Laughing All The Way To The Credit Union

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Buying pizza for lunch is an old trick to quickly boost employee morale, but when it comes to motivation, Sunmark Federal Credit Union might be in a class all by itself. This, after all, is a credit union that spent $40,000 on pizza in 2005. In fact, it may be the only credit union with a "bagel budget," having spent $20,000 on the breakfast food.

Sunmark FCU says it's all worth it. Indeed, in addition to keeping the local bakery busy with pizza and bagel dough orders, Sunmark FCU has an extensive employee rewards program ranging from doughnuts on Friday, self-study programs, education reimbursements and even distributes little toy school buses to employees "getting on the bus" with credit union goals. Frontline tellers have taken to the idea, proudly displaying the little buses by their windows, according to Sunmark Vice President of Sales Tom Widl.

After 20 years in retail, Widl was brought on board by Sunmark FCU to create a sales and service culture. Widl said all credit union incentives are built around excellent service that will directly benefit Sunmark's 46,295 members, plus employees and management.

"For the last five years we've had double-digit loan increases," he reported.

Widl is an overtly upbeat person to speak to, constantly bringing up existing or future ideas to fire up the troops; his email messages are signed "Tom-The Fun Guy."

The tone of each incentive varies quite a bit from backslapping newsletters to setting daily goals for loan origination to "stealing" one from a bank. When a member comes into or telephones a branch raving about a Sunmark employee, the employees name is sent to everyone in the $406-million CU detailing how they "Wowed" the member. The newsletter is a multi-color, animated explosion of clapping hands, a bouncing jack-in-the-box, a gorilla banging cymbals together and of course, a yellow school bus scooting down the road.

"WOW! each member so they can't wait to tell someone else," he said of Sunmark's member service philosophy.

The goals for employees working in mortgage or automobile loans are more specific and business-oriented. Widl said goals at Sunmark aren't lofty, out-of-reach targets drawn up by management that most sales people can't reach anyway. Everyone at Sunmark FCU can see the loan portfolio status as reports are generated every hour of the day.

A Reward Every Day

"Every day if we make goals, then the entire credit union gets to dress down the next day," he said. "Everyone at Sunmark is rewarded for making goals."

After reading books by employee-performance expert Aubrey Daniels, Widl said his attitude regarding awards began to change. Among other things, Daniels advocates positive reinforcement applied instantly and warns against pairing praise with a negative, i.e., the traditional "you did a good job, but ..." Upon joining the credit union, Widl promptly dumped "Mickey Mouse stuff" such as Employee of the Month or dinner with the credit unio's executives in recognition of attaining sales goals. He believes that in the long run, employee recognition programs with only one winner have a detrimental effect. Usually one superstar emerges to win time after time, thereby creating "a few winners and many losers," he said. Widl said the response from his sales force has been enthusiastic, with people competing with goals and not against each other.

Sunmark FCU rewards loan officers who "steal" loans from banks with between $1 and $2 per $1,000 on the loan. For example, a $200,000 mortgage would bring in a $400 bonus on closing. Auto loans are higher, in the range of $5 per $1,000. Sunmark established daily, weekly and monthly goals of stealing bank loans to get members a better rate.

Widl said one loan officer accounted for $40 million in loans by herself and netted more than 100% of her regular salary. Widl said the approach works with his sales force as anyone can be rewarded with large and frequent bonuses. Widl also said the woman had such a positive attitude regarding teamwork that she went to another Sunmark branch to teach how she did it.

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