Larry Ellifritz

CU embraces power of collaboration

Consolidated Community CU assists smaller CUs in offering mortgages.

February 15, 2017

The new hip buzzword for our industry is “collaboration.”

The irony is when I started working for Consolidated Community Credit Union more than 20 years ago, collaboration between credit unions was a daily occurrence.

But with the advent of community charters and open fields of membership, the willingness for credit unions to share ideas has become less over time.

Consolidated Community has just $206 million in assets. We’re almost large enough to dream big, but still small enough to know our place in the Portland, Ore., banking landscape.

As a result, we knew we had to be good at a few niches and that we would never be all things to all people.

We made a strategic decision and, with the help of a booming real estate market and a few outstanding partner credit unions, we made residential and commercial real estate lending our “one thing.”

So, how does this all tie back into helping other credit unions?

We helped more than 800 members purchase homes or refinance their loans this year. Nearly 60% of those members were from other credit unions.

Initially, we helped one or two credit unions that weren’t large enough to have a mortgage program but hated the idea of their members going to a bank for their next home loan.

The program has grown, thus our depth of service has grown. We now assist 20 partner credit unions in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and California.

Brent Schreiber, vice president of real estate lending at Consolidated Community, says our program has been so successful because “we’re one of the few mortgage lenders that actually thinks like a credit union because we are a credit union.

“No one wants to deal with a slick mortgage sales guy,” he continues. “I train all our loan officers to make sure we better the member’s position. If we can’t improve their situation, then we shouldn’t do the loan.”

I think our success has been a combination of unbeatable pricing, low fees, great communication with our partner credit unions, and a high level of integrity.

The ironic thing is, these credit union partnerships started by processing a few mortgage loans. It has led to buying and selling participation loans with each other, joint automated clearing house and Bank Secrecy Act training, policy sharing, reviewing member business loans, recruiting employees—and even completing vendor due diligence.

This year we’re planning a one-day Consolidated Community users meeting to bring the collaboration full circle. We can introduce the credit unions we serve to each other, so they may collaborate with each other.

The potential blows my mind.

My goal is to help these credit unions avoid being merged into larger ones. I’ve seen the value they bring to their members and it’s something that larger credit unions just can’t replicate.

These smaller credit unions—whose assets are less than $200 million—are the face of our industry. These credit unions are fighting for the reason we all exist: serving groups of hard-working, middle-class Americans that no one else would “bank.”

I’m often asked where I envision our mortgage program and this collaboration network going. I tell my peers we’re a federally chartered credit union so we can close home loans in all 50 states. So why not partner with credit unions all across the U.S.?

It’s an ambitious goal, but I think a good product will always stand on its own. I know we’re all stronger if we work together, especially small credit unions.

We’re living, breathing proof that collaborations don’t have to be one-sided and that they can be good for both organizations.

LARRY ELLIFRITZ is CEO of $206 million asset Consolidated Community Credit Union in Portland, Ore., and a 2016 CU Rock Star.