Hunkered Down? Can't Grow In 2009? Sorry, Not All Agree

President Obama wasn't able to make it to Credit Union Journal's Grow Show last week, but he would have approved of the "Yes We Can" mindset of the credit unions in attendance.

Even with issues of Credit Union Journal on every table reporting industry losses in the first quarter on page 1, nearly two-dozen speakers outlined proven strategy after proven strategy, unique idea after unique idea, for growing their operations and ensuring not just survival but prosperity. Audience members stood up to share what was and is working for them. In the conference trade show, vendors were told to ditch the tchotchkes and be prepared to answer the question, "What can you do to help our credit union grow?" And they did.

If you weren't able to make it go Grow Show it's likely irony was the reason. The lack of growth at many shops and NCUA's special assessment (have yet to meet, by the way, the CEO who considers it "special") has led to a sharp reduction in travel budgets. Yet as more than one speaker observed, "Getting together and talking about ways to grow is just what we ought to be doing right now."

I'll let you in on the secret to growth in this environment that could be seen and heard during Grow Show if you paid attention-there isn't any one secret to growth. But there were some common ideas expressed: you need to pick a niche (even if you have a community charter) and get laser-like in focusing on it; many CU staffs remain bloated from the "good old days," and also interesting, good old-fashioned CU philosophy still sells when it's repackaged effectively.

Like everyone in attendance, I filled more than one notebook with "takeaways;" here's a very brief look at just a few of them.

  • Have you invested significantly in technology? That's just the business Harland Financial Solutions is in. But Harland's Sam Kilmer noted that the company is increasingly focused (not just internally but with clients) on the people and processes within credit unions, and with how all three interact. Better understanding the interaction provides better information upon which to act.
  • Are you and your board simply waiting for that rising tide (economy) to return to raise your ship? You'll likely sink, according to one person. "If you want a minor challenge to your ROA, cut out attendance at conferences or free lunches for staff," suggested Brett Christensen of CU Lending Advice in Austin, Texas. "If you want a dramatic change to your bottom line, you might want to consider dramatic changes." As a separate story in Credit Union Journal will detail, Christensen is a strong advocate that most credit union lending operations are significantly bloated with staff. That point was made less directly but just as powerfully one day later by Mark Shobe, CEO of DFCU Financial Credit Union in Michigan.
  • There was no generation gap at Grow Show, with discussion of Gen X, Gen Y, the Sandwich Generation and even a reminder that the Boomers still offer significant opportunity for credit unions. But, as expected, the bulk of talk went to the youngest members and prospects. As Todd Kern, VP-marketing at USA Federal in San Diego said of the challenge his CU (and all) face, "How do we make this message relevant to a generation that doesn't not want to join a credit union, but don't know what one is?" USA Fed's answer: a bulldog.
Other Grow Show coverage can be found in the related links in the upper right. But if you really want to get everything Grow Show has to offer, make sure you're in the audience in 2010.

Frank J. Diekmann can be reached at fdiekmann@cujournal.com.