SANTA ROSA, Calif. (9/8/08)--Sonoma County Grange CU CEO Pamela McNatt has worked in the credit union industry for many years, and she embraces ‘old-fashioned’ credit union culture. As such, she wants her credit union to experience “slow, steady growth. I refuse to lose sight of service,” she told News Now
. This is the ninth installment of News Now's Membership Growth interviews with fast credit union growers. The series is a part of an initiative of the Credit Union National Association (CUNA) Membership Growth Task Force. It focuses on fast "organic" membership growth, not growth by merger or indirect loans. The task force, chaired by Dick Ensweiler, president of the Texas Credit Union League, was convened at the request of CUNA's Immediate Past Board Chair Allan Kemp McMorris. Its purpose is to investigate, report on, and encourage credit unions to embrace opportunities, techniques and processes that will increase credit unions' membership retention and growth. McNatt moved to the North Bay area of California in January 2007 to work as CEO for Sonoma County Grange CU and get back to her “credit union roots.” When McNatt started at the credit union, she added new computers, a new server and intranet, a website and online banking. She introduced a certificates of deposit program to “bring back the older members” who live off interest income. The program requires $250 minimum balances for children under 18. As a result of the changes, Sonoma increased member accounts by 18% from 2006 to 2007 and added $3 million in assets. It increased its youth agricultural loans to $50,000 this year from $19,000 in 2006. “It’s a big improvement,” McNatt said. The $35 million-asset Sonoma County Grange CU serves an agricultural community--Sonoma County--that offers dairy, organic, berry, flower and apple farms. Sonoma County was originated to serve the people of the Sonoma County granges. The community still has 14 grange halls. The credit union’s original board included members representing each hall. The credit union’s members who were part of the grange are very loyal. “It’s a unique community,” she said. “There’s a lot of camaraderie.” The credit union is growing membership from helping youth. They come to the credit union for loans to buy livestock and “get twice what they put in” once the animals are sold, McNatt said. The children of Sonoma County grew up with farms and are extremely hardworking. Recently, two 17-year-old boys came to Sonoma County for a loan to buy a truck for their farm. One of the boy’s parents was not eligible to co-sign on the loan, so they got a neighbor to help, McNatt said. “We try to help kids establish themselves,” she said. “They’re pretty savvy.” Sonoma doesn’t charge fees by member demand, she said. “We have to be upfront and simple. Do what we say, and say what we do.” Sonoma has six employees and one branch. “Some of us are refugees from working 12-hour days,” she said. “We work 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., and we take a half hour for lunch. We come in and help people all day long.” The credit union doesn’t pay top salaries, but it offers an environment of “people helping people” and good benefits. One of the credit union’s challenges is retaining share base with an aging membership. “When Dad passes away, kids don’t keep money with the credit union,” she said. To keep its membership base strong, Sonoma County is getting to know its members. Extra video screen monitors showing who walks in the front door were recently installed so the staff is prepared to greet members when they come in. The credit union also has an electric fireplace in the lobby so members can gather and chat. “It’s cozy for winter,” McNatt said. In the future, Sonoma County would like to:
* Provide seminars about trust accounts; * Offer more scholarships. “We all hit the same kids--the high achievers,” McNatt said. She’d like to blanket the area with the help of other farm agencies to broaden the awards; * Become more technologically compliant. “We’re not in a great location,” she said. “We want to be able to get members to access us online.” * Team up with 4-H, the Farm Bureau, and other agricultural organizations; and * Implement mobile branching. A recreational vehicle could be used to stop at grange halls to serve members.
Sonoma has been approached several times for mergers because of its strong real estate portfolio, but it’s not interested. “We have no desire to be the biggest credit union in town,” McNatt said. “Just the best.” Anyone who wants to contact the CUNA Membership Growth Task Force can e-mail the account established for this purpose at firstname.lastname@example.org.