Trailhead Uses Swagger And Swag To Onboard New Hires

The Northwest credit union combines printed materials with a branded tchotchke or two to educate new hires.

Top-Level Takeaways

  • Trailhead FCU’s new hire orientation includes personalized letters, trinkets, and a 22-page trail guide that explains the cooperative’s brand philosophy.
  • A dedicated team is working on ways to expand orientation beyond the current package.


Trailhead FCU
Data as of 09.30.18

HQ: Portland, OR
ASSETS: $119.8M
MEMBERS: 9,464
12-MO LOAN GROWTH: 16.6%
ROA: 0.42%

Trailhead Federal Credit Union ($120.1M, Portland, OR) competes for employees and members in a market known for its commitment to individuality and non-conformity. It isn’t a cookie-cutter financial institution, and neither is its approach to employee orientation. Its package of manuals, individualized letters, and credit union swag is designed to make sure new hires get that message early, often, and effectively.

Trailhead has added two branches in the past three years in neighborhoods where it is the sole financial institution. It’s posting solid metrics, including year-over-year member growth of 7.4%, well above the 1.7% second quarter average for U.S. credit unions with $100 million to $250 million in assets.

But that’s not what Trailhead emphasizes when new employees join the 30-member team.

We live in a city of non-conformists. A community where individuals lead the way where financial goals are as unique and varied as the people who have them. That’s why we’re here. We are a cooperative of the eclectic. We are proudly different ever adapting to the changing needs our community. Trailhead FCU Orientation Guide.

Here, president and CEO Jim McCarthy shares his thoughts on what makes the onboarding strategy successful at the cooperative he’s overseen for the past seven years.


When does Trailhead start onboarding new employees?

Jim McCarthy: We share materials with new staff prior to their official hire date. New employees are able to absorb fundamental knowledge about our credit union, our philosophies, and our culture prior to joining the team. This sets up the credit union and the employee for a successful start with fewer surprises.

What impression does your onboarding make on new employees? How do you know that?

JM: Our onboarding materials promote a positive first impression and act as a warm introduction of our credit union. Because the employee is exposed ahead of time to information about the credit union, they’re ultimately empowered with knowledge when they begin their career with Trailhead. They know what to expect from us, they know what we value, they know they will be welcomed, and they can begin their workforce journey with our mission and perspectives in mind.

Who created the materials you use for new employee onboarding?

JM: Our vice president of marketing, Kim Faucher, recognized an opportunity to support our brand among new employees when we transitioned to our new name five years ago. She’s also responsible for selecting and ordering trendy swag items to include in the package.

Our executive assistant, Toni Mathews, created the Trailhead Trail Guide. It includes information on our brand, dress code, professional development opportunities, and a glossary of widely used credit union terms.

Click here to download the credit union’s Trailhead Trail Guide.

What are some of the swag items included in the onboarding package?

JM: Our most recent swag items include canvas tote bags, notebooks, sunglasses, koozies, lip balm, bike lights, carabiners, yo-yos, bandanas, fanny packs, fidget spinners, tattoos, and patches.

When did you start including a letter from you?

JM: From the beginning. Kim suggested we include a letter from me to show the employee that their CEO values their contributions to Trailhead. I absolutely want every member of our staff to feel valued by leadership.

Click the tabs below to view images.


The Trailhead Orientation Guide is 22-pages of definitions, dress code, development opportunities, and brand reinforcement of the individuality that marks the Portland vibe. Download the guide here.


New Trailhead staffers receive a personal welcome letter that reiterates the credit union’s core values and the importance of their arrival to the team. Download the full letter here.


Trailhead FCU staffer Xan Gordon gives the thumbs-up to the swag the Division Street Branch was offering at the Division-Clinton Street Fair.


This hand-written sign invites passers-by to engage with Trailhead FCU at the Mississippi Street fair in Portland. CEO Jim McCarthy says participants get what they want from the swag table regardless where the arrow lands.

Don’t reinvent the wheel. Get rolling on important initiatives using documents, policies, and templates borrowed from fellow credit unions. Pull them off the shelf and tailor them to your needs. See what the Policy Exchange from Callahan has for you.

Why do you put brand so high up in the Trail Guide?

JM: Our brand is a reflection of our membership. It’s vital that our staff is aware of the cohesive connection between our membership base and our brand.

How do you define Trailhead’s brand?

Jim McCarthy, President and CEO, Trailhead FCU

JM: We adhere to a banking for the non-conformist motto. We embrace the eclectic personalities of our Portland membership, and our brand revolves around that understanding and appreciation. Our relatively smaller size is a competitive advantage; we have the ability to provide a localized boutique experience in financial services.

Please describe the culture at Trailhead.

JM: In a recent anonymous employee survey, our employees described our culture as: fun, progressive, casual, and authentic. There is a sense of family among co-workers and a genuine desire to help members succeed.

4 Tips To Onboard Employees

Portland might be a market unto itself, but there are tried-and-true employee onboarding principles that can work anywhere in credit union land. Trailhead president and CEO Jim McCarthy shares a few.

  • Make if fun and exciting. Focus the onboarding process less on procedures and systems and more on culture and what makes the credit union different.
  • Don’t let it go stale. Continually edit and adapt the onboarding process and practices. At a minimum, look at them annually.
  • Connect the dots. Make sure there is a consistent connection between brand, procedures, actions, culture, and the promises and claims the credit union makes.
  • Ask for feedback. Regardless of position, every staff member has a fresh observation on employee onboarding that leadership might be overlooking.

How does brand connect to culture at Trailhead?

JM: Brand and culture are intertwined and perpetuate each other. Our culture directly influences our brand, and our brand echoes our culture and our members.

How many employees and how much turnover do you have?

JM: We currently employ 31 individuals. Fortunately, because our turnover rate is low, we use our onboarding packages, on average, one to three times a year.

Who is in charge of onboarding? How do you deliver these materials?

JM: Kim Faucher prepares the onboarding packages and mails them directly to the new hire at least one week before their start date. After their arrival, the employee’s supervisors review questions they might have from the Trail Guide and continues their individual training program, which varies depending on department.

Please describe the competitive environment for new employees in your market.

JM: Identifying qualified and prospective employees is an ever-evolving process that demands we stay relevant by thinking of new ways to source talent. In September, Unitus Community Credit Union invited Trailhead and more than 10 other credit unions to be a part of the first collaborative Credit Union Career Fair in Portland. This was a successful event that hopefully will be the first of many. The united talent search efforts ensure that we, as credit unions, are more appealing in the financial industry here.

What makes the Portland market different for attracting and retaining new employees, and how do your onboarding materials address that?

JM: Being authentic and supporting a non-conformist attitude requires that we back our brand via our culture and actions. Reinforcing what we claim to be ensures our authenticity. Although this does not happen effortlessly and without challenges, by implementing quarterly employee surveys, creating the Trailhead Experience Team, and setting quantifiable goals and measurements of success from these committees and surveys, we are mirroring a genuine approach and the brand promises that are in our onboarding guide.

What changes do you want to make in your onboarding program?

JM: We’re currently considering broadening the initial experience beyond the onboarding package. We’ve created a committee called the Trailhead Experience Team that comprises staff members from various positions. They’re identifying how we can improve upon the staff experience, including the onboarding process. We’re hoping to add structured trainings and an individual development plan that will be communicated between supervisor and staff during the onboarding process. Stay tuned.

This interview has been edited and condensed.


October 30, 2018

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