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credit unions reaching out to small business

Arizona’s Credit Unions Are Reaching Out To Small Businesses

Relative newcomers to the field of making business loans, credit unions nonetheless have become key players in today’s tight-money economy. Barely 10 years ago, credit unions concentrated mainly on savings and checking accounts, and made personal, auto and home loans. But the Credit Union National Association says credit unions nationally originated $6.5 billion in business loans in the first six months of 2008, up 36 percent from the $4.8 billion in the corresponding period of 2007.

Credit union business loans in Arizona average about $240,000. Because the loans are relatively small, credit unions focus on small businesses.

For the past six years, Arizona credit unions have been working closely with the Small Business Administration and have emerged as strong SBA lenders. But because of the expertise involved in making such loans, only the larger credit unions are active in that segment of lending.

Steve Dunham, president and CEO of Canyon State Credit Union and board chairman of the Arizona Credit Union League & Affiliates, suggests that credit unions with assets of at least $400 million generally have the ability and staff support, so they are most likely to make business loans.

Then there is the issue of the federal cap, which the credit union industry has been trying to get Congress to increase or eliminate. Under the cap, credit unions may make business loans totaling no more than 12.25 percent of their assets.
The business lending cap comes into play at Arizona State Credit Union, one of the state’s largest.

“We’re getting very close to the cap, so we are being selective about what we do,” says Paul Stull, senior vice president of marketing at Arizona State Credit Union. “We keep bumping into it, and we have to find a way to make room. It’s quite a challenge to manage that.”

Despite the regulatory limits placed on credit unions, opportunities for businesses to borrow are available. Businesses face a combination of challenges, such as finding a money source and finding the right rate, Stull says.

“For many of the people we deal with, the rate is important, but many times they don’t have too many alternatives to look at for financing,” Stull says. “That usually means their needs are somewhat smaller than the targeted range of other providers. It takes just as much work to originate a small loan as it does a large one. Some would prefer to do only larger loans. A small business person might fall outside of that window. When they do, it’s tough for them to get the attention they want and deserve. Certainly small enterprises are not coming up on the radar of some of the larger lenders. That doesn’t mean rate isn’t important. It still is. But clearly you need to talk to somebody before you can get a rate.”

In all phases of lending, credit unions traditionally follow very conservative underwriting principles and only make loans to members. It’s not uncommon for an individual member to approach a credit union with a business loan request.

“The strong suit for credit unions is what it has always been — credit unions take the time to know their members,” Stull says. “That certainly puts us in a better position to meet the needs of a business. Many of our business customers have a personal relationship with us. They like the way we treat them personally, and they realize they can do their business banking with us as well. And that leads to a deeper relationship. The wider use of our business services is a more recent phenomenon. It’s a natural progression, and is indicative of the way we like to know our customers.”

Most experts see the economy beginning a slow turnaround toward the end of this year or early 2010. Consumers for the most part are still on the sidelines. Credit unions and the business community are keeping an eye on the nation’s savings rate.

For the past 20 to 30 years, Americans saved 7 percent of the income. But in recent years, before the recession hit, people were spending and borrowing more and saving considerably less. The U.S. Department of Commerce notes that the U.S. savings rate has been on the rise after almost five years in which consumers barely saved a penny.

Stull calls the rise in savings a good sign-bad sign situation.

“It’s good because people are being more cautious, developing more security,” he says. “The money they save goes to financial institutions and becomes available for lending. But, it’s a bad sign because people are not buying cars, motor homes, washers and dryers, and they’re not dining out as much as they used to. So it’s really kind of a double-edged sword.”

Antigua map

The ACULA Formed A Partnership To Help Peer Credit Unions In Antigua

Arizona credit unions are reaching out to professional colleagues in the former British colony of Antigua, offering instruction, training and guidance to help credit unions on the tiny Caribbean island expand and modernize.

Working through the World Council of Credit Unions (WOCCU), the Arizona Credit Union League & Affiliates has established a partnership with the Credit Union League of Antigua. The term partnership indicates joint interests and benefits, and that’s the nexus of what the industry calls its financial cooperative concept.

Credit union experts from Arizona have traveled to Antigua, which is in the eastern Caribbean north of the equator, to share ideas and strategies for improving services to their members and becoming more sophisticated in the making of loans.

Antigua has an estimated population of 85,000 and was granted its independence in 1981. The largest of the English-speaking Leeward Islands, Antigua is about 14 miles long and 11 miles wide. The island has a handful of credit unions, the largest of which has assets of approximately $24 million, compared to one of Arizona’s largest, the Arizona State Credit Union, with assets of $1.1 billion.

Scott Earl, president and CEO of the ACULA, says the partnership was formed last year to enable Antigua credit unions to see what drives the industry in the United States.

“Typically, partnerships are established with developing countries,” Earl says. “It goes both ways. We send folks to Antigua who did some training there, and they have come up here. We learn from them as well, focusing on the roots of providing services to our members. The exchange helps rejuvenate our industry as well.”

Robin Romano, certified chief executive and CEO of MariSol Federal Credit Union, recalls a trip to Antigua last year. The focus was on bringing Antigua’s credit unions up to today’s standards.

“No matter what country you are in, credit unions pretty much operate in the same basics,” Romano says. “Members are members, and uniformity is comforting. Since Antigua got its independence, credit unions have been trying to improve their regulations and become a little more modern. When I say modern, I don’t mean technology. Most of them are computerized. But, they operate similarly to the way credit unions here did 30 years ago.”

What has changed in the past 30 years? Antigua credit unions were only offering signature or auto loans and savings accounts.

“Many had not ventured into checking accounts, certificates of deposit or money markets,” Romano says. “Few were doing any form of real estate lending.”

Because Antigua has no credit reporting system, much of the training dealt with how to determine the credit-worthiness of potential borrowers.

“We talked about different methodologies,” Romano says. “It’s a small island. You can call around for shared information. We talked about the evaluation of credit to make better decisions. In modern times, more people default. They were having issues with defaults and weren’t quite sure how to handle that. I have expertise in lending and I went to six credit unions, making presentations to staff and board members on how to do things better. We also talked about different collection methods. Collectors there have the same issues we have here. We were able to relate to one another.”

The trip did provide sort of a return on investment for the Arizonans.

“Going back to smaller institutions was a way of refreshing yourself on one-to-one operations,” Romano says. “Somebody comes in and they know that person’s entire life history. That intimate relationship was very rewarding.”

Mary Lee Blommel, a member services consultant for the ACULA for 27 plus years, went to Antigua last year with representatives of three Arizona credit unions. One of the Arizonans visited five Antigua credit unions, conducting sessions onloan underwriting and emphasizing the importance of doing a check with creditors. Another visitor focused on how best to provide services to members.

In addition to the face-to-face exchanges, the league arranges conference calls and Webinars to keep the lines of communication open with Antigua credit unions. Topics have included risk management and asset liability management — making sure they have adequate funds to lend.

“We did a one-hour Webinar on risk management — investment risk, loan risk, and credit union risk in these trying times,” Blommel says. “It went very well. They had the opportunity to ask questions. I could count at least 20 people in that room.”

credit unions transformation

The ACULA Has Transformed Over The Decades

In the 75 years since the formation of the Arizona Credit Union League & Affiliates, the organization’s role has changed markedly as its membership soared. Actually, the first credit union law in Arizona was introduced, passed by the Legislature and signed by the governor in 1929. Thus, Arizona became the 29th state to enact a credit union bill.

Even before credit unions were officially recognized and regulated by the state, a mutual investment group known as Pyramid was launched in Tucson in 1925. Once the Arizona law was passed in 1929, Pyramid Credit Union received one of the first — some say the first — charter to formally operate as a credit union.

Five years later in November 1934, the Arizona Credit Union League, as it was then called, was formed. By 1948, there were 25 credit unions in the state with 3,000 members and almost half a million dollars in assets. Today, 56 Arizona credit unions represent about 1.6 million members, with assets in excess of $11 billion.

Initially, the league focused on organizing new credit unions throughout the state. In the early years, there were just a few state-chartered credit unions. Scott Earl, president and CEO of the Arizona Credit Union League & Affiliates, tells how the league’s efforts fostered growth.

“Field reps would arrange meetings with employer groups,” Earl says. “They’d be driving down the road looking for parking lots outside of businesses. If a lot of cars were parked there, they’d put credit union charter applications on the hoods of the cars. I don’t know how many organizations were created as a result during those years, but I’m sure many were.”

Gary Plank, who retired as president and CEO of the league in 2007, recalls being an organizer when he entered the credit union profession in Iowa in 1966.

“We felt the best way was to talk to the management of the company to see if we could generate interest in a credit union for the good of their employees,” Plank says.

The largest Iowa credit union back then had assets of about $7 million. Today, the assets of that same credit union exceed $1 billion, Plank says.

Plank says two factors triggered the phenomenal growth of credit unions: the addition of share-draft checking so direct deposits, including Social Security benefits, could be accepted; and a decision by the federal government to insure savings accounts.

Indeed, as credit unions grew, officials saw the need to offer more products and services, such as debit and credit cards, individual retirement accounts and first and second mortgages.

“The league was the incubator for a lot of these products and services, helping individual credit unions along the way,” Earl says. “An outgrowth of that cooperation is shared branching.”

Under shared branching, credit unions join networks that enable their members to transact business from virtually anywhere in the country where a joint operating logo is displayed.

“Shared branching addresses one of the competitive disadvantages credit unions had, which was a lack of convenient locations,” Earl says.

In the 1990s, the league’s role shifted dramatically, becoming more of an advocate for credit union legislation at the state and federal levels. In other words — lobbying.

“We put a great deal of resources into that today,” Earl says.

Services the league provides include consulting, governmental affairs activities, regulatory compliance, legal, human resources, education, communications, publications and public relations. The league works in cooperation with Credit Union National Association (CUNA), U.S. Central Credit Union, the World Council of Credit Unions and the CUNA Mutual Group.

Having the support of the league and national and international credit union organizations is helping Arizona credit unions cope with the current recession. Though a few mergers have taken place, Earl says they are not the result of the economic downturn.

“Almost always when a merger occurs it’s to provide better service to the members,” he says.

Yet, the economy is having an impact on credit unions. Many of its members — average Arizonans — have defaulted on loans or gone into bankruptcy. The good news, Earl says, is that credit unions have been reworking those loans to help their members get through difficult times.

“The challenge for the league,” says Earl, “is to find new efficiencies for credit unions to collaborate so they can provide better products and services to their members. We have to keep looking for ways for credit unions to work together.”

Credit unions, which are not-for-profit operations, have good capital and strong reserves, Earl says.

“We built those reserves for a rainy day,” he adds. “And for a lot of consumers, it’s pouring rain. But we will be around. We’ll be just fine and will continue to be of greater service to citizens.”

money stack

Credit Unions Were Well Capitalized Leading Into The Recession

Arizona credit unions are weathering the rocky economy fairly well, but not without some bumps and bruises along the way. More than 20 of the 55 credit unions in the state have seen their bottom lines slip into the red. Even so, conservative and prudent lending policies that steered them away from the risky subprime market, and the fact they are well capitalized, have put credit unions on solid financial ground.

Insiders say the No. 1 measure of solvency is capital, and credit union capital ratios are considered quite healthy.

Credit unions, which are not-for-profit institutions and do not have stockholders to satisfy, nevertheless are feeling the pain of their members who have lost jobs or might even be in danger of mortgage foreclosure or bankruptcy.

Michael Hollar, vice president of business financial services for the 68,000-member Arizona Central Credit Union, describes the percentage of its loans that are in delinquency as “fairly high.” As of late last year, 1.67 percent of Arizona Central’s loans were in jeopardy, compared to 0.5 percent 12 to 18 months earlier.

If a payment is 11 days late, the credit union contacts the member to find out what the problem is. If the payment is 60 days late, steps are taken to ease the member’s financial pain by extending the amortization and lowering the interest rate.

“From a bottom line perspective, we were well into the red in 2008, roughly $6.5 million,” Hollar says.

“The reason is that we put a significant amount of money into reserve for loan losses. Every time we write something off, we put that much into reserve.”

Through 11 months of 2008, Arizona Central had put $10.6 million into its reserve fund, compared to $1.6 million for the corresponding period in 2007, reflecting the result of troubled loans.

“People walk in with the car keys and say they can’t make the payment anymore,” Hollar says. “It’s amazing. We’re lucky to get 50 cents on the dollar on that vehicle when it is sent to auction. Values are down. We’ve had a fair number of home equity loans that we wrote off. There’s no equity in the home anymore. The first mortgage is probably more than the house is worth.”

The goal was to pack as much bad news into 2008, so Arizona Central could hit the ground running in 2009, Hollar says.

Most credit unions have a very strong capital base. Any capital ratio to total assets in excess of 7 percent is considered by the National Credit Union Association to be well capitalized. In the past year, Arizona Central slipped to more than 10 percent from 11 percent, still well above the 7 percent plateau.

“We’re still north of 10 percent,” Hollar says. “As far as long-term stability, there are no issues. We’re not panicking by any means.”

The sinking economy, however, led to some changes in Arizona Central’s already conservative lending policies. Home equity loans that were offered for 100 percent of a home’s value, now are limited to 80 percent.

Steve Dunham, CEO of Canyon State Credit Union and board chairman of the Arizona Credit Union League and Affiliates, assesses the industry’s status: “I think we’re doing pretty well.”

He cites such factors as credit unions being not-for-profit organizations chasing quarterly profits, and avoiding higher-risk activities, including subprime and no-documentation lending.

“That helped protect us,” Dunham says. “Capital at credit unions was at an all-time high going into the recession. Credit unions started out with very good capital, and we still have very good capital at this point. By and large, I think credit unions will weather the recession very well.”

At Canyon State Credit Union, the 20th largest in the state with $140 million in assets, the number of members who are encountering financial difficulties is accelerating somewhat, Dunham says.

“As they have difficulty, so do we,” he adds. “As unemployment rises, more members are losing their jobs or having their hours cut. Real estate loans that everybody thought were well collateralized, with the drop in real estate values, now we’re discovering they are not so well collateralized. We’re very conservative as far as identifying what that real estate value is.”

Like other credit unions, Canyon State works with its members to help them through tough times on a case by case basis.

Even though some credit unions are operating in the red, Scott Earl, CEO of the Arizona Credit Union League and Affiliates, doesn’t expect consumer members to see much difference when it comes to borrowing. However, credit unions might require more documentation before awarding a loan than they did a year or two ago, he says.

At First Credit Union, where defaulted loans have increased mostly for autos, Carolyn Cameron, vice president of business development, says membership actually rose slightly in 2008 to nearly 60,000.
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“We stepped up our relationship building, our marketing efforts, working hard to attract new members and retain our current members,” Cameron says.

On the financial side, Cameron says, “Our very strong capital position prepared us to weather fluctuations in economic conditions. We also added provisions for dealing with increased loan losses. We eliminated construction loans, and we came out with an assistance program for members having trouble.”

Assistance may involve deferring or reducing payments, and reducing interest rates to help borrowers get back on their feet, she says.

What is it going to take to turn the economy around? Dunham, chairman of the Credit Union League, says the answer is simple.
“In Arizona, we need to absorb the excess real estate that’s available and get home building started again.”