Amid All The Red Numbers Elsewhere, One CU Finds Green

Amid all the other economic news, at least one credit union has its rivals green with envy.

MAX Credit Union has just completed hosting its second annual "EcoMAX Home Expo" in Montgomery, Ala. The two-day event drew more than 2,000 people and 60 exhibitors, plus plenty of media attention. But, more importantly, it has drawn the local businesses' and the community's interest. In just two years MAX has become the tallest financial institution tree when it comes to the "green" movement in Central Alabama's River Region, all of which has led to more green for its loan portfolio. It's already making plans for its 2009 EcoMAX Home Expo.

The idea, explained MAX VP D.G. Markwell, came at the suggestion of the credit union's VP-Lending. "We pitched it to the CEO with the premise that credit unions are generally Johnny-Come-Lastlies to commercial lending," said Markwell. "We thought it would be a great venue for us to break into the market and carve out our own niche."

It may not be a niche much longer, with environmentally sensitive building and living standards quickly becoming the norm. "We wanted to be the experts in sustainable living and green living," said Markwell.

With a commitment from management, MAX hired Donna Jackson to be its Home Expo coordinator, and set out to do two things: start educating the community on all things green, and provide that other green for which credit unions have been better known to help people "facilitate their dreams." Markwell said both he and the VP of lending already had a fair amount of knowledge on sustainable living practices at the front-end of the process, and they have brought in additional consultants for more education. Both have received training and become certified in the Energy Key homebuilding program.

In August of 2007 MAX hosted its first-ever EcoMAX and attracted 1,600 people, and that was before the most recent spikes in energy prices. MAX has also benefited, acknowledged Markwell, from the fact it has had "zero competition" from other lenders. "Part of it is because utility costs have been so low in the South for so many decades that building standards were lax, people didn't feel they needed to look at solar or wind or alternative energy products or practices," he said.

Rising energy costs have changed that, as evidenced by the 2,000 folks who showed up for this year's EcoMAX Home Expo. "There was a lot of pent-up desire and demand for this as this was the first event in our area" of its kind, said Markwell. "We're taking the approach that all great movements in history have been bottom up."

MAX is also looking to eco-practice what it eco-preaches. In November it hopes to finalize the formation of an Alabama chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council, which will include engineers, architects, builders-and MAX. "As a result we're starting to build strategic relationships in the community on building, we're educating people and we're building business," said Markwell. "Before last year's show, we formed an EcoMAX Home Expo committee with construction folks, utility companies, and people involved in this industry. They send us leads and contacts."

Markwell said the CU does not use the Home Expo itself to generate income, pointing out that "one, good, multi-million-dollar construction loan more than covers the expense."

With its just-concluded second Home Expo, Markwell said the credit union put in practice some lessons it learned at the first show. Among them, noted Dawn Hammack, MAX's director of marketing, was that "We broadened the show to more sustainable living practices."

This year, for the first time it also added the "EcoMax Green Leadership Awards" to recognize individuals "who are making a difference," said Markwell, adding the Awards were not just popular but have also led to new business.

MAX doesn't just roll up its green flag when the Home Expo concludes. It offers a discounted APR on auto loans for hybrids, and it has rolled out a first-generation green mortgage for homes that employ green building practices. Markwell said MAX is working to develop a LEED-certified home mortgage, but that is going to take more time. In addition, the credit union has bought a Toyota Prius to conduct business, has been switching out its incandescent bulbs for florescent, has put in place strong internal restrictions on printing paper (and the paper it uses in marketing is certified by the Forestry Stewardship Council as recycled, as using soy-based ink and from production plants that use wind power), and it is actively seeking to reduce its energy usage.

Folks in Alabama are clearly noticing. The state legislature has formed a statewide energy committee and Markwell has been asked to co-chair the environmental issues subcommittee. "We spent around $80,000 to $90,000 to do this, but we get it back as business, and now we have a seat at the table with state government and architects and builders and construction companies in our area. We're also involved in leading public policy."

For a look at the entire agenda, photos, speakers, links and more, go to myecomax.com.

Frank J. Diekmann can be reached at fdiekmann<at>cujournal.com. (c) 2008 Credit Union Journal and SourceMedia, Inc. All Rights Reserved. http://www.cujournal.com/ http://www.sourcemedia.com/