By Ray Birch
GAINESVILLE, Fla.—Joe Akins likes it when members stop him and thank him for all the nickels his credit union puts back into their pockets.
“I run into people on the street all the time who say, ‘Hey Joe, I got my nickel back yesterday, thanks a lot.’ That makes me feel good about what we are doing and it has created a buzz in this town for the credit union that is really helping with our growth,” said Akins, CEO of SunState FCU.
Akins is referring to the credit union’s “Nickle Back” program tied to SunState’s checking accounts. The CU gives back a nickel for each signature debit card transaction, no matter the dollar value of the purchase. The program has led to an 80% checking penetration among SunState members.
“We love the program and so do our members,” Akins told CUToday.info. “The money members get back posts every night—so this is a giveback they see and appreciate every day and has done a great deal for our non-interest income. Fifty percent of our total income comes from non-interest sources, and interchange is the biggest contributor.”
The program began in 2009 and through mid-year 2016 the CU had returned nearly 30 million nickels—about $1.5 million—to members.
The Performance Data
Those nickels have not only added up for members, but also for $442-million SunState, which has some impressive operating statistics:
- Assets have grown by nearly $150 million over the last five years
- The CU has made between $3 million-$5 million annually in net income over the last five years
- Net worth (11.16% in 2018) has remained steady at over 11% each of the last five years
- ROA has hovered at about 1% for the last five years
- Membership growth has been above 6% for the last two years
- Loan growth has hovered between 9%-10% in recent years, topping out at 11.55% in 2018
- Delinquencies have steadily declined each year from .67% in 2014 to .26% in 2018
That performance netted the CU a Raddon Crystal Performance Award last year for credit unions under $500 million in assets.
Sales Culture, Incentives Pay Off
While the Nickel Back program works well, Akins said it’s a well-trained staff and a sales culture SunState deployed several years ago that has been the real driver behind not just the high checking penetration, but the average three-products-per-member the credit union enjoys.
“Three to four years ago we initiated a sales culture in the credit union,” said Akins. “We not only began a strong training program, but we looked for people who had very good sales tendencies. We directed our team to build relationships and promote our checking account and the Nickel Back program.”
SunState also began a sales incentive program for staff.
“That really helped us deliver on what the credit union wants to focus on,” said Akins. “So, if we need to push credit cards, we direct our incentives there. Same for auto loans … Whatever product we want to give a lift we swing the incentives that way.”
Akins stressed, however, it’s not high-pressure sales—no pressure on staff or the membership.
“Incentives just set the direction, and they do that very well,” he said. “We don’t pressure our team to make sales and we don’t pressure members. A lot of our staff training has been around listening, making our team good listeners. They listen for a need members have and then they suggest a solution that can help them.”
In addition to the nickel-back program, SunState has also upped the ante with a promotion for credit cards. It is offering a dime back every time members use its Platinum Visa, Platinum Visa Rewards, Secured Visa and Business Visa cards.
Managing the Balance Sheet
Akins said the low-income designated SunState is very careful to “manage the balance” sheet so the CU does not zero in too much on one area, letting the membership dictate the focus.
“For example, we do a lot of indirect lending but we are not all out for indirect,” he explained. “We do mortgages, but we don’t sell out there. We base our growth on what the members and community demand. We don’t force anything.”
While Akins said it was an honor to receive the Raddon award, he does not expect SunState will garner the same recognition in the next year or two.
“But there’s a good reason,” he said. “We need to put money back into the credit union, invest in our future. That means upgrading our systems. We want to keep pace with the needs and expectations of our membership.”
Akins acknowledged that some credit unions, typically smaller ones, tend to hold onto their capital too long as they wait for a rainy day.
“You do that and you will find you are not relevant to your membership,” said Akins. “We know we have to keep putting money back into the credit union so we remain attractive to our members and the communities we serve.”