Answering The Hoosier Call

In a market where local and community-oriented service is the base expectation for most businesses, Heritage Federal Credit Union has spent years mastering how to stand out from the crowd.

It’s no secret that residents of the state of Indiana are affectionately known as Hoosiers, a moniker dating back to the 1830s. Yet historians and linguistic experts alike remain hard-pressed to pinpoint the word’s exact origins.

One disproven theory postulated that Hoosier was merely an adaptation of the Native American word for corn hoosa. A more endearing notion is that the word might be a variation of Who’s yer? the common call wary pioneers would use to greet an unidentified visitor at their cabin door.


  • Heritage Federal Credit Union
  • HQ: Newburgh, IN
  • Assets: $451M
  • Members: 44,913
  • 12 Month Share Growth 5.14%
  • 12 Month Loan Growth: 6.29%
  • ROA: 0.75%

Today, consumers in Indiana as well as across the county are concerned with economic unknowns and are hesitant to trust their lives or their wallets to anyone who has not earned that privilege. If a member were to ask Who’s there? today, what would your credit union say? Would your response make them want to open the door? It’s a daunting question, particularly for those in communities dominated by credit unions, savings and loans, and community banks. In markets like these, being local, member-owned, and not-for-profit isn’t enough. In the absence of large-scale competitors, it can be difficult for a cooperative financial institution to develop the type of definitive edge that separates it from the pack.

Heritage Federal Credit Union ($451M, Newburgh, IN) knows firsthand the difficulty of competing in such a marketplace.

Our tagline for the past few years has been, Seriously Different Seriously,’ says President and CEO Ruth Jenkins. And when compared to national trends for the cooperative industry, Heritage is living up to its promises.

In the past six years, we’ve gone from roughly $280 million in assets to $451 million, says Steve Crow, the credit union’s board chairman. We’ve also increased our membership from 28,000 to nearly 45,000 in the same timeframe, which is just phenomenal.

As of third quarter 2013, Heritage served roughly 18.7% of its potential marketplace, according to Callahan Associates’ Peer-to-Peer analytics. By comparison, peers with $250-$500 million in assets served an average 4.1% of their potential membership. Loan growth was up 6.3% annually, and Heritage’s average member relationship also rose 1.6% year-over-year.

Today, it’s not unusual for the institution’s most successful branches to pull in $1 million or more in consumer loans each month. The credit union’s Boonville, IN, branch posted a monthly record of $1.75 million in May of this year, says Mandy Koester, area manager of member service.

Much of this activity is the result of Jenkins, who joined the credit union in 2006 and along with a handpicked team of executives has rapidly grown and transformed the institution. For the past four years in particular, the credit union has devoted a significant amount of resources to brand development.

Members of the Local 104 union at Alcoa Warrick Operations, a combination aluminum smelting and power plant, chartered the credit union almost 50 years ago, and the SEG-based institution operated with measured success under the name Warrick Employees Federal Credit Union for much of the 20th century. In the early 2000s, the credit union expanded to a community charter that included neighboring Vanderburgh County and in 2003 it adopted the name Heritage to better connect with these markets. Unfortunately, the credit union struggled for years to get its new brand recognized.

You would ask people about credit unions and our name was not frequently mentioned, so we did some focus groups and some research on why that was, says Steve Bugg, the credit union’s chief marketing and member service officer who joined in 2007. Before we could ever start to talk about products or service, people had to learn who we were in the community.

Together, Jenkins, Bugg, and the rest of the Heritage team started a multi-year initiative to promote the new brand. At the same time, they also set into motion a series of inward and outward facing institutional investments that would eventually help Heritage reach its current high-water mark.

You Can’t Know What Makes You Different, Until You Know What Makes You The Same

Every credit union feels distinct to the people working there. Unfortunately, it might not feel so different to members and consumers. But adding fresh, varied perspectives at the executive level can help any credit union take off its blinders and identify new opportunities.

When Jenkins joined the credit union, she brought with her a diverse set of experiences. She started her career managing a number of small credit unions and then worked as a consultant for Wescom Credit Union ($2.5B, Pasadena, CA). There, she helped the institution identify ways to better incorporate some of the smaller credit unions it had acquired. A few years later, Jenkins adopted the role of turnaround artist at a troubled institution in New Mexico and at a second institution in Arkansas she worked as CEO in the former and as a workout manager in the latter.

I’ve worked in small and large credit unions, single-SEG and multi-SEG credit unions, and state, community, and federally chartered credit unions, so I’ve seen just about every cooperative environment that exists today, Jenkins says.

Having the exposure to know what is, and isn’t, standard within the cooperative system is important for someone seeking to break the mold.

When I took this role at Heritage, I was looking to see what could be accomplished with a larger institution that didn’t have existing financial or operational problems, just the opportunity to grow, Jenkins says.

Jenkins hired her executives based on their diverse experience inside and outside the industry and the culture this group formed remains a central part of the credit union’s training and succession planning process today.

I hired almost each and every executive here, Jenkins says. We’re looking for these individuals to have diverse skill sets, with the people below them focusing more on specialization. At some point, I’ll want to retire and I do not want any of our leadership here missing out on an opportunity because they were too specialized.

Communication Nation

As soon as Jenkins finalized the leadership team, the group immediately began a complex process of redefining what the Heritage brand should mean and how it would be different from the past. One of the biggest gaps in its strategy was the lack of a mission statement the uniform battle cry that ties each component of the institution together under a common cause.

We decided our core values boiled down to professionalism, accountability, teamwork, respect, integrity, communication, and knowledge, Jenkins says. If you take the first letter of each of those it spells PATRICK. So we started setting aside St. Patrick’s Day for an internal celebration to help employees focus on these ideas. We have drawings and prizes. I might dress up in a leprechaun outfit and take people cookies or movies tickets or even just take the time to shake someone’s hand and thank them personally for a job well done.

Organization and internal communication had also fallen to the wayside during the rebrand and employees and mid-level managers were voicing concerns that they didn’t know what was happening until they got a memo about it. Now, every Monday morning, all supervisors dial in to a conference line and the executive team highlights priorities for the entire organization. During this call, coined Communicate at 8:08, the executive team also gathers feedback from those on the front line. One of the most important components of these weekly meetings is storytelling, both for morale and for idea generation.

We ask supervisors things like What have you done to delight the members? Have you found an efficiency or a way to save money for the organization?’ Jenkins says. At first it was slow going, but now we have to limit the number of stories that are being shared.

During the four-year initiative, Jenkins also realigned and improved the credit union’s relationship with its board, which still consists largely of Alcoa employees as well as individuals from other important aspects of the community.

When I started, the board felt all of our employees reported to them, Jenkins says. Now, board members understand and respect the fact they have one employee they direct me and I take their direction and make it happen within the organization.

Are You Strange?

The lyrics to a song by The Doors go: When you’re strange No one remembers your name. But at Heritage, the opposite is true. In fact, taking an approach that is counter to its competition has helped the credit union carve out a larger market share in many ways.

When the economy began to fumble and a lot of financial institutions were pulling back on budgets, we pressed the pedal to the metal, Jenkins says. We put money into our marketing and we took that opportunity to get our brand out there. We didn’t change all the rules, but we didn’t pull back like everyone else either we were always there.

In addition to an extensive marketing sweep, the credit union doubled down on key investments such as branch infrastructure including a soon-to-be-completed branch in Newburgh that will also house its administration building and new online resources that ramped up convenience.

People in the community think Heritage is much larger than we are because they see us out there and they see us engaged, Bugg says.

This credit union’s ongoing brand transformation even caught the attention of a local priest, who used its seriously different tagline as the subject of his Easter morning service.

I missed that particular service, but it was proof that in this community, word of mouth is still alive and well, Jenkins says.

Who? What? Where? When? Why?

Heritage Federal Credit Union has seven locations throughout Warrick and Vanderburgh counties in Indiana. The two counties are home to nearly 250,000 residents and a diverse economic base. But the region also has a history that runs as long and deep as the Ohio River that borders it.

John Hutchinson is largely responsible for much of the historic development in this region. In 1850, he dug the first deep vein coal mine in the state, kicking off a flurry of economic activity and regional investment.

The card game 21, which later evolved into the modern day Blackjack, was first played by gamblers in Evansville.

Visitors to the Angel Mounds State Historic Site can see large, mysterious earthen structures built by the region’s original Native American inhabitants, the Mississippians, somewhere between 1000 and 1450 A.D.

On July 18, 1862, Newburgh became the first town north of the Mason-Dixon line to be captured by the South during the Civil War. A Confederate cavalry used abandoned wagons and scrap metal to give the appearance of heavy artillery and took the town without a single shot being fired.

According to Indiana state law, anyone receiving money for a puppet show, wire dancing, or a tumbling act faces a fine of up to $3.

January 13, 2014

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