Don't try to be everything to everyone.
That's one important lesson Kim Sponem, CEO of $1.5 billion asset Summit Credit Union, Madison, Wis., learned during a leadership sabbatical in Australia.
Sponem spent three months in Australia working first with Abacus, Australia’s credit union trade association, and then mecu, a $2.2 billion asset credit union based in Melbourne, as part of a World Council of Credit Unions (WOCCU) pilot program.
Australian credit unions have experienced many issues now facing U.S. credit unions, including challenges to their tax-exempt status, reduced interchange income, and accelerated industry consolidation.
Too often, she says, U.S. credit unions “try to be the best in service in all aspects rather than saying, ‘We’re going to be really good a A,B, and C, but not in X,Y, and Z.’ Too often, for example, we try to be good at high-touch—but also at getting members in and out of the branch quickly.”
Australian credit unions tend not to do that because it’s too expensive, Sponem says. “So, while members might experience really fast phone service, they might not see fast service in the branch. That way, members learn if they want something quickly, they’ll go to one channel. If they want something for free, they’ll go to another channel. We need to carve out areas we’re good at and those we’re not.”
The unique value proposition mecu offers is sustainability in both financial behavior and in being environmentally friendly.
“Living paycheck to paycheck, for example, isn’t a sustainable behavior,” Sponem explains. “Therefore, mecu’s mission is to eliminate that habit and make members’ financial positions sustainable by, for example, not automatically increasing credit card limits to encourage borrowing beyond members’ means.”
On the environmental front, mecu contends that how many people live isn’t sustainable for the environment—and it has taken “eco friendly” to a new level by measuring its carbon footprint as a business and incorporating that into its business operations.
For example, members get the lowest auto loan rate if they finance low-carbon-emission vehicles. “The less environmentally friendly the car, the higher the rate,” Sponem says. “And for every car financed, mecu will plant enough trees or vegetation to counteract the emissions from the car for the term of the loan.”
Plus, mecu won’t do mortgages on homes of a certain size because of the carbon footprint the house emits. And it offers the lowest-cost credit card in Australia, which is made from chlorine-free plastic.
“The key message is to provide value in two ways: from products through competitive rates, fair fees, and great service; and through social responsibility and sustainability,” Sponem says.
While not all of these practices would work for Summit, the credit union embraces sustainability via thrift initiatives that allow members to no longer live paycheck to paycheck.
“Efficiency helps us return value to our members,” Sponem adds. “Growth, return on assets, and capital keep us viable, and our community involvement strategy is socially responsible. Helping to facilitate dreams gives us a higher purpose and vision to work toward.”