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A $31-million CU here plays hardball with billion-dollar competitors-offering advanced electronic services as well as a fundamental feeling of community, according to CEO Raymond Ward.

Ward even has a challenge when it comes to those competitors. "Perhaps some large CUs might question their own data processing progress and compare it to ours."

Kent County CU offers secure audio-response, 100 shared branches, homebanking, funds transfers, bill pay, e-statements, and online applications, for example.

Since Kent County CU launched homebanking and a debit card product in 2001, the community-chartered CU has run neck and neck with the neighboring banks and eight credit unions, which are also community-chartered, Ward said.

"There are very few electronic products and services that a big bank or credit union can provide that we don't already offer," he told The Credit Union Journal.

Despite the access to high-tech banking, members don't sacrifice that down-home feeling, Ward continued.

"My employees know every single member by name," explained Ward. "One of the things we pride ourselves on is that we're very high-touch member service."

In fact, Kent County CU sometimes takes the lead over its resource-rich rivals, Ward said.

For example, whereas some large CUs are just stepping into the electronic statements and check imaging arena, 5% of Kent County CU's membership is now logging on for the same services one year after launch, Ward said.

And in the two years since Kent County CU has offered homebanking, more than 20% of members are users, he said.

The 6,500-member CU isn't lagging on back-office automation, either, said Ward. This month, paperless receipts and loan documents will largely reduce the CU's dependence on paper storage.

Keeping up with technology is no big deal, according to Ward. Kent County CU relies on data processing CUSO CU*Answers to provide all of its technology, from the core processing and MCIF systems to shared branching, Internet services, networking and security, and check and direct deposit processing.

"If we, the owners of the CUSO, want something different, we go in together to make it happen," Ward explained. "You can't do that with just any data processor.

That's why technology isn't overwhelming to us."

By year's end, the CUSO will also provide credit card processing to Kent County CU.

Things haven't always been so easy for the CU. Prior to joining Kentwood, Mich.-based CU*Answers in 2001, Kent County CU had to buy solutions from about a dozen different vendors, Ward said.

"Every solution with our former data processor was a la carte," he said. "Or else we had to go out and add platforms from third parties."

Audio-response was considered an extra at the CU's former provider, at a cost of $2,000 per month, Ward said.

Ward said that the price for automation at Kent County CU is quite affordable. The CU pays an average of $9,000 to $11,000 per month to CU*Answers for the integrated solutions-including audio response-and marketing and statement mailings, he said.

"My costs today are not anymore than they were with the old system four years ago, but I have more functionality," Ward added.

CUJ Resources

For additional information on this story:

* Kent County CU at www.kentcountycu.org

* CU Answers at www.cuanswers.com

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