Dave Larson is the CEO of Affinity Plus FCU ($3.2B, Saint Paul, MN). Here, he discusses the enduring impacts and lessons from 2020, the largest opportunities for the industry, and how he’ll measure organizational success in the year ahead.
Dave Larson, CEO, Affinity Plus FCU
How did 2020’s challenges impact the credit union industry?
Dave Larson: 2020 was a landmark year for credit unions on two fronts.
First, for living their mission. Every day, credit unions had to answer questions about how they would serve their members, communities, and employees. It’s been a yearlong journey of demonstrating our mission — living out what a member-owned, not-for-profit organization looks like during a series of societal crises. At Affinity Plus, we were one of the first to close our lobbies for the safety of our employees and members. As unemployment rose, we canceled most fees that indicate a member might be in financial trouble and even automatically reimbursed some. At the same time, Affinity Plus fast-tracked PPP loans for small businesses as well as reached out to offer forbearances and other relief. We leveraged our foundation and branches to engage members and communities in raising money for important causes — including those devoted to social inequity, basic needs, and rebuilding businesses and communities. In fact, following George Floyd’s death and the aftermath, we raised or donated more than $300,000 to causes directed by our members and employees.
Second, for adapting their operations. The banking trend to self-service and online services accelerated dramatically in 2020. I’ve heard from some of my peers who felt they had to keep their lobbies open to serve their members because they didn’t have the infrastructure to support more sophisticated needs online or allow employees to work remotely. Technology and self-service tools are no longer differentiators — they’ve become table stakes for survival. Affinity Plus completed a seven-system core conversion in 2019, and we were able to transition more than 500 employees to remote platforms within three weeks — retraining and shifting employees to support call centers and chat functions. We also shifted priorities to augment our top-rated mobile app and online banking portal — adding additional functionality for requests that often happened in-branch, including launching video banking for more complex transactions. Our members have noticed — they give us high NPS scores and have remained loyal with steady referral growth at a time when many financial institutions are not growing.
“It’s been a yearlong journey of demonstrating our mission — living out what a member-owned, not-for-profit organization looks like during a series of societal crises.”
What lessons do you hope the industry learned from last year?
DL: Doing good leads to good results. Taking care of employees and serving members — especially those in need — is the job. When we live out our mission and focus on financial inclusion, financial performance should be strong. In 2020, we focused on serving members and building a relationship to become their primary financial partner for the long term. As a result, Affinity Plus ended the year with strong finances and growth.
Staffing matters. Having adaptable leaders and staff who believe in the mission is critical. We screen for it through the hiring process, we train for it with an active learning and development group, and we’re intentional about our culture and inspiring employees to live out the mission every day with decisions small and large. In 2020, we moved as a group in the directions we needed to go. We had discussions, concerns, and the occasional change of direction, but with leaders and staff who believed in what we were doing, we were able to maintain trust — resulting in a willingness to buy-in, work longer or different hours, accept new job duties, take risks, train in new systems, share resources, and much more. I’ve never been prouder of a group than I have been this year.
CU QUICK FACTS
Affinity Plus FCU
HQ: Saint Paul, MN
Data as of 12.31.20
12-MO SHARE GROWTH: 36.8%
12-MO LOAN GROWTH: 19.2%
What’s the largest opportunity credit unions have in 2021?
DL: Awareness of the mission. The tumultuous events of 2020 shined a spotlight on the true intentions of many organizations. Credit unions have long suffered from a lack of awareness on their difference as a member-owned, not-for-profit financial model based on inclusion. We’ve seen an increase in that awareness throughout 2020 — and credit unions that can take advantage of that are poised to grow like never before.
What is your outlook for the credit union industry in 2021?
DL: The industry is positioned to take a leap forward in growth, visibility, and influence in the financial industry. We must tell our story and remind people of what we did for them during the pandemic. We have learned so much through this past year, and we have to share those learnings with members.
Finish this sentence: The credit union industry will be successful in 2021 if…
DL: We lean into the mission with members — and expand that mission into broader community impact. There’s an opportunity to build on the issues of diversity, inclusion, and belonging — partnering with underbanked and unbanked communities with creative solutions that only a not-for-profit financial model could support. The death of George Floyd was blocks from one of our branches. Not long after, I walked by and took in the impact of the memorials to him and the violence and destruction that tore apart the area. It broke my heart. Credit unions have a critical role to play — leveraging a purpose of financial inclusion. It’s our time to shine.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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