Member Profile: Washington State Employee's Credit Union
(Published in the Summer Edition of South Sound Sustainable's Living Local - July 2017
Trying to “grow with intent”, a local credit union with deep roots in the community seeks to up its game without losing its soul
Back in the ‘90’s I had been toying with the idea of making the switch from my ‘normal’ bank (remember SEAFIRST anyone?) to one of those dodgy local members-only credit unions. It was not without some hesitation I approached this decision. I had been working for the state for a while and the idea of joining an exclusive version of a bank seemed intriguing, one available only to state employees and their families, hence the Washington State Employees Credit Union or WSECU. Would I get the same level of ‘world class’ banking services I’d been used to when I hooked up with a snoozy credit union that catered only to equally snoozy state workers? More importantly, credit unions sported a mere handful of cash machines compared to the big guys. These were my pre-kid years when I was footloose and fancy free and cash was still king. Getting stuck late at night clubbing with no cash machine in sight to keep the party going was just too scary a proposition.
Looking back now I feel stupid for taking so long to make the plunge. Not only has cash become less a concern, but I was way off base thinking I’d have to put up with a lesser level of service and professionalism. WSECU over the years has proven to be quite capable at holding its own against any global bank when it comes to meeting the financial services needs of everyday folks.
According to Ann Flannigan, a Vice President at WSECU, there is much more at play than competently delivering financial services. I met up with Ann at the credit union’s still very slick-looking flagship branch downtown across the street from its humble one-story original main office it vacated years ago. In the 2000s, they too had to consider a big switch and not without some trepidation. “All the credit unions were dropping their exclusive client base policy and embracing ‘open field membership’”, Ann recounted. “We were one of the last ones to make the switch” she explained. WSECU began in Olympia with a unique focus that looked beyond the bottom line to the members and their community at large. She said, “It wasn’t an easy decision for the board but when they decided to make the move they asked not how profits would increase from growth, but instead, how would growth add value to our members or help them live better? In the end, we expanded the tent to all who wish to come together for the greater good, but we did not want to become just another big bank”. Now with 20 branches statewide and a member base of 234 thousand strong, with that number at a 7-8% annual growth rate, Ann assured me that WSECU still isn’t looking “to go too big too fast" and that they will continue to emphasize "growth with intent."
WSECU is the real deal when it comes to staying true to its roots as a not-for-profit, members owned cooperative: a board of nine volunteers - members elected by members - calls the shots, which is extraordinary considering it’s a multi-billion-dollar operation. These local folks have the authority to fire the CEO if they deem it best for their membership and community. The goal explains Ann, “is to not make money but through income to return value back to the cooperative and improve services.”
The Board expects their credit union managers to set the right tone for members and staff on a daily basis. A big part of that is creating the right workplace culture. I can attest to this from personal experience. My visits through the years to various branches are always marked by familiar faces sporting casual, friendly professionalism. This experience has always struck me as genuine, lacking the put-on demeanor of retail drones mouthing corporate lines of forced pleasantries. The staff remain familiar of course because there’s not a lot of personnel churn at WSECU. That alone speaks volumes to how advanced a local credit union has become at making both members and staff feel at home.
Beyond staying true to its mission of fostering a sense of family for both their members and workforce, WSECU must struggle with the tectonic shifts in culture and technology. Ann explained the ultimate challenge: “How do you keep a connection with the customer when many prefer more and more to bank on line.” WSECU has tried to balance technology with a human face to meet every generation’s evolving banking styles. One longtime member may still prefer cash, keep a checkbook and expect a teller experience for their transactions, while a Millennial will expect all transactional services to involve nothing beyond their fingers and phone. But Ann points out that when those tech-driven young adults run into problems they want someone immediately available to guide them through a quick fix and get them on their way. “We want to make sure we catch them when they fall with a live voice on the line when their phones or laptops fail them.”
WSECU by all appearances is meeting these challenges successfully but this is not by chance. Ann reminded me the formula is simple: “The board is our leadership and the first question they ask on any decision is whether this will be good for the members and right behind that, will it also be good for our employees.”
We live in a time when more and more critical services such as health and financial are controlled by large organizations that lack any human face, much less a genuine role as direct stakeholders in the community. These organizations make decisions based exclusively on what will increase stock value and board or CEO pay. One bright exception to this disturbing trend can be found in the WSECU cooperative model. WSECU remains "not just another bank" but instead a member cooperative that strives to provide all the everyday financial services the local community needs, and with the same level of competency as the big guys, thank you very much.
Add to all this their latest commitment to apply 4% of net income ($747,000 last year) in grants and sponsorships to non-profit partners that invest back into the community, and this sleepy little credit union founded here in the late ‘50’s seems more like a modern, vibrant giant for local sustainability.