One CU's First Step To Growth: Asking How It Would 'Destroy' Itself

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When Keryn Marlatt started out at WestStar CU in Las Vegas, she was dying to launch a television ad campaign. And she did-seven years later.

"The first thing I wanted was to do those ads, but I didn't for seven years," said Marlatt, SVP-strategic planning and service. "I had to start with the research, first."

Marlatt came to Las Vegas from a small town in Wyoming, and quickly learned there were 5,000 people like herself moving to town every month. And she learned a lot of other things as she researched her new hometown and the gaming industry for which it is famous.

"Everyone should take the time to learn about their community," she said in her remarks before The Credit Union Journal's SEG & Business Development Conference. "Even if you've lived in your community for a long time, you should re-educate yourself about the community."

As Marlatt dug into her research she found a primary disconnect between the credit union and the people it serves. "Vegas is a 24/7 town, but we didn't even have Saturday hours," she related.

The credit union took all of its employees through a process that was lovingly dubbed "Destroy WestStar." The mission: come up with all the various ways the credit union could be "destroyed" and then determine what needed to be done to make WestStar "indestructible."

"It took senior management eight hours to go through this process one weekend. When I went through the process with the staff, it took 45 minutes. But it was consistent across the board," Marlatt related of the self-examination of its competitive weaknesses.

By literally including everyone in the "destruction" process, the credit union got automatic buy-in to the conclusion that "service is our core."

The next step was to formally identify the CU's market. In WestStar's case, it was establishments that offer gaming, which in Las Vegas includes grocery stores. It's a potential FOM of more than 246,000.

From there, the credit union created a branding statement that was added to the logo: "The Gaming Employees' Credit Union since 1975." Marlatt noted that the reference to 1975 is a huge longevity statement in Vegas where 25 years is a lifetime.

In testing the brand on the market, WestStar got a better handle on what its members need and want. "Our members work some pretty strange shifts, their deposits are in cash, they don't trust a night drop box, and their deposits aren't going to fit in a traditional ATM slot," she explained.

The credit union also discovered that many of its members don't qualify for checking or loans at many financial institutions, often as the result of debt problems related to gambling. So, in addition to extending its hours, it added a variety of products and services, such as "Second Chance" checking and loan products that were of great interest to attendees.

Those products and strategies in place, WestStar rolled out its mass media effort, hiring a media expert to ensure maximum effect from each dollar spent. The campaign included television, billboards and newspaper ads as well as a massive training effort and incentive program for staff-a staff overwhelmed by results.

Among those results:

* Average new account volume jumped from 486 per month to 780 for a total of 2,337 new members.

* New accounts from off-site sign-ups increased by 155%.

* Referrals from friends, family and co-workers increased 190%.

* Checking account penetration increased 69%.

* Average profitability of new accounts was $27 per month

* ROI was at $104,796.

One lesson learned: "We should have prepared better for growth," Marlatt related. "Our volume doubled, and we just weren't quite ready for it. We had standing room only in our lobbies, and I had to rush to hire new people to handle it."

"The board asked me not to do TV this year because we can't handle the growth," Marlatt said. "We just don't have enough windows, and our members just can't use the Internet, ATM and Telephone Teller. But branding is never over, so our efforts continue."

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