Here’s why I love credit unions

Insights into what makes not-for-profit financial institutions unique and special.

August 20, 2020

Before becoming chief financial officer (CFO) at PenFed Credit Union, Tysons, Va., in February, I spent more than a decade in the for-profit financial services industry.

During that time, I was on the executive team for a bank that went public. Transitioning from a private company to a public company was a huge win for the bank, but it brought new challenges and responsibilities our team hadn’t dealt with before—namely, the pressures of quarterly reporting and the market’s expectations around earnings.

The time I spent working with for-profit financial institutions have given me a unique perspective on what makes the credit union industry such a valuable part of the American financial landscape.

Here are four insights I’ve gained:

1. Don’t underestimate the value of thinking long-term

In many ways, the banking industry continues to be disrupted by the advancement of technology that is influencing and changing consumer behaviors. This dynamic added another layer of complexity to manage in an already complex and changing economic environment.

Developing and executing on a long-term strategy while balancing the need to respond to investor expectations and a sometimes irrational market could create inherent conflicts as to where to invest capital to ensure optimal quarterly earnings while still investing toward the future.

Without these quarterly pressures, credit unions have the unique ability to strategize long-term. They can build a loyal, lifelong membership base gradually.

They can invest in thoughtfully developed products. They can implement programs that aim to make three-year or 30-year, not three-month, improvements in their communities.

It’s easy to take this for granted until you’ve seen the other side.

2. A focused mission is powerfully uniting

Credit unions were founded as mission-driven institutions. And many banks today are implementing meaningful philanthropic initiatives of their own.

However, without the core community focus of a credit union, it’s much more difficult to narrow that mission to something relevant and compelling.

The sense of purpose credit unions have is unifying. By their very nature, credit unions’ philanthropy is more focused and, in many cases, more effective.

Teams unite more easily around a common, personal mission, creating an intangible sense of pride that is hard to value. Serving the defense community is a common goal we at PenFed and the PenFed Foundation are committed to.

How we do that in our local communities across our network may be different, but it allows employees to take a personal stake in programs that benefit their family and their neighbors.

Our employees take pride in the work they are doing. When philanthropy efforts are haphazard or decentralized, it is more difficult to see a cumulative impact.

In 2020, PenFed and the PenFed Foundation will provide more than $2 million to more than 70 community organizations.

3. Collaboration is more effective than competition

When I began my career in the credit union industry, I was most surprised by the phenomenon of industry collaboration. Even in the nonprofit sector, this level of support between organizations of the same type is rare.

Because of credit unions’ unique community model, competition is scarce. I have been moved by how often credit unions go out of their way to help each other and to share information and best practices.

Banks, competing with each other for customers and for profits, do not have the luxury of this kind of cooperation. Competition can absolutely be motivating, but I find greater value in a healthy balance of competition that is founded in a sense of community.

4. In the digital era, relationships still have value

As more banks transition to digital institutions, they often lose the opportunity to form meaningful relationships with their customers.

While credit unions should certainly invest in digital products and services (because members often stick with their credit unions even if they move), credit unions ultimately make business decisions based on their members instead of the bottom line.

Nearly one-third of American adults say they open checking accounts with a bank or a credit union that has conveniently located branches and ATMs. Knowing they can get face-to-face service when they need it makes customers more loyal to their financial institution, even if loyalty is less easily quantified than other metrics.

As technology evolves, however, members’ preferences might change. But our commitment to meeting their needs remains unwavering.

Banks can learn a lot from the credit union model. Credit unions are personal, and this common thread unites us.

But credit unions can also learn important lessons from banks’ agility and responsiveness to market conditions.

In this ever-changing and competitive landscape, banks and credit unions that don’t innovate, adapt, and grow won’t survive. Yet agility doesn’t require quarterly earnings statements.

Credit unions can adopt this same focus on adaptability alongside a longstanding focus on service, which will help us continue to expand.

JILL STREIT is CFO of PenFed Credit Union.