Tropical Financial CU First To Win Florida's Sterling

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Tropical Financial Credit Union has become the first financial institution in this state to ever win the Florida Governor's Sterling Award. The award recognizes companies for all-around organizational excellence.

The Sterling Award is modeled after the Baldridge Award, created by Congress in the 1980s to encourage and recognize organizational excellence in the United States. Florida started the Sterling Award in 1992 to honor organizations in small business, education, health care, manufacturing and service. In the ensuing 13 years, the Sterling Award has been given to only 42 other organizations in the state of Florida.

The 2005 Sterling Award went to only two Florida organizations: TFCU and Charles R. Hadley Elementary School in Miami.

TFCU CEO Greg Blount said he believes one thing set the credit union set apart from all other financial institutions in Florida: member service.

"We believe that high quality member service is a differentiating aspect in the marketplace," Blount said.

Word Of Mouth

Believing in the power of word of mouth, Blount said Tropical Financial doesn't advertise on television, radio or even in local publications.

"The vast majority of our members have been referred by existing members," Blount said. "Everyone talks about great service, but I doubt that they have our numbers."

The Sterling Award is a rigorous examination of every aspect of an organization. Examiners look at the details in seven categories: leadership; strategic planning; customer and market focus; measurement, analysis and knowledge management; human resource focus; process management and business results.

For instance, the award's judges believe it's fine to have strong leadership, but do those same leaders communicate ideas well? Do they involve front-line employees in planning? If so, then how does leadership offer feedback to employees or accept recommendations?

Sterling Award Executive Director Dione Geiger said the award recognizes an organization as an entity and not just one aspect such as finances or leadership. "It's very systematic, very holistic," Geiger said.

While the Sterling Award has a heavy emphasis on business and proper practices, Geiger said that the award criteria could be applied to any type of organization.

For example, Geiger noted that when evaluating a school, Sterling Award examiners take a close look at the general upkeep of the buildings and the cleanliness of the classrooms.

"If the teacher and custodian keep the room clean, it's a better environment and the children learn more," Geiger said.

Geiger said in the end, organizations are selected on the basis if they are going to be good role models for everyone in Florida. Award winners are expected to be good examples and to share their practices to make better organizations and a better state. Geiger said organizations aren't competing with each other, only striving for excellence in every category.

"It really is a role model," she said. "You wouldn't get a winner with gaps in their organization."

Week Long Examinations

Blount said the $661-million TFCU's staff first submitted a 50-page report that award examiners used to determine if a site visit was in order. Eight examiners visited the credit union for a week, looking at all aspects of the operation.

Blount said the examiners are expert interviewers in the criteria used in the Baldridge and Sterling Awards. No stone was left unturned, according to Blount.

"They also spent a great deal of time interviewing employees," he said. "It was quite an experience. It was hundreds of questions."

Blount said the examiners interviewed fully one third of his 300 employees for their report to the judging committee. While the process was demanding, Blount said he enjoyed the chance for outside input and the recognition for the hard work put in by TFCU employees.

"In my mind, it's a very good approach to get people in an organization to understand the overall picture," Blount said. "We think it's a great way to communicate what we're all about."

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