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Not the Time to Play Chicken: CU Growth Strategies for 2017
Monday, December 12, 2016 6:45 AM

By John A. Vardallas, CUDE, CEO/Founder of TheAmericanBoomeR Group

According to the Chinese Calendar 2017 is the Year of the Red Chicken. The chicken symbolizes jewelry, gems, fruit, prosperity, and comfort. So, not being chicken with the economy and financial marketplace will be a harbinger for credit union leadership as we head into the New Year.

With 2017 being the start of a new political administration for America, there will be a good deal of uncertainty for many of us. Overall many aspects of the current American economic landscape have caused many of us to shift to more common-sense basics and new technology in dealing with our financial situations and engagement in serving members.

The Credit Union Movement has always faced challenging times. However, the times we are facing can be considered critical for the future growth and survival of our credit unions and the millions of members who have entrusted us as their guardians and financial stewards. Maintaining and promoting our “differentiation” will help solidify the credit union brand in our communities going forward.

There is mixed good news these days. The stock market is at an all-time high and, overall, US credit union membership has hit 105 million plus. Loan growth is increasing. Net interest margins and operating expenses are improving. Inflation is flat, and the housing market is recovering. However, many Americans are still unemployed or have dropped out of the workforce; there's stagnant or declining household income; taxes are going up; and the impact of the Affordable Healthcare Act is being felt. Regulation is getting tighter, interest rates will be ticking up and, more uncertain, CEO and board leadership are in transition and a high percentage of young adults are not aware they can join a credit union.

This is the year for credit unions to really step up and help members respond to new changes and challenges (regulations/rising interest rates/cybersecurity) to improve and add comfort to their financial lifestyles. I would offer these dozen suggestions for setting a course to prosper in the New Year: 

  1. Work the back yard. Focus on deepening relationships (more wallet share) with your current members. Get close and really get to know your members.
  2. Review your fee structures for marketplace adjustments. I am not suggesting we gouge our members, only that we alter fees based on the local marketplace. We still will be the best deal in town.
  3. Have collaboration, partnership, alliance, and merger policies/strategies.
  4. Train staff to cross-serve/sell and wow members at every touchpoint opportunity 7x24x365. Embrace being a “member-centric” CU. All staff, volunteers, vendors, and members should be advocates for your credit union.
  5. Use good on-boarding practices to reconnect and engage current and new members by offering incentives—buy local Groupon/miles/reward and cash-back programs, prepaid cards, free credit reports, and concierge services to empower members to connect. Give them real reasons for being a member, not just a customer. Membership should have its privileges. Offer a certificate of member ownership or a toll-free 800 member care number.
  6. Create a strategy for serving new Americans (immigrants) and the underserved. We are poised to reach new and future members in our communities and bring them into our credit union family.
  7. Embrace mobile and tablet technology and social media. Be app-alicious—utilize innovative ideas to create apps for this and that. Teach members to serve themselves via technology.
  8. Offer tax and legal (wills) services and end of life (burial) loans. Look for non-traditional lifestyle products/services from which your members could really benefit.
  9. Reach out to young adults and women via micro lending, and small business services.
  10. Stop asking Gen XYZ "why they do that." Make it a strategic imperative to appeal to and attract more youth and young adults. The under-30 demographic is your next generation of lending business and lifelong members for your credit union. Find ways to help them ease the burden of student debt.
  11. Focus more on diverse non-interest income streams (debit card, gap coverage, credit insurance, debt protection, overdraft, and interchange fees, and investment and brokerage services) to help improve your bottom line.
  12. Recruit and retain top talent. Get the right staff in the right seats on your credit union bus and empower them with a license to serve members. Strive to make your credit union the employer of choice in your community.

If we are to not only survive in the future but thrive, we will have to develop a different and optimistic strategic mindset about growth. Our credit unions will need to fine-tune, hone, and focus on our commitment to members and be innovative to keep up, instead of playing chicken with a changing financial services marketplace.

Happy New Year!

John A. Vardallas, CUDE, CEO/Founder of TheAmericanBoomeR Group, Madison, Wisconsin, is a professional speaker/business consultant and strategic planning facilitator to the credit union system. He is senior faculty strategist for the Southwest CUNA Management School. For more information, please visit Or contact