A New Culture For A Credit Union

Erie FCU is upgrading its relationship-building efforts and empowering its leadership team members to make their own decisions.


Erie Federal Credit Union ($380.7M) began as the credit union for teachers in Erie, PA. It picked up nearly 300 SEGs before changing to a community charter for the largely urban Erie and largely rural Crawford counties 10 years ago. As of Sept. 30, the credit union had 45,747 members, 111 employees, and seven branches. CEO Mary Beth Wilcher started working at the credit union shortly after graduating from college and has spent most of her career there, rising to chief marketing officer before taking the role of CEO three years ago.


  • Erie Federal Credit Union
  • HQ: Erie, PA
  • ASSETS: $380.7M
  • MEMBERS: 45,747
  • 12-MO SHARE GROWTH: 3.88%
  • 12-MO LOAN GROWTH: 2.44%
  • ROA: 0.65%
    data as of Sept.30, 2013

Our former CEO was a brilliant man who, over 40 years, built Erie Federal Credit Union into what it is today. But that is a long time under one leader, and when I came in as CEO, I felt we needed to re-energize to make the credit union the best it could be for the members and the community we serve.

The previous CEO had his own style and vision. He did his own due diligence, research, and so on as he built the credit union into a modern financial services institution. As a result, the leadership team was more accustomed to taking direction from him than in assuming control over their departments and researching, making, and being accountable for their own decisions.

Under the old leadership, I was a bit of an anomaly. As the chief marketing officer, I tended to research a decision and then make it. When I became CEO, I discovered much of the leadership team wanted to defer to me for decisions. After years of doing things a certain way, many of them did not know where to go for data or outside contacts that might help them make better decisions. I learned the leadership team members were not like me and I couldn’t expect them to be like me so I decided to move their cheese to get them out of their comfort zone.

So my first year was a bit rough, and I felt we needed some new energy, a culture shift. We could not survive as a commodity enterprise; we had to succeed as the best relationship institution in our market. We did Net Promoter Scores. I brought in a consultant to do a cultural assessment. If that isn’t a wake-up call to make you do something profoundly different, nothing is.

A Book About Culture Change

At about this time, I read Ray Davis’s bookLeading for Growth. Ray had taken over tiny Umpqua Bank in Portland, OR, and grew it into a local powerhouse. The subtitle of the book is How Umpqua Bank Got Cool and Created a Culture of Greatness.

Ray took charge of the $140 million, 40-employee Umpqua in 1994 and built it into a $7 billion institution in 11 years. He had employees answer the phone by saying, World’s greatest bank. He sent employees to Ritz-Carlton to learn how its employees greeted guests and continued to treat them as treasured guests through the remainder of their stay. Ray empowered employees, especially with respect to treating customers, and he held them more accountable. For Ray, culture was key.

Ray emphasizes the need to truly understand what business you are in. He feels small banks and credit unions are not in a commodity business but a retail services business.

Getting Started

I agreed with Ray, so in my second year as CEO, I began to look at overhauling our culture. We launched a major culture-change kickoff a little more than a year ago. I gave copies of Ray’s book to everyone on the leadership team. I told people that reading the book would get them closer to understanding where I thought the credit union should go.

I’ve heard that culture change requires five to seven years, and I believe it.

At our kickoff, we discussed the word profit. To some, this was a dirty word, but I said we had to get over that. Profit was the word we were going to use for surplus of income over expenses. I preached that profit was what kept the doors open and the lights on.

As we got underway, I encouraged members of the leadership team to make and own decisions. To this point, as noted, they had not had the data, the facts, and the tools they needed, so some of the decisions in this first year of culture conversion were not particularly good ones, though they made for learning curves we could all grow from. I could see then that we were in for a long haul. I’ve heard that cultural change requires five to seven years, and I believe it. It’s a gradual thing, and it has to be undertaken with patience and a long view.

Indeed, there has been some rubber banding, there is some stop and start, and there is some recoil to the old way of doing things. This is all to be expected and has to be dealt with in the sense that we make it clear we’re not going backward. We’re moving forward, and we want all employees to come along. Ultimately buying in is their choice.

Relationships Are Key, In the Branch And In The Community

A big part of our new culture is on building relationships at the branch and lobby level. Previously, some branch employees got caught up in lending policies and procedures, worrying that they would do things incorrectly. I want to move us more to a centralized lending model. Lending officers in a central location can worry about conforming to policies and procedures; the people in the branches should be working on getting to know members and building relationships. They should be having conversations with members, treating them like Ritz-Carlton guests, and making sure the credit union is answering all their financial services needs. The branch people can pass along loan applications to a central office where we can work on the nuts and bolts out of sight. If the people doing the underwriting have questions, then they can attach them to the e-docs they send back for signature. Moreover, when a regulation or procedure changes, we don’t have to retrain 30 people we only have to retrain a few in our centralized loan underwriting.

As noted, I am a big proponent of greeters at the door. Members should be treated as guests and know immediately that theres a person who can guide them if they have a question about who to see or how something is done. Greeters also deter robbery and fraud. They look people in the eye right at the door, and people greeted like that are less likely to be obnoxious or worse.

We prefer to work with current members to increase wallet share, but I recognize that we also have to reach out into the community, especially to those parts that could bring us the largest and best loans. I’ve made substantial steps reaching out to the realty community, attorneys, and CPAs, all of whom can bring us loans or make referrals. I joined the Greater Erie Board of Realtors on behalf of the credit union and took our business development people and lenders to the realtor annual luncheon. We sat at separate tables and worked at building relationships with other attendees. This is referred to as getting to know your Centers of Influence for they will send you the best leads. Some have said such networking is marketing’s job, but it’s everyone’s job. This is not so much about marketing as it is about people; we need to be a people credit union inside our community. All the marketing brochures in the world cannot bring in what good luncheon networking can.

An Eye On The Future

We aren’t setting specific goals with respect to the cultural change. This isn’t like shooting for an ROA, where the numbers are plain. Cultural change is less tangible. In a way, it is something you feel, like a brand. You can’t easily define a point at which you”ve been successful.

I have found out that not all employees buy into a new cultural change equally. Change is hard and comes easier to some than to others. We’ve seen push back, but we have to keep in mind the long-term benefit to the members. That’s the important thing.

In the end, you have to take a hard look at yourself and the future. Are you going to shape your own future, or are you going to let others and circumstances shape your future for you? If you are going to shape your own future, then you have to say goodbye to some of the things in the present. It’s the future of the institution and our members that is most important.

As told to Brooke C. Stoddard

February 25, 2016

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