A Jump-Start From The Wider World

An unusual format for a strategic planning session sparks fresh ideas for Affinity Plus.

The same credit union that introduced universal employees and launched a sassy Ditch Your Bank ad campaign is at it again, except this time Affinity Plus Federal Credit Union ($1.7B, St. Paul, MN) is breaking new ground with how it conducts strategic planning. In April, when the credit union held its annual planning meeting, CEO Kyle Marklanddid something almost unthinkable for many credit unions: He invited a diverse panel of speakers from academia, a nonprofit, and two private companies including non credit union experts to dominate 80% of the meeting. The remaining20% of the meeting was devoted to Q&A sessions with Affinity Plus board members and senior managers.

What could have been a disastrous, mind-numbingly dull meeting was instead a lively session that sparked fresh ideas and new ways of thinking for this unconventional, inventive credit union.

We wanted to consider things we never would have considered before and learn from people we don’t usually hear from, says Markland, who chose topics that directly related to the credit union’s future. And to keep the sessiongrounded and purposeful, the meeting included practical discussions about application.


With technology and regulations rapidly changing, credit unions can’t afford to stand still or think stagnantly, especially when it comes to strategic planning. That’s why reinventingthe planning session can be energizing, even liberating.

The new planning session model at Affinity Plus wasn’t created overnight. It took root two years ago when the credit union hired a strategic planning consultant, Leo Hopf, to jump-start its creative thinking. Affinity chose Hopf, the author of Rethink, Reinvent, Reposition: 12 Strategies to Renew Your Business and Boost Your Bottom Line,in part because he came from outside the credit union industry.




  • HQ: ST. PAUL, MN
  • ASSETS: $1.7B
  • MEMBERS: 162,533
  • 12-MO SHARE GROWTH: 8.15%
  • 12-MO LOAN GROWTH: -4.41%
  • ROA: 0.70%

Affinity Plus is a different credit union, and if we got someone who specialized in this industry then that person would get us to operate like every other credit union, Markland says. We wanted somebody who would appreciate thatuniqueness.

Affinity is known for empowering universal employees to make on-the-spot decisions and jump into different roles. In a pinch, the same staff member can act as a teller or mortgage loan officer depending on what a member needs.

After working with Hopf, the new style of planning session, which will help produce strategic initiatives for 2014 through 2018, seemed a natural next step.

We didn’t want to revert back to the old ways of doing things, says Elizabeth Hayes, the credit union’s executive vice president and chief administrative officer.

In the past, Affinity Plus conducted its planning sessions by dividing into smaller groups with assigned topics.

Those topics consisted mostly of things that did not yet have an impact on the credit union but could, as well as where and how the credit union wanted to grow. Then each group reported back about its ideas.

This time, Markland invited five guest speakers and gave them each to 90 minutes to talk about their topics, answer questions, and lead discussions with the audience. The session offered a smorgasbord of subjects for board members and senior managersto think about.

There were lectures on the future of payment systems, the economy and its effect on credit unions, the competitive advantages of the cooperative charter,and crowd sourcing as an emerging business tool. The latter harnesses consumers on social media to brainstorm, test, and perfect new products and services, essentially outsourcing some of the creativity and problem-solving capabilities to the peoplewho know an organization best its customers.

Markland invited Harvard Business School professor Dennis Campbell to kickoff the meeting with an outsider’s perspective of Affinity Plus, which served as one of Campbell’s case studies in his research of creative business models.

We aren’t just changing the way people view the work we do, we’re changing the way people are thinking about business.

Dennis said because of our business model, we aren’t just changing the way people view the work we do, Markland says. We’re changing the way people are thinking about business.


To ensure the audience didn’t get off too easy, Markland gave his board members and senior managers two weeks to complete a post-planning meeting homework assignment. I sent them a template to fill out, asking what they learned, what werethe topics of note and their applications to Affinity Plus, and any follow-up they could suggest, Markland says.

Markland is digesting everyone’s feedback and ideas before proceeding to the next phase.

At our monthly board meeting we’ll go through and synthesize those pages down to a few key strategies we need to incorporate into our strategic plan, Hayes says.

Markland already plans to repeat the guest speaker format for next year’s session, though he will reduce the number of speakers in order to delve more deeply into each topic. Including the homework assignment and follow-up synthesizing board meeting,the credit union expects to spend approximately 50% more time with the new format than it did in its previous planning sessions, which lasted approximately 12 hours over two days and included the monthly board meeting.


Although the credit union has yet to identify specific initiatives, Markland and Hayes already have some idea of the direction the initiatives will take. One area they found especially intriguing: crowd sourcing.

We could introduce new products and services and allow members on Facebook to vote on what they think is the best feature or benefit or even pricing, Hayes says.

When a credit union knows firsthand what people dislike about a product or service it can modify features and make other adjustments. And incorporating member ideas into a product or service is a meaningful nod to the member-owner structure. Weuse our employees to solve problems, so why not use our members? Markland asks.

The concept of crowd sourcing even captivated one of the guest speakers, Executive Vice President Fredda McDonald of PSCU, a credit union service organization specializing in payment systems. At one point McDonald, who had been invited to speak aboutfuture payment systems, considered how she could apply crowd sourcing to her business and after the session chatted with crowd sourcing expert Karim Lakhani, a Harvard Business School professor who cowrote a paper on the topic.

Other guest speakers also offered data that changed the opinions or impressions of some senior managers. We learned there’s more opportunity in the mortgage market than we thought, Markland says.

That impression is largely the result of data presented by Chief Economist Bill Hampel of the Credit Union National Association, who spoke about the recovery in the housing market both nationally and in the credit union’s own state of Minnesota.

Because of the housing discussion, Markland is concerned about a reduction in the number of mortgages Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae will buy. He now thinks credit unions should band together and work directly with Wall Street brokers or securitization companiesto sell mortgages to investors or form a CUSO that specializes in packaging and selling mortgagebacked securities.

Economic data presented by Hampel also caused Affinity Plus’s board and management to think about the pent-up demand for cars resulting from consumers postponing such purchases during the recession. We looked at our auto lending and consideredwhether we should lend more now as opposed to waiting, Markland says.

Finally, a presentation by Chip Filson, co-founder and current chairman of Callahan & Associates, on cooperative models combined with industry chatter about credit union conversions promptedthe Affinity Plus board to consider the pros and cons of federal versus state charters. Although Affinity Plus has no plans to change its charter, any responsible board and management must address the option now and again.

Aside from changing the charter, it’s worth considering what other countries are doing with their credit union models. How those cooperatives handle new taxes or more stringent regulations can provide ideas for how to cope with similar changes ifthey happen stateside.

It ‘s worth looking at other cooperative models in Canada or Australia, where they’ve already faced increased taxation and regulation, Markland says.

March 10, 2014

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