Keeping Folks From Being Sold DOWN THE RIVER

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While Downriver Community Credit Union is proud to claim a full menu of product and service options, it prides itself on taking care of the needs of all of its members-even those who only need a few hundred bucks to pay an electric bill.

"People very easily get behind in their bills and need an extra $500," said Michael Chmiel, President/CEO. "We meet the needs of all types of people."

Formerly Great Lakes Steel Employees Credit Union and founded to serve steel workers in Ecorse and River Rouge, Mich., its membership experienced a lot of challenges-particularly in the 1970s and 1980s with layoffs and loss of medical insurance and pensions.

"When I got here 18 years ago, Great Lakes Steel had 12,000 employees," Chmiel said. "Now there are 2,500."

He said because many of DCCU's members are retirees of the steel business and residents of low-income areas that need free services, the CU's board came up with a plan to make up the differences through growth.

"About three years ago, we took in 15 communities that make up the large part of the downriver area," he said.

With its new community charter came a name change to Downriver Community Credit Union and a second branch. Its name comes from its location south along the Detroit River from the city of Detroit, the auto manufacturing hub that created the need for much of the steel in the first place.

Last year, representatives of Marathon Employees Federal Credit Union asked DCCU officials if they were interested in a merger. It would mean an additional $2 million in assets and another 1,500 members, bringing its new total to $117-million in assets serving 20,000 members.

The deal, secured in only two months, brought with it two additional branches, including a small one at the Marathon Plant and another in the low-income area on Detroit's Southwest side.

"Marathon's CEO and senior manager retired," he said. "The only other full-time person came with us."

He said Marathon, like so many other small credit unions, suffered because it wasn't able to replace its top managers after the first two it hired within a year "didn't work out."

"What kills these small credit unions is when they lose their CEOs, they can't find another person who will work for the kind of money they can offer. There are plenty of jobs where they can make more money just running one department."

Chmiel's said his staff of 42 is still adjusting to the expansion as the board discusses ways to better serve its new members. On the to-do list, already, is a larger branch near the Marathon plant, he said.

"Once we get this new building and new staff going, I think we can do more to serve that population and draw in new members," he said.

Quite frankly, Chmiel said, "We have never done a whole lot of advertising and we still sign up about 100 members a month. We feel that we can better spend that money offering a lot of free (and low-cost) goods and services and with good rates."

He said reputation and word-of-mouth do the rest.

"I've always believed that somebody who has been sent here by somebody else will be a much better member."

While Ecorse (which comes from the French word for tree bark) is home to several major bank branches, including Bank of America, Washington Mutual and Bank One. Chmiel doesn't consider any of them a threat.

Monitoring Closed Accounts

"Sure there are some banks around but their rates are higher," he said. "Savings wise, they can't beat us and our loan rates are always competitive. We look at our closed accounts very closely so I can tell you that very few that close are doing so to go somewhere else (locally)."

Chmiel, who began his career in the financial industry nearly 40 years ago, said he believes in interacting with members. When the CU was remodeled three years ago, he asked that a large glass wall be all that separates him from the lobby.

"I remember one CEO coming in and making the comment, 'If someone comes in and asks for you, you can't tell them you're not here.'"

Not only does he want to be there for the members "who just need five dollars or want to invest large amounts of money," he said all of his managers feel the same way.

DCCU made the news last year when it became the first CU in the state to install a 911 button at its ATM, despite never having had a crime committed there. When a member was robbed recently, he said, the button was used to call police.

"It worked perfectly," Chmiel said, adding that unfortunately, the robbers got away. "We are looking for new things all the time. We thought this was a good way to build up member confidence."

In addition the emergency button, the CU improved the lighting around the ATM and added digital surveillance cameras.

As the credit union continues to evolve, he said, the board is discussing ways to keep up. Among the ideas being kicked around are adding a mobile unit that could travel to specific areas to serve members.

For example, he said, "Maybe we could go to retirement homes on social security days."

Chmiel said he expects the CU will pick up the pace on its already successful educational seminars, held in conjunction with Excel, a company that offer 24-hour debt-counseling assistance.

"We have a yearly contract with Excel and probably get 40 to 50 phone calls through them."

He said the CU also brings in experts who specialize in certain topics. For example, he said, an attorney is scheduled to discuss trusts. A popular seminar for teens that addressed the pitfalls of credit card debt drew a crowd of about 40, he said. Another popular topic addressed debt and offered free credit reports to attendees.

Chmiel said he expects members from its new low-income FOMs to be particularly receptive to educational classes.

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