Medical Area Federal Credit Union is one of Boston's smaller lending institutions, but in the first five months of the year the $25 million-asset credit union opened 225 checking accounts, three times the number it would usually open during that period.
The explanation: "We've had a tremendous onslaught of new accounts since the Fleet merger," said president Anthony C. Terrizzi, referring to the union last year between Fleet Financial Corp. and Bank Boston Corp. "They're coming to credit unions because the fee structures of banks have driven them to look at other institutions." It is a similar story at Harvard University Employees Credit Union in Cambridge, Mass. The $115 million-asset institution typically opens 50 checking accounts a month, but in May it opened 400, president and chief executive Eugene J. Foley said. While he credited Harvard's no-fee checking product for bringing in some new customers, the real push, he said, has come from "folks who don't want to get their accounts sold again."
According to a recent survey by the Massachusetts Credit Union League, some credit unions could see the number of checking accounts rise by 25% or more this year, well above the average annual growth rate of 10%. And though there obviously are some other factors at play - new laws that allow credit unions to broaden their fields of membership, more aggressive marketing - anecdotal evidence suggests that consolidation is fueling much of the activity.
"It appears to be directly related to consumer confusion of mergers, specifically the Fleet-BankBoston merger and the sale of Fleet branches to Sovereign," Daniel F. Egan Jr., the president of the Massachusetts trade group, said.
As a condition of their merger, regulators ordered Fleet and BankBoston to divest 315 branches in Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island. Sovereign Bancorp of Philadelphia, with $35 billion of assets, entered New England when it purchased of 281 of those branches.
John P. Hamill, Sovereign Bank New England chairman and chief executive officer, downplayed any link between Sovereign's entry into the market and the surge in credit union membership in the state. Though Sovereign began converting branches in Connecticut, Rhode Island, and western Massachusetts months ago, it only recently completed that process in the Boston area, he said. The company has lost just 3%, or 60,000, of its accounts since the conversion began in March, well below the anticipated rate of 5%.
"I think what you're hearing from credit unions has to do with other" mergers, Mr. Hamill said.
Runoff at $104 billion asset FleetBoston Financial Corp. is harder to quantify. A spokesman declined to comment on its attrition rate, but said that runoff has "tracked according to plan."
But a small amount of customer defections at larger banks can be a windfall for small credit unions. In the past 10 years membership at credit unions has soared 26%, to 77.7 million. Over the same decade the number of credit unions has dropped 24%, to 11,016 last year, according to the National Association of Federal Credit Unions.
Of course, not all the growth can be attributed to bank consolidation. Fred R. Becker, the trade group's president and CEO, credited the rise to credit unions' competitive rates and reputation for personal attention. Others speculated that the recent deposit surge may be linked to stock market volatility and a rise in yearend bonuses.
Still, in the wake of some bank mergers, credit unions often fill the void left in communities, said Chip Filson, a credit union consultant and chief executive officer at Callahan & Associates in Washington.
"Consumers generally like to do business with local institutions because it gives them a feeling of familiarity," he said.
Take Harvard University Employees Credit Union, where the number of checking accounts is expected to increase 85% this year - on top of a 50% increase in 1999. Mr. Foley said he sees a direct correlation between bank merger activity and its skyrocketing growth.
Consumers are "voting with their feet" because "they don't want to be an account number," Mr. Foley said.
Larger credit unions are also seeing some swelling in the number of accounts. Digital Federal Credit Union, the largest in Massachusetts with 150,000 members, said it expects an annualized growth rate of 28% this year. Checking accounts at the $1.1 billion-asset cooperative grew 5.7% over the first three months of this year, mainly due to "a dissatisfaction with what is being offered at the major banks," said Tim Garner, a vice president in the marketing department.
The union between Citizens Financial Corp. of Providence, R.I., and Boston-based UST Corp. has also sent business Digital's way, Mr. Garner said.