A Heartfelt Approach To Community Engagement

GTE Financial struggled alongside its neighbors during the Great Recession. Now, a renewed focus on community engagement is strengthening all parties.


The story of Ybor City in Tampa, FL, starts in 1885 with a cigar manufacturer named Vicente Martinez Ybor. Ybor was a Spanish immigrant who came to the United States by way of Cuba to establish his Principe de Gales line of cigars. Ybor chose a location outside Tampa as the home for his cigar kingdom, and the area become known as Ybor City.

Ybor City thrived in the late 1800s and transformed Tampa from a small town to one of the largest cities in Florida and a world leader in cigar manufacturing. Ybor City — which was known for its large population of immigrants from Spain, Cuba, and Italy — was all business; and that business was cigars.

Business in Ybor slowed during the Great Depression and people fled the city. The abandonment and decay continued through much of the 20th century, but today the city is experiencing a rebirth. City and community leaders aim to restore Ybor to the booming community it once was. And restaurants and businesses encouraged by the community spirit are once again moving into the area.

One of those businesses is GTE Financial Credit Union ($1.6B, Tampa, FL). A change of leadership and new focus on community in 2010 positioned the credit union to bolster redevelopment in Ybor City as well as set the ground for a complete reversal of its ailing balance sheet.

The Heavy Toll Of The Recession

Like many credit unions, GTE Financial struggled during the economic downturn of the late 2000s. The institution’s longtime CEO had retired, and the credit union could not escape the ill effects of the Great Recession that engulfed the entire state of Florida. The credit union suffered negative growth in assets, loans, shares, members, and ROA. Current leadership at the credit union recalls that time period as the brink of extinction.

But before the credit union’s financial situation had turned dire, GTE Financial had moved its headquarters to Ybor City. The surge of nearly 1,000 workers to the area in 2005 aided the community’s revitalization, but it took the end of the Great Recession and the leadership of new CEO Joe Brancucci — who joined GTE Financial in 2010 — to change the focus of the credit union and better serve its neighbors in the historic district.

“Joe did a great job determining where the credit union could make the most sizable difference,” says Brian Best, senior vice president of member solutions. “Rather than diluting the credit union’s impact over a large landscape, we focused on where we could make a considerable difference to the communities we serve.”

Ybor had an established community base, so the credit union actively sought out residents’ needs and responded with appropriate products and services.

“It’s about providing home-ownership, transportation to and from work, and environmental sustainability,” Best says. “We live and work in this community. We need to support it in every facet.”

How Can We Help You?

After five years of negative growth and lackluster community relationships, GTE instituted a series of community outreach programs to determine how it could better serve its members. Today, GTE executives sit on nearly 20 boards in and around their field of membership, including the nearby University of Tampa, The Boys and Girls Club of Tampa Bay, and Big Brothers Big Sisters of Tampa Bay. GTE is also helping Big Brothers Big Sisters renovate two areas of its local building, bringing new technology and personalized space to the non-profit’s youth activities.

GTE also created a Community Education Officer whose sole job is to teach and promote financial literacy. The education officer presents workshops on financial basics such as how to use a checking account or a credit card, how to apply for a mortgage, and how to determine good loans from bad ones. GTE uses the workshops primarily as an educational tool for the community. Selling products is a perk rather than a goal.

Community engagement isn’t just an initiative at the credit union; it’s a business philosophy. For example, every year the credit union celebrates Member Fest.

“We open up the grounds of GTE Financial and allow people to come in and interact with the credit union and ask questions,” Best says.

The open house includes financial education classes as well as a “Talk With Joe” session, where Brancucci sits down with members of the community and addresses what GTE has done during the year and what it is planning to do in the future.

Such programs and one-on-one interactions combined with the credit union’s focus groups are critical in helping GTE Financial ascertain the true voice of its membership. It then crafts products and services that address the verbalized needs of its membership.

“We lean on our membership,” Best says. “That’s been the key to our success. Our communities shape us, so we pay them back by making sure our programs, products, and the charge of our credit union is purposeful to them.”

More Than Just Good Vibes

The credit union’s strategy has rewarded both GTE Financial and Ybor City. GTE is averaging a net 150 new memberships per day. Membership is up 10.9% from roughly 179,000 in first quarter 2012 to more than 198,000 in first quarter 2013.

In 2012, GTE saved its members $84 million by refinancing their mortgages through the Home Affordable Refinance Program (HARP). The credit union is one of the largest HARP lenders in Florida.

“Why wouldn’t you reinvest back into your membership to give them a lower payment on their home?” Best asks. “It allows them to spend more money in the community and increase their livelihoods.”

And as GTE thrives, it continues to support the growth and stabilization of Ybor City.

 “Between upgrades to the trolleys and transportation system to new restaurants and community-focused organizations, Ybor has become a classier neighborhood,” Best says. “A lot of starter businesses have been successful in Ybor, and that’s during a tough economy. All of this activity has helped Ybor become a bit more purposeful in the community.”




June 10, 2013


  • What a great example to all financial institutions of what being community focused really looks like. Everyone claims to be a big part of their community, but it seems more like marketing than truth. GTE Financial walks the walk!
    Matt Andresen