FENTON, Mo.-Tim Stephens, the newly installed CEO at Alliance CU, compares his credit union to a house.

Stephens' predecessor, Dennis Sommer, led Alliance for 28 years, growing it to $196 million in assets today. Sommer took Alliance from a foundation and built a brick house out of it, said Stephens. "Now we have to add on."

Stephens may be new to Alliance, but he's not new to CUs. A native of the St. Louis area, he spent 14 years as CEO at nearby Healthcare Family CU-which he took over at the ripe old age of 30-before coming to Alliance earlier this year. Healthcare Family grew from $14 million to $50 million during Stephens' tenure, despite pressures to convert to a community charter or merge. He noted that while he's moved to a larger institution, it is by no means a large credit union.

"The day-to-day struggles are all the same-they're just on a grander scale," he said. "We're still in the same position of having to provide superior service to our members. Service such that they prefer to come here rather than go anywhere else. That's the continuing challenge, and you do that in spite of the regulatory burden, the environmental changes and the competition. Those challenges are the same, it's just that we're on a grander scale. More branches, more members, and along with those things comes more assets."

One of the benefits of moving to a larger institution, said Stephens, is that his team of professionals has doubled from four to eight. That means more opportunities for collaborative leadership, which he said is a key part of his leadership style. "I'm all about leading with a vision and making people understand that vision down to the front line."


Goal: Broaden Lending Mix

Despite being 97% loaned out, with heavy concentrations in real estate and commercial lending, Stephens said he hopes to broaden that mix over time, including more of a focus on auto lending. Personal finance solutions are also in the cards, he said.

"Where we see our biggest challenges are in the areas of membership growth," he said, stressing that the credit union must provide a superior service experience in order to generate word of mouth, "which is the most powerful form of marketing in today's marketplace."

But Stephens also noted that ACU doesn't need to be bringing in thousands of new members each year. "There's a tremendous amount of growth that can happen within the 17,000 folks that we have," he said, adding that the credit union can grow "if we can do well with who we already have and just add a few hundred folks per year."

Stephens isn't big on the idea of a sales culture; rather, it's the combination of service and sales-in that order-that will cause members to do more business with the CU. "It's a slower business model than a true sales approach, but I only ask my people to develop the best available products in the marketplace from the standpoint of the consumer, and then take your time when we get new people, but convince them that we have a better way."

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