A Man, A Van, A Loose Plan, & CUs Across The Land

There has always been something that Americans have loved about road trips. In 1957, Jack Kerouac's novel about spontaneously hitting the highway, "On the Road," popularized the American ideal of just getting behind the wheel and driving. In 1980, Willie Nelson went to No. 1 with "On the Road Again." And in 2010, Mark DeBellis spent nearly half a year driving more than 16,000 miles to visit nearly 200 credit unions.

DeBellis is home now, but only after making an examiner look like a homebody by spending more than 100 days on the road this year (over a 151-day span) visiting CUs. DeBellis started at the California league's Government Relations Rally in Sacramento in mid-April, before following a big counter-clockwise circle that would take him to Arizona, New Mexico, West Texas, Colorado, Utah, Idaho, Washington, Oregon, Nevada and back into California.

On The Road, Home, On The Road
Adding more miles to his van's odometer was that it wasn't a continuous trip; he said he tried to get home twice per month, and at one point was even in his office in Lake Forest, Calif., at PSB, The Marketing SuperSource, where he's president, for a week and a half. So why a Credit Union Road Trip?

"There were several goals," DeBellis said. "I wanted to do something for the industry. I still believe this is a very pivotal time for credit unions to gain awareness. The van was designed around consumer education, which you can see from the website (at www.DestinationCreditUnion.com). I posted from each visit from a consumer perspective. I talked about why a credit union is a valid alternative to other providers."

While Jack Kerouac may have popularized the romantic notion of going wherever the road took him, that's not the best strategy for visiting businesses-especially CUs that may think some vendor has just shown up in the parking lot and is planning a cold call. Instead, DeBellis said, his office helped in coordinating the itinerary. The goal was to see about two CUs per day; some were PSB clients, others were not. "In some cases I showed up unannounced, but most of the time I called ahead. I would just say, 'Hey, I'm going to be in the neighborhood.' Where we could, we let people know we were coming."

Once at the credit union, DeBellis said he typically met with marketing staff or the CEO, but in some cases he sat down with the entire management team. "It is difficult to see people today," he observed. "Face-to-face conversations are very nice."

Meeting people, DeBellis added, also had two other benefits: it helped to keep him from "going nuts," and he discovered many credit unions had a thirst for information on what is happening at other CUs. "People want to know what's working out there," he shared. "People want to know what is the vibe in other markets. There is definitely a difference among the states."

In the western U.S., credit unions can be hundreds of miles apart, which left DeBellis plenty of time driving-16,683 miles in all. He said he spent a great deal of that time on the phone and listening to music. "The most difficult part of the whole thing was being by myself," he said, adding that because his kids are older it was easier on his family.

While the trips to most credit unions were planned, other portions of the trip were not. "I lived in the van, although I spent two or three nights in hotels, and once at the home of some relatives," DeBelis said. "I spent a night in a Walmart parking lot, and in RV parks and campgrounds. You see the landscape a lot differently. It was a bit of an epiphany. I was impacted by the people I met who are in a tough place and who are in those campgrounds not by choice."

Head Turner
Many of those whom DeBellis met wanted to know more about his story. The green-and-white van he was driving was emblazoned with credit union messages, along with the words "The Credit Union Road Trip" in blue lettering. "The van had a message, 'Wave if you love your credit union.' I got a lot of waves. People asked me what I was doing. It turned heads. In some places people bought me lunch. Everyone wished me well."

Included in the van's signage was the website's URL, which DeBellis said he hopes inspired some people to learn more about credit unions.

Now settled back in his office, DeBelis said he is working to assemble his experiences into a publication in which he plans to identify eight to 10 strategic opportunities for CUs that he observed. I asked DeBellis whether the road might call again.

"I never got as close to people as I did on this trip in hearing and talking to people," DeBellis related. "I am evaluating what to do next. I think it's a great story and some people will find it valuable. The question for the next time is whether it would make sense to create more publicity for the industry."

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