AmeriCU Credit Union ($2.6B, Rome, NY) was founded on Griffiss Air Force Base in 1950. At that time, it served only civilian members. Today after two mergers, three name changes, and a charter conversion the credit union serves members of the armed forces, veterans, and their families as well as Department of Defense employees and retirees.
According to its website, AmeriCU strives to provide convenience, services, and value. As part of its Enhanced Military Benefits program, it offers one-day early advanced pay for direct deposits, ATM fee rebates, pre-approvals on credit cards or personal lines of credit, special loan programs and discounts, and fraud alerts. But that’s not all. The cooperative’s Fort Drum team also attends middle-of-the-night homecomings and shows up for military spouses and children in other ways as well.
Here, Alissa Sykes Tulloch, executive vice president and chief operating officer, and Tina Thornton, assistant vice president of financial services, talk about how AmeriCU continues to focus on its military members even as its field of membership has expanded under a community charter.
AmeriCU’s membership eligibility is now geographic rather than tied directly to the military. Why does serving the military remain so important to the credit union?
Alissa Sykes Tulloch: Serving the military is in our roots. It goes back to how and why AmeriCU was established. We believe in what our service members do for our country, so we want to give back and support their needs throughout all their phases from enlisted personnel to retirees while providing for individuals and their families in all aspects.
How did AmeriCU choose to offer the specific items included in its Enhanced Military Benefits?
Tina Thornton: We started with advanced pay because we saw a need for it. When soldiers are in training, money management can become more difficult. Advanced pay provides our military members access to their direct deposit one day early.
We also recognize that the military is very mobile, so we created a checking account that offers up to $10 in monthly rebates on ATM withdrawals. Loan discounts are available for our military members as well, and we’ve enhanced fraud alerts and our online services in recent years to make it easier to apply for loans and manage money on the go.
AST: When soldiers are deployed or in training, they still have a life to manage. We need to have a direct understanding of what they face and find ways to serve them. For example, many are overseas, and a few countries trigger strict card fraud rules. As our members’ financial partner, we understand a military member’s behavior is different from a member who can simply call us to put a travel advisory on their card. A soldier might not know where they are going or their orders might be changed on a dime. So, we must be flexible and able to respond quickly whether that means express shipping a new card to the consulate or figuring out another solution.
How does the credit union encourage military members to save during Military Saves Month and throughout the year?
AST: We’ve always hosted financial workshops, but four years ago we partnered with the Army Community Services Financial Readiness Group. Now, every soldier that comes to Fort Drum is required to go through a budget review with an AmeriCU employee. The review includes basic budgeting and guidance along with a plan to get their finances in order if we see a soldier is heading down the wrong path.
TT: Anytime there’s a need, we offer financial education. Most of these soldiers are 17 to 21 years old, so we focus on basic budgeting and help them save money when they deploy. We also reach out to them once they come home, as the tendency is to want to spend that money. We encourage them to keep some of the savings they’ve built during deployment for the long-term.
During Military Saves Month, we created the Commander’s Cup Challenge in partnership with the Army’s Financial Readiness Group. This competition encourages all the units on Fort Drum to attend a series of financial education workshops. The unit whose soldiers go to the most sessions wins the Commander’s Cup. We provide the award at the end of the month, and it drives a lot of engagement every April.
Efforts within credit union land have earned three cooperatives the Designation of Savings Excellence for this year’s Military Saves Month. Learn more in “Strategies To Encourage Military Members To Manage Money And Build Wealth.”
What lessons have you learned or what changes have you made regarding how you help military members?
AST: We’ve learned that military members’ financial needs change a lot as their missions change. A soldier on deployment is in a much different situation than one who hasn’t deployed in three or four years.
We’ve also learned more about the needs of military families. Often, they don’t have a support system we’re their support systems. Tina and her team have their eyes and ears open and are willing to step in as needed. The commanding general at Fort Drum knows he can depend on Tina and her team, and that’s what makes for a successful relationship. The employees at the Fort Drum branch are primarily veterans and military spouses, so they personally understand the needs of soldiers and military families.
TT: We’re also helping veterans learn about the credit union industry. We created an internship program to give transitioning soldiers a sample of what a career in banking might look like. It’s a 90-day program we started about four years ago, and we’ve had two veterans become employees as a result. For those who aren’t interesting in banking, we help them with their resumes, translate military jargon into more broadly understood skills, and conduct mock interviews. We also partner with the USO on-site on events for children and support runs, and we provide refreshments for welcome home ceremonies. Last, but certainly not least, we put on a big concert for the troops each year called Mountain Fest.
Everyone in our Fort Drum office has experience with the military lifestyle. It’s more than a job to them, and that commitment really shows.
What advice do you have for credit unions that want to better serve their own military members?
AST: You have to be part of the community everyone in our Fort Drum office has experience with the military lifestyle. It’s more than a job to them, and that commitment really shows. If soldiers are coming home in the middle of the night, they are there. You can’t just talk about serving the military, you need employees who believe it and live it.
TT: Our strong partnership with the Army Community Services Financial Readiness Group is also important. Having an AmeriCU employee in the office to help with budget planning opens up the lines of communication and allows us to refer things to one another that we might not have seen if we didn’t have that relationship.