Service CU Sees Opportunity in Wal-Mart Branches

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While community banks around the country are fighting an application from Wal-Mart to gain a bank charter, officials with Service Credit Union say they are excited about the chance to open seven new branches inside the retailing giant.

Service Credit Union Marketing Director Karen Benedetti said the credit union was approached several months ago by a third party, Financial Supermarkets, Inc., proposing the idea. Benedetti said the company had identified Service CU as a candidate financial institution.

"They are the pioneers of supermarket banks," she said "We don't know what put us on their short list."

But she does have a few ideas why. Chartered in 1957, Service CU is the largest credit union in the Granite State with 40,000 members in state and 100,000 worldwide when military members are added to the count. Plus, the CU has just gone over $1 billion in assets for the first time in its history.

Benedetti said Service CU is just getting into the nitty gritty of what the Wal-Mart branches might look like and that Financial Supermarkets has examples of several in-store branches for Service CU officials to examine. The new seven branches at Wal-Mart will feature ATMs and self-serve kiosks, and the initial agreement calls for all to be opened during the next 15 months. Benedetti said the move will double the number of SCU branches to 14 from seven, and the Wal-Mart branches will be open on Saturdays and Sundays. Benedetti acknowledged that some Service CU branches have started to get crowded during peak hours.

"They'll now have seven-day banking. They can bank where they shop. Whether that means twice as many members, I don't know," she said.

Each branch will be fully staffed with full- and part-time CU employees, with the number of people varying with the size of the branch, which Benedetti said can't be determined just yet. Benedetti said Service CU and Financial Supermarket officials held extensive discussions regarding organization values and history. All seven Wal-Mart stores have been built, with some in the process of being converted to Super Centers that will also sell groceries. The first branch will be opened this May in Newington, N.H., near the Service CU main office. Benedetti said the space was made available after an out-of-state bank withdrew from an agreement with Wal-Mart of its own accord.

"There's a strong commitment on both sides," she said.

Benedetti said Service CU had made a multi-year commitment with Wal-Mart and is "thrilled" with the project. As Service CU has a potential membership in every county in New Hampshire except for one, the agreement will literally offer the chance to branch out across the state.

"Virtually anyone going into a Wal-Mart would be eligible. For us it's a win-win. The key thing is the members get more access," she said.

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