The Name of the Small CU Game

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Twenty years ago, Wanda Mason knew every one of her members by name.

As manager and only employee of the Credit Union for Robertson County, she knew which members had outstanding signature loans-the maximum was $300-and which had fat savings accounts. She kept track of member transactions on ledger cards and worked from a small office in the hospital of her CU's single sponsor. And, quite frankly, her job was just a job.

These days, debt ratios are "out of sight," paper checks have been replaced by credit and debit cards, and computers handle all the math. Sadly, Mason said, she doesn't know all of her members by name anymore, but she has hired people who do.

Yet Mason said she now loves her job so much, it would be a fight to pry her from the used banker's chair in her office.

"To be honest, I took the job just to make more money so I could send my children to a Christian school," she said. "But, when I got here, I saw how important this credit union was to a very few people- 185 members. It wasn't long before I had the fever." Sure, there have been some rough spots during the evolution from a CU with only $60,000 in assets and the bare minimum services to a $14-million, full-service financial institution with several locations. But, said Mason, it has certainly been rewarding and will continue to be as she and her board continue their climb into the future. Already, it has purchased a 1.5-acre parcel of land just off a newly planned highway, where a "futuristic building" will be built to serve tomorrow's members.

Frequent Movers

"With the way the economy is right now, we are doing a lot of things to prepare for the future," she said, adding that the CU has maximized its present space to the limit.

"We moved three different times within the hospital," Mason said, explaining that four years after the last move into a convenient two- room location on the first floor, the board started looking for a second location to serve its growing FOM. In 1991, the CU bought a house and converted it into a credit union facility with a drive-through lane. And, having already taken in several other small credit unions along with county and city employees, Mason and the board decided to change the CU's name to reflect that new membership. A third location was opened five years ago in an old hospital building now being used for county services, whose employees are served by the Credit Union for Robertson County.

With the growth, Mason said, the board wanted to convert to a community charter, but was first rejected by the NCUA because of overlap when another CU took in Robertson County's zip code. Later, it approved the CU's plan to solicit anyone working, living or worshipping within 25 miles of its offices.

All the while, Mason said, she has slowly added new products and services, such as ATM and debit cards and real estate loans.

"The only thing we do not provide are 30-year mortgages and safe deposit boxes," she said, explaining that expenses have been kept at a minimum with the help of other CUs, partnerships, and buying everything but the computer and the security system second- hand.

"It's like cereal," she said. "You can buy the expensive kind in the box or the kind in the bag that doesn't taste any different. I don't go out there spending the members' money without thinking two and three times about it."

Where To Shop

Mason said banks are a good place to look for like-new items. For example, she said, her CU uses a safe that once belonged to a bank. "And my chair probably still has a bank sticker on the bottom," she said. "Taking the old and shining it up saves a lot of members' money."

Frustrating Times

Don't get her wrong. Mason said she does buy new items when necessary, such as the ATM just ordered. When computers began to replace manual recordkeeping at credit unions, Mason said her CU partnered with EDS, but found that its service didn't lighten the load as she had expected.

"We still wrote everything down and mailed it," she said. "Then, a few days later got a print-out that was up-to-date three or four days ago."

After several years of that frustration, the board purchased its first personal computer ot surprisingly, that computer is still in operation. "We just kept adding more and more to it."

Mason said technology is one of the industry changes that "just blows me away" in how it has changed the way people do business. While many of the older members still want face-to-face interaction, some of the younger ones "don't even want to order checks."

And that's not the only change. She chuckled at the comparison of debt from when she started to today.

"When I came here 24 years ago, our maximum signature loan was $300," she said. And even then, her credit committee questioned whether members could get by with only $200. These days, she noted debt ratios are astronomical.

"People are loaded up, debt ratios are out of hand," she said. "First 20% was the greatest we thought they could handle, then 30, then 36 and 40%."

Playing Survivor

Because the credot imopm wanted their business, it has had to make adjustments-including charging some fees-to accommodate them.

"If we don't give them a loan, they're just going to get it somewhere else," she said.

Mason said it was a do or die situation. "And I'm a survivor. But I know that you cannot survive if you can't meet your members needs so everything has to be managed very carefully."

That includes growing at a steady, comfortable pace, she said.

"We would be a $20-million plus credit union by now if we marketed like we wanted," she said, noting that the federal regulators thought the CU was growing too fast and suggested it slow things down a bit. Right now, she said, the focus is on serving existing members.

"To be honest, we didn't want our members to feel like anything has changed," Mason said. "We want them to be known by their names and know that we are here to serve them."

Mason, who once wore many hats, has been encouraged over the years to add staff to help her.

Up until last year when she hired an assistant, Mason said she handled all the payroll, money market accounts, budget, health care benefits, loans, overseeing three branches and often running a teller window.

Mason, who has served on boards with CEOs of mid- and large-asset credit unions, said many have no idea what it's like to run a small credit union.

"Has it been tough?" she said. "You better believe it! I get worn out at times, but I love it."

Delegating work to her "wonderful" 13-member staff has made the job more manageable. Still, Mason added, "It hurts that I have members that walk in the lobby that I don't know."

Her goal now is to have staff that can keep that small credit union feel alive by maintaining a presence in the community by participating in local events and serving on various boards as well as treating members as individuals.

"We think it's that personal touch that makes a big, big difference." Mason said. "People need a smile, they need a hand, they need to know that someone cares."

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