BY KENNETH C. BATOR
“Do you run a credit union that just so happens to be in business? Or do you run a business that offers quality services to a well-defined niche that just so happens to be a credit union?”
I often ask these questions when I begin working with a new client. It may seem like the questions are the same but they really aren’t. In an environment where on average we have been losing a credit union per day since 1969, I’m convinced that the credit unions that survive in 2017 and beyond will be those that are run like a business and create a true differentiating brand that is supported by a strong culture and that also appeals to a specific niche.
Late in 2016, I had the pleasure of attending the REACH conference. Thankfully the program, much like CU Business Magazine, focused its education on running a credit union as a business. The event, managed by the California and Nevada Credit Union Leagues, began with “Your credit union is its own dynamic business with unique goals.” When I heard that very first sentence in the introduction I was just finishing a conversation with the attendee sitting next to me. That statement almost made me immediately cut off my discussion to stand up and clap.
After being involved in this industry for well over 20 years, I’m used to these events leading off with a diatribe on how to prepare for a slew of impending regulations, a “Don’t Tax My Credit Union” rant, or a history lesson to impart the immaculate importance of the credit union movement. (Insert yawn.) Before I lose more than half of those reading this article, allow me to say that all of those topics are clearly and absolutely important. However, I would argue that none of them are the most important. So as someone who frequently challenges his clients to think like a business that offers quality services that just so happens to be a credit union, to say that I found the opening of REACH to be refreshing is an understatement.
In fact, when I had the pleasure to speak with Larry Palochik, SVP Member Solutions for the California and Nevada Credit Union Leagues, after the conference I first asked him about the “credit unions as businesses” theme I experienced throughout the program. “We rebranded (the conference) after the downturn of the economy and the first year our theme was REACH…Reach Up, Reach Out, Reach Deep,” answered Larry. “Credit unions had spent so much time just having to survive and deal with regulators and the economy. We were really trying to get credit unions to look outside of their own business model. Look at other industries to see what innovations and disruptions were happening out there. Pull themselves out of the muck and mire… and reach up out of the downturn to reach out to new partners and new ideas and reach deep within themselves to reinvent their cultures, their organizations, the way they deliver the member experience.”
“Our members know that we will challenge them, especially in the general sessions, with … folks from outside the industry that maybe are completely different to try to connect those parallels that all businesses are facing,” added Larry. We continued to discuss the challenging environment of today and, a subject near and dear to my heart – strategic planning. “In the past you could strategically plan for three to five years and everything was wonderful but today things change in 12 to 18 months. You have to change all the way from the top of your culture, all the way down through your organization in how you interact with your members,” exclaimed Larry. In adding to the “think like a business” approach, many organizations outside the credit union industry will plan for the next six months or less. Many startups today will only provide a two-page business brief rather than a business plan that exceeds 100 pages because today’s environment can change very quickly. How’s that for a “completely different” perspective on
I shared with Larry more than once how thoroughly impressed I was with the entire REACH program, from the education they imparted to the overall event experience. So, of course, I can highly recommend attending their next REACH conference in November 2017. But since it’s January and we can’t wait until the end of the year to jump start our credit union business, here are the three top takeaways from the most recent REACH event that Larry and I both agree can improve just about any strategy for 2017: