The Benefit Of Big Branching

In 2011, SECU completed its goal of putting a branch in every county in North Carolina, so earlier this year when the board decided to focus exclusively on in-state members, the credit union had a branch footprint in place to reach everyone.

State Employees Credit Union ($26.9B; Raleigh, NC) announced in early 2013 that it would refocus its efforts to serve its members exclusively in its home state of North Carolina. The framework to accomplish that goal is set; the credit union has a branch in every county in the Tar Heel State. North Carolina has 100 counties, and SECU has a presence in all of them from Wake County, home to the state capital and nearly 40 SECU branches, to Cherokee, a northwestern farm town with only one SECU branch.

We started branching in 1968, so basically it’s taken us 45 years to get a branch in every county, says Jim Blaine, CEO of SECU.

The goal to put a branch in every county manifested in the mid 2000s when the board decided to not skip over sparsely populated, rural areas. At the time, the credit union already had a strong presence in the state and decided no county was too marginal to serve.

We serve teachers and state employees, so we have a pretty strong base in every county, Blaine says. With manufacturer-based credit unions or employer-based credit unions, they might not have that kind of demographic profile.

Although SECU has a heavy branch presence, leaders there are quick to point out that an investment in brick-and-mortar is not a slight to online offerings.

We believe in multiple channels, Blaine says. And under that strategy, brick-and-mortar plays an important role.

Branches are key, but what they will be doing is different, Blaine says. They will not primarily be transaction processors. They will be serving some pretty sophisticated needs whether its insurance, or trust, or investments, or mortgage lending, or you name it. Those kinds of things are benefitted by having a face-to-face conversation.

SECU disavows the idea branches are used exclusively by older members. Similarly, it doesn’t believe only Gen Y or younger members use online channels.

This idea that a certain group only does it one way or the other is not true, Blaine says. Younger folks in particular like to come in to talk about things with which they are not familiar, it’s a new experience.

SECU has more than 250 branches in North Carolina. According to Callahan & Associates Peer-to-Peer data, this far exceeds the 22-branch average for credit unions with $1 billion or more in assets as well as the six-branch average for credit unions in North Carolina. And with its large physical footprint, SECU serves an average of 7,378 members per branch. That’s more than state peers, which serve 5,749, and credit unions nationally, which average 4,698.

Building A Branch

SECU has branch locations in every major city and near many heavily trafficked crossroads across the state. No matter where you are in North Carolina, a branch is within a 15-minute drive. The credit union takes into account a series of factors when it selects a branch location. The location must be accessible and it must accommodate a stand-alone building. SECU favors major thoroughfares and proximity to places like schools, hospitals, or employee groups. It also prefers the going-home side of the street.

Very few folks go to the credit union on the way to work, Blaine says. They prefer to go on the way home.

The credit union, however, avoids shopping centers because it does not want to anchor with the type of location that tends to change and deteriorate over time.

We are a point of destination, that’s the branching term, Blaine says. People are driving to go to the credit union, it’s not like they’re pulling over to get a hamburger.

How Do You Get To Know 1.9 Million People?

Internet use is soaring, and despite its many branches throughout the state, SECU also promotes online services for the real-time, self-help qualities that are both convenient for the member and cost-efficient for the institution. But, with online and mobile transactions, a talented and available support staff is important.

SECU is creating a virtual call center in which all of its branches and branch staff will participate. Under this strategy, it will route calls to local branches instead of a centralized call center. When Joe Teller or Jane Mortgage Officer isn’t processing transactions, they will handle support calls.

The 11th commandment in this organization is you will always get a person first, Blaine says.

According to Blaine, the credit union is halfway through the $20 million investment. The new system will track member activity and calls so members will not have to repeat themselves every time they call. Additionally, account information includes financial transactions as well as personal information about family size, kids, and habits so employees can offer a personal touch to electronic communication. The credit union will route support calls to a member’s local branch, and when a SECU staff member helps a member with a transaction, the next time that member calls, the call will go to the same employee. Having branch staff multi-task eliminates the need for a call center and provides a more personal experience; it also will save money today and down the road.

You can have exceptional service at a low cost, Blaine says. Most folks think branches are wildly expensive they are if you run them like you did in 1950. But if they are your home base in the community, they offer a lot of opportunity. They see you in schools, they see you in church, they see you at the little league field. All of that is personal.

December 17, 2013

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