000-square-foot branch was being built, attention to detail was huge, Santarpia suggested. "This is a mining town, so when they chose the floor tile, they chose one that would match the phosphate that gets tracked in on payday at the mines," he offered.

That attention to detail has paid off for the $103-million credit union this hurricane season. "The branch was built in 1998. We offered it to the Mulberry Police Department as a back-up site for them," Santarpia commented. "They didn't end up needing the branch, but it was ready to become a command center."

While it didn't end up morphing into a law enforcement emergency command center, it did do double-duty as a shelter during the storm.

"We told staff if they wanted to ride the storm out here they could, and a few of them did and brought elderly family members with them," he recounted. "We've got a kitchen, some nice couches, and, of course, A/C. It provided safety for them and safety for us. If you've got a choice of financial institutions to rob, you're not going to choose the one with people inside it."

The branch offers other amenities, as well. "We have a shower here at the credit union. I have never used it, and I don't think my predecessor ever did, either, but a number of our employees have now," he related. "They come here, bring their makeup and everything they need, shower up and then they're ready to serve the members."

While the shower and A/C are hot commodities in communities across the storm-torn state, that is not the primary reason CFCU's staff has consistently made it to work despite the hurricanes.

"All but one employee reported in to work, and the one who didn't had a severe family emergency. Her mother is on dialysis, and she had to get her taken care of," Santarpia explained. "I really appreciate my staff. Before the storms we offered flexible leave so that if anyone still needed to get home to get ready for the hurricane-or even if they were just too scared-they could go home. We didn't want them here if they weren't going to be able to function. A few did leave, but most stayed and served our membership. We really learned just how much we can accomplish when we all work together. This crisis has really brought the staff together. I'm very proud of them. When everyone else was closed, we were here for our members because of the commitment of my staff."

Santarpia also offered kudos to the Florida league and Southeast Corporate for their proactive help,

Some of CFCU's signage was damaged during the storm, but Santarpia said the most important sign remains. That's the one that reads, "We're Here For You."

"We've been serving members and non-members alike without any surcharges. We could have made a bundle off of surcharging those non-members, but we want to be here for the whole community," Santarpia offered. "Now that they know it, they're not likely to forget it. We lived up to our sign. We are here for them."

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