How To Flip A Banker

Bankers entering the credit union workforce have a lot to learn — or relearn — about cooperatives, members, and the credit union difference.

Kathy Burdick is vice president of human resources at Honor Credit Union ($585.8, St. Joseph, MI). She’s worked in the credit union’s human resources department for nine years.

My credit union, Honor Credit Union, bought a branch of Edgewater Bank in January 2014. We acquired its customers, their deposits, and the branch employees. It was my responsibility to convert those employees to credit unionism. We onboard every employee new to Honor, but in my nine years with the credit union’s human resources department, I’ve noticed it’s a bit more challenging with former bankers.

I know banks don’t appreciate the credit union tax break, but I didn’t understand the magnitude of disdain until this acquisition. Edgewater was preparing to go public, and it wanted to sell the branch, which wasn’t making money. When the bank’s CEO reached out to our CEO, we made a deal because we’d done a demographic study and knew our members wanted a branch where the Edgewater branch is.

So here we are. We have one branch, a few employees, and more than a little confusion and hostility. We didn’t take over operations immediately; instead, staff had several months to wonder about their futures and build anxiety about changing companies and industries. The staff had always been told credit unions are bad because we don’t pay taxes, so to turn these bankers into credit union employees we had to convince them credit unions aren’t freeloaders and we had to explain how serving a member-owner differs from serving a shareholder.

Wait, Credit Unions Are Good?

All hires at Honor learn the credit union difference during orientation. We teach them the history of our credit union and the credit union movement. We teach them about the cooperative principles. Honor’s history makes this easy because it aligns well with the movement. We were started by a group of teachers during the Great Depression. During the worst parts, many local governments paid employees in scrip, which is legal currency used when standard currency is unavailable. The problem was, local merchants didn’t accept script. The teachers couldn’t go to a bank, so they started a credit union.

Just as the credit union served those teachers, today, Honor serves people who live, work, worship, or go to school in Michigan. The credit union puts its tax break to work and delivers value to its members.

We explain this during orientation, but with former bankers it often doesn’t sink in until they spend time shadowing or working in a branch and watching staff interact with members. Because they are unlearning their misconception of credit unions, it takes work on our part to reinforce our lessons.

Loosen Up A Bit

In my experience, bankers are taught things that run counter to the credit union approach to service. We have to loosen up our bankers and teach them it is okay to make a mistake if their intention is to help a member. At Honor, we don’t punish employees for doing the right thing for the right reasons even if it doesn’t work out. We’re paying our people to think, not to blindly follow the straight and narrow.

Also, bankers are often very specialized. At a large financial institution with a lot of employees, this is a good thing. But at Honor, we wear lots of hats. I’ve had real estate bankers discover they know only the sliver of real estate that was the narrow scope of their job at the bank. So after putting bankers through orientation and explaining the credit union difference, we focus on broadening their expertise during one-on-one training with a manager. They might not have to doeverything, but they mustknoweverything.

When we acquired the Edgewater Bank branch, we put the employees through orientation and training. Then, one at a time, we brought them to other Honor branches to work for a month. We did it one at a time because we wanted the former bank customers, our new members, to know we didn’t fire their bank employees. We rotated all employees so they could experience other branches and live, feel, and work in a credit union environment.

Some of our best employees are former bankers. At Honor, one of our top producers is a banker we acquired in the Edgewater deal. He was hesitant at first, but he became a real credit union champion. We welcome bankers with open arms, and we’re happy to hold their hands as they convert to the credit union way.

As told to Drew Grossman

December 9, 2014

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