A Lean, Green Lending Machine

Iowa’s largest credit union has spent nearly two decades becoming the state’s go-to lender. How did it get here? And what comes next?

 
 

The proof is in the numbers: GreenState Credit Union is a lending machine. Compared to peers, the large Hawkeye State cooperative is growing faster and holds a deeper wallet share. Its members also are more likely to have an auto, credit card, or mortgage loan with the credit union.

GreenState ($7.1B, North Liberty, IA) is an aggressive lender, willing to take calculated risks to ensure those who come to the credit union leave in a better financial situation than they arrived. That ethos helps the credit union open more accounts per member, says Amy

Henderson, executive vice president of consumer lending.

“We look at the member’s financial life from several angles,” the lending executive says. “We want to see what we can suggest to put them in a better financial situation. Are they in the right accounts? Can we help save them money by refinancing? We basically review all areas.”

GREENSTATE'S LENDING SUCCESS

FOR ALL U.S. CREDIT UNIONS | DATA AS OF 12.31.20
© Callahan & Associates | www.creditunions.com
Metric GreenState
Credit Union
Credit Unions
$1B - $10B
Iowa Credit Unions U.S. Credit Unions
Loan Growth 17.9% 6.3% 9.3% 5.4%
Loan Accounts
Per Member
0.93 0.57 0.73 0.58
Average Loan Balance $26,640 $18,611 $18,626 $16,119
Consumer Loan Penetration 66.90% 39.48% 50.32% 38.89%
First Mortgage Penetration 6.46% 2.58% 4.63% 2.47%
Loan-To-Share Ratio 109.8% 76.2% 89.7% 73.2%

Lending is a large part of GreenState's operations, a fact reflected in fourth quarter performance metrics that far outpace peer performance.

GreenState’s willingness to ask those questions — sell, even — is foundational to its lending success. But there’s a clear difference between the cooperative’s take on sales and a greasy, pushy, numbers-first approach to business. “When you do it right, sales is the highest form of service you can provide,” Henderson says. “If you’re not bringing up the benefits, you’re doing your members a financial disservice. We’re looking out for them, and we want them to recognize that.”

Thanks to this approach to service, GreenState has averaged an annualized loan growth of 21% over the past 15 years, all the while adding diverse products, new talent, and fintech partnerships to an already strong division of the organization.

BEST PRACTICE: 360 DEGREES OF YES

“We work so hard to get a mortgage, it doesn’t make sense not to check out the full relationship,” says Amy Henderson, GreenState’s executive vice president of consumer lending.

With that in mind, the cooperative gives every mortgage loan applicant a 360-degree review to identify ways it can deepen the relationship and better support borrowers.

“You might come to us for a refinance, but we’ll get you thinking about the fact you’re paying 5% on your car loan or an annual fee on your credit card. We want to show what else we can offer.”

A Culture Of Lending

GreenState decentralizes its consumer and mortgage lending. On the consumer side, the credit union places personal bankers — its “ACE Team” — within its branches and call center to originate loans. As ACE team members, employees work as member service associates, consultants, or executives. They earn an hourly pay with incentives kicking in at certain production thresholds.

On the mortgage side, the credit union embeds mortgage loan officers in every one of its branches and pays them 100% by commission. The approach is useful on the talent acquisition front, Henderson says, but she acknowledges it might seem unusual to many credit unions that may take a more conservative approach to compensation and sales.

But like all credit unions, the member is front and center at GreenState, and the cooperative makes sure employees understand this during the hiring process.

The credit union uses The Predictive Index’s behavioral science insights to test new hires and gain a greater sense of their personality, determining whether a potential employee has the right mindset for a sales role and talking further about the credit union’s culture when applicable.

“We want our hires to understand our expectations,” says Marsha Wolff, the credit union’s executive vice president of HR and IT. “Whatever you’re selling, however you’re compensated, it’s all for the betterment of the member. That will always be the case.”

In its new hires, GreenState looks for two main criteria. First, are they willing to provide a high level of service? Second, are they comfortable picking up the phone? Someone with both qualities is likely to fit with and succeed in GreenState’s lending culture.

For existing employees, the credit union provides continuing education via cultural conversations and sales coaching to help team members sharpen their member-service skills.

“The products are an easy sell when you show the benefits,” Henderson says. “We need to make sure employees are willing to pick up the phone and provide a high level of service. It sounds simple, and it is.”

Growing A Team

GreenState planted its earliest seeds of lending success in 2003. At the start of that year, the credit union held less than $15 million in business loan balances and didn’t have a dedicated employee to oversee the portfolio. By the time 2004 rolled around, business balances had doubled and a newly dedicated employee was looking for an assistant. GreenState hired Scott Wilson that June. Fresh from college, the new hire spent the next four years gaining commercial experience.

“I did everything — assistant work, analyst work,” Wilson says. “In 2007, I started to lend.”

By 2008, GreenState’s business loan portfolio had grown to more than $80 million and was pushing against the business lending cap. The department head left that year, and Wilson assumed the role of executive vice president of commercial lending, overseeing the three-person team. During this time, other areas of GreenState’s loan portfolio were growing, too.

In 2006, Henderson — who’s now EVP of consumer lending — joined GreenState as a senior vice president of mortgage lending. The credit union charged Wilson and Henderson with growing loans. One of the first steps Henderson took was to increase the synergy between mortgage loan officers and the branch and call center channels. The portfolio quickly took off.

Growth in the business portfolio required a little more finesse. After all, business loan balances were subject to the regulatory cap. Plus, the Great Recession had weakened the demand for the commercial real estate projects GreenState specialized in.

In 2013, GreenState received a low-income designation, allowing the credit union to more fully portfolio its business loan balances and begin to grow at scale. For the five years before the low-income designation, the credit union grew business loan balances at an annualized rate of 23.2%; for the five years after, its annualized rate of growth neared 40%.

The business loan department now includes 16 employees, and its reach extends into every major market the credit union serves, including Des Moines, Iowa City, Cedar Rapids, Cedar Falls, Waterloo, Dubuque, and the Davenport and Bettendorf markets in the Quad Cities area. In the past two years, the credit union has brought in talent with more small business lending experience, allowing it to diversify its offerings.

These kinds of hires are especially important because when it comes to business lending, Wilson says a solid program isn’t based so much on dialing the phone or knocking on doors as it is on maintaining good, solid relationships.

“If you can build a reputation of responsiveness, then your commercial clients start to promote for you,” Wilson says.

Employees who want to take care of members, according to Wilson, have long conversations with members and display a sense of urgency and a willingness to learn. That’s the kind of culture GreenState has cultivated. And it’s that kind of culture that ensures the cooperative can retain its high-performing, talented staff. The credit union pays just about the going market rate for talent, yet when bankers join his team, they don’t leave.

“We keep talent because of our culture and support system,” Wilson says. “Management and non-member contact positions are here to serve those who serve the members. We all pull in the same direction.”

BEST PRACTICE: TRAIN, TRAIN, RIGHT THIS WAY

New retail lenders at GreenState complete eight formal weeks of training as well as participate in recurring sales and continued education opportunities.

  • Formal Training: Two weeks of teller training.
  • Formal Training: One week break.
  • Formal Training: Two weeks of deposit product training.
  • Formal Training: One week break.
  • Formal Training: Two weeks of loan training.
  • Continued Education: Recurring sales training.
  • Continued Education: Job shadow for centralized underwriting.

“It can be a long journey,” says Amy Henderson, executive vice president of consumer lending. “But as long as you are willing to learn and give the highest level of service you can, it works out.”

The same is true on the mortgage side; however, the financial incentives are even stronger.

Before Henderson arrived, GreenState had just hired the top mortgage loan officer in Johnson County, where the credit union is headquartered. At the time, GreenState was an afterthought as a mortgage provider, Henderson says.

“We found that talent breeds better talent,” she says.

So, too, does an uncapped commission structure, a dedicated assistant for almost every MLO, and a willingness to portfolio loans when necessary. Pair that with an operational commitment to efficiency that allows the credit union to charge lower rates and lower fees, and it’s no wonder lending talent has flocked to GreenState. Today, mortgages make up more than half of GreenState’s loan portfolio, and eight of the top 10 mortgage loan officers in the state of Iowa work for GreenState.

“Add it all up,” Henderson says. “And it makes it pretty easy to recruit great people.”

The Four-Legged Stool

GreenState’s three-legged lending stool includes retail, mortgage, and commercial. But in recent years, the credit union has adopted a fourth, more supportive, leg: fintech partnerships.

Five years ago, the credit union partnered with Encompass to modernize its lending and create efficiencies. Today, Encompass’s loan origination system makes life easier for GreenState’s mortgage loan officers.

The move was the opening salvo in what has become a concerted effort to partner with fintechs.

More technology companies have entered the financial space in the past decade, and relationships that were at one time competitive in nature have turned into relationships of coexistence. Financial institutions lack the technical expertise to develop best-in-class front-end interfaces, whereas fintechs lack the capital or charter to operate independently.

“We are looking for more ways to partner,” says Kathy Courtney, GreenState’s chief operating officer. “We can’t necessarily hire Google’s developers, but we can take what these fintechs are good at and plug it into our systems and/ or partner with them to fund loan volume through their distribution channels.”

Courtney divides the credit union’s fintech partnerships into two buckets. The first bucket is for member-facing front-end systems that supplement what the credit union offers. For example, GreenState partnered with SavvyMoney to allow members to view their credit score and read tips on how to improve it.

The other bucket is for companies that integrate on the back end and complement an existing experience through better design or more efficient operations or provide a new distribution channel. For this, GreenState looks for companies with automated solutions and dedicated service staff to ensure the credit union doesn’t have to devote a lot of time to maintenance.

In recent years, partnerships that fit into the second bucket have become more common at GreenState. One of the first was with Happy Money, a California-based fintech from which GreenState purchases debt elimination loans. Others soon followed, including Upgrade, which offers low-cost credit cards and loans; LoanStreet, which brokers loan sales and purchases; and Open Lending, which provides loan analytics and risk modeling.

There are many fintech across the country that offer desirable services, and GreenState is considering whether to hire a support person specifically to find and vet potential partners.

“There’s so much potential in fintech partnerships,” Henderson says. “We intend to explore it more.”