North Jersey Federal Credit Union has found success growing its line of business services by putting on an annual event that has now run for the past seven years.

The credit union, a $230 million institution based in Totowa, N.J., held its seventh Annual Business Summit last month, and the event is designed to link credit union members with local business owners and successful entrepreneurs. Typically, guests discuss tips on getting ahead of the competition, and share important business practices and effective strategies.

“We created the event as a way to promote our business products and services,” explained James Giffin, North Jersey FCU’s VP of marketing. “We found that many residents and business owners did not know what a credit union offers and most did not know the extent of services offered – more precisely, that we offer all the services that a business may need.”

The summit, he added, also offers an opportunity to help other businesses to promote their services in a “relaxed networking environment.”

“We recognized that once business owners visited our branch and learn what we could do for them, they more likely would choose North Jersey Federal to do their business banking,” Giffin noted.

More importantly, these events have boosted the bottom line at North Jersey FCU. Giffin cited that the number of business accounts at the credit union has grown by more than 20 percent per year since they started the business summit seven years ago. “Also, hosting the Business Summit has led to increased business lending,” he added.

Changes over time

However, the summits have altered significantly over the past seven years. “The first summit had speakers (including New Jersey Democrat Congressman Bill Pascrell) and the attendees sat in a theater-style room to basically listen to a presentation” he said. “Also, we rented vendor space to other businesses who would set up a booth during the summit.”

But after surveying the participants after the first event, North Jersey FCU learned that what they really wanted was more “networking opportunities.”

“The following year we invited vendors to showcase products and services related to small businesses [and] we added a 45-minute networking component before the speakers presented,” Giffin explained, adding that over the years the event has evolved into more of a networking symposium, and the credit union no longer rents space to vendors.

North Jersey Federal Credit Union's VP of Operations Rich Garcia, left, and James Giffin, VP of marketing, pictured during the credit union's annual Business Summit event.
North Jersey Federal Credit Union's VP of Operations Rich Garcia, left, and James Giffin, VP of marketing, pictured during the credit union's annual Business Summit event.

Giffin further indicated that some business development experts attended the event. “The business-development staff come from different industries,” he offered. “Most of the attendees are small business owners. They like sharing stories about how they successfully overcame challenges and they share these stories with each other and the discussions during the networking session cover a wide variety of topics.”

The credit union also invites local CPA and attorneys. “It is way for them to network with potential new clients and a means for the attendees to also meet experts that can help them enhance their business,” Giffin elaborated. “There are many exciting conversations that take place during the summit. Because of the great feedback we get during the networking sessions, we are considering changing the name of the Business Summit to ‘An Evening of Business Dialogue’ for next year’s summit.”

‘A fundamental part of community outreach’

North Jersey FCU appears to have hit on a relatively unique formula – and one that doesn’t appear to have been widely replicated yet, according to a number of other credit union executives CU Journal consulted.

Judy Walz, SVP-marketing & planning at VyStar CU, a $6.9 billion institution based in Jacksonville, Fla., said that North Jersey FCU’s efforts “sounds like a great program.” She added that she is “not seeing anything like this in my area.”

Similarly, Joe Mecca, AVP-communication at the $2.9 billion Coastal Credit Union of Raleigh, N.C., said it “doesn’t sound like anything that Coastal – or anyone in our area – is doing,” but asserted that “it’s a good idea, and certainly a cost-effective way for smaller credit unions to add value to their membership.”

However Paul J. Lucas, a credit union branding and marketing consultant, took a slightly more cautious view.

“There is no one-size-fits-all answer for credit unions,” he said. “When considering the effectiveness of sponsoring local business summits or meetings, there are two ways to calculate value: as a marketing opportunity designed to produce specific financial results and as part of the credit union’s commitment to their community.”
Lucas noted that North Jersey FCU promotes business accounts and lending on their website so the sponsorship “does help them support a target market.”

As a marketing strategy, Lucas added, he has “not found many success stories among my clients for sponsorships of this type in terms of helping the credit union achieve specific financial and membership growth goals.” Indeed, he explained that this type of sponsorship requires management time and attention “that may be more productive when focused on producing revenue and/or maintaining a high level of member service.”

Lucas added that while he cannot speak to New Jersey FCU’s strategy or results from the summit sponsorship, he said many credit union boards of directors consider community outreach to be an important part of the institution’s overall mission.

“Sponsoring summits that bring local business leaders together can be one way of achieving that mission,” he said.

That sentiment was echoed by Clarissa Ritter, director of marketing and communications with the National Federation of Community Development Credit Unions. Many CDCUs, she noted, also partner with local businesses and other community organizations on a regular basis.

“It’s a fundamental part of community outreach,” she said.