The Story of The Little Credit Union That Could-And Did

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If you make $8 an hour, you shouldn't try to buy a $60,000 car.

While that may seem obvious to many folks, it hasn't stopped many others from trying, noted one credit union manager, who often finds herself talking members out of trying to do just that.

If you want to meet a credit union manager who knows her members and who is willing a CU to grow, meet Eunice Rogers, CEO of NRS Community Development FCU in Birmingham, Ala. Rogers is more than just CEO. "I'm also the janitor and the secretary and the file clerk." Not to mention a human version of an MCIF, a sales culture and a counseling program.

Getting all of those jobs has been no easy task, and keeping them isn't any easier. Yet Rogers brings extraordinary enthusiasm to a credit union that came about in large part due to her own efforts and those of others within her church and community.

Rogers came to credit unions after a 20-year career with BellSouth ("I feel I was 'right-sized' into credit unions," she said), and 25 years ago became part of a small church group in a low-income, primarily African-American community seeking to charter a credit union, even though initially it met few of the criteria for even getting a whiff of a charter. With the patience of Job, in September of 1996 NRS CDFCU was granted its charter. Today it has 300-plus members and more than $800,000 in assets.

"We are in a community where there is a great economic need," she told the Partnering and Leadership Successes (PALS) conference in Orlando last week put together by NCUA board member Debbie Matz. "We saw in our community dollars coming in and going out, but not turning over in our community. We chartered this credit union to educate our members and teach them that they, too, can achieve. We do have some risky members, but they are good members."

Roger, who said she has done everything she can to educate herself about credit unions, including attending CUNA Management School and constantly talking to other credit union managers, acknowledged the CU's "slow, steady growth" has not met projections, but added, "we feel it's been good for us." She also noted that with the exception of three members, none have access to CU services in their respective workplaces.

Rogers said most of her low-income members live paycheck to paycheck and many often need "emergency" loans of $200. "When they come to us they have what is to them a true crisis," said Rogers. "They have in the past found themselves at the payday lender or the rent-to-own stores because they could walk in and walk out. These crises have thrown them into credit counseling and bankruptcy because they did not know how to wisely use their credit."

The credit union's motto: "Your future depends on what you can save today."

"We tell members, 'You don't have to panic every time some a crisis happens in your life. We have taught our members that you do not have to do all your business out of the trunk of a car."

The credit union's members, she pointed out with a smile, "don't mind calling me at eight or nine o'clock at night. And I take those calls, because crises don't just happen during the day. Our members just need to know that there are alternatives to what they hear about."

Rogers said NRS Community Development FCU is doing what it can to grow in a community of 48,000 residents. There are approximately 150 small businesses in that area, along with 150 churches. "We have a lot of potential, but unfortunately I haven't been able to clone myself," she said.

Rogers said the key to ongoing success is "really knowing our members. If I see a car come across our lot that we didn't finance I will go and ask that member, 'Where did you finance that car?' Did you know you can finance that at the credit union?' Some of our members have financed cars at 30%. Our members love to come into the credit union and make withdrawals when I'm not there, because they know they're going to get a lecture if I am there."

She said the credit union is also active in networking the community, doing fairs and picnics and church events to spread the word. "We want to grow, but we don't want to do it without remembering what our members really need," said Rogers, who pointed out that she doesn't need technology to remember her members' names."

"Our policies support our philosophy," continued Rogers. "We know our members have often made bad decisions based on lack of knowledge. We do look at character. We do look at history with the credit union."

NRS Community Development FCU is open Tuesday, Thursday and Friday during the day, and on Sunday after church. Perhaps most amazing in an era when $100-million CUs lament their future and $10 million CUs say they are doomed to merge, NRSCDFCU's small size hasn't meant it thinks small. It offers automated phone lending, and has rolled out Visa cards through a program with the Alabama league. Its long-term goals include getting into checking accounts, check cards and even mortgages. And if you're willing to help, Rogers wants to talk to you. The credit union's phone is (205) 833-3556. Just remember-the CEO/clerk/loan manager/conselor/janitor/teller/visionary may be busy.

Frank J. Diekmann is editor of The Credit Union Journal.

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