EVANSTON, Ill.-If the branch can adjust to growing pains and learn to address some additional demands of becoming a shared branch, it's a good way to boost the CU's brand-and business-within the community.

That's the assessment of James Smith, who manages the Evanston, Ill., office of First Northern CU. Smith has been manager for seven years, the last five as a shared branch participating in the CO-OP Financial Services shared branch network.

"Without any doubt, the change has increased the awareness of our credit union within our city," said Smith, who explained that the reason is simple. "More people use us so more people talk about us. This definitely keeps us busy, as there are always people coming through the doors."

The move to shared branching has boosted the office's monthly teller transactions by 50%, to 3,000 from 2,000. Part of the total, Smith surmised, comes from the fact a lot of credit union members who move to town from out of state learn they can access their current CU through the shared office. "That has a lot of appeal," said Smith.


Several Lessons Learned

Smith's office is small, with four employees, having added one additional full-timer and part-timer to handle the extra workload. There are operational issues, too, that come with shared branching, Smith said. It begins with learning how to staff appropriately to accommodate the extra demand.

"We had to learn too, to better manage cash supplies, having enough extra cash on hand to be in line with our bond coverage. We are small and use our teller cash recyclers as our 'main vault,' so to speak. Those are bonded, so my cash limits are set according to those coverages-I can't hold any more cash than my teller cash recyclers, and a small safe, are covered for. So it's a challenge sometimes trying to physically meet the cash needs of members, not only from a withdrawal but a deposit standpoint. One time we had a member come in to deposit $60,000 in cash."

Outside of the operational processes, what makes a shared branch successful, insisted Smith, is treating every member the same, no matter if they are a member of FNCU or another credit union in the shared branch network. Smith added that there are not many fees a member of another CU pays, just $5 for a check withdrawal.

"I set the expectations with my staff that we treat everyone the same, learn to call all our members by their names," said Smith. "Even if we are not their main credit union, a lot of shared branch members see us as their credit union. That's what we work toward."

One aspect of becoming a shared branch that's been tough for Smith to deal with is not being able to resolve a problem for a shared branch member that falls outside basic transactions. "We love the fact some of these members view us as their credit union, but when they have an issue, like a debit card that has expired, we apologize and tell them they have to get in touch with their credit union to fix the situation."

It's a conversation Smith hates for his front line to have to have. "But the key is you have to have people on the front line who have the right attitude. They can't be timid, but must be very friendly, explain the situation and give the member the information they need to contact the right area at their credit union."

Shared branch or not, what Smith likes most about his role is typical of most CU office managers. "I enjoy being part of the community and playing an important role in helping improve members' financial well-being. To me that's what it's all about."

First Northern is headquartered in Chicago.

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