Adaptation is in our DNA

Adaptation: “the result of an evolutionary process in which individuals within populations evolve traits over time that are better suited to their environment.”

Successful adaptation happens when specific traits emerge that increase a species’ chances of survival. Adaptation also applies to credit unions and the credit union movement as a whole.

First, a biological example from the animal kingdom

During the winter of 2013-2014, the southeastern United States – specifically along the Texas-Mexico border – endured an extreme cold snap. This severe weather event had a radical effect on the Green Anole Lizard. During the cold snap, which would typically kill off most Anoles, scientists observed over the span of just a few months how the population underwent a dramatic genetic transformation in response to the unusual temperatures, paving the way for future generations of Green Anoles to survive cold weather. [1]

It’s extreme events like this one that produce the strong selection response to adapt – or die. These populations of Anoles adapted and will live another day.

Credit unions can (and do) adapt and thrive

Just like the animal kingdom, credit unions adapt to survive. The credit union movement today is a prime example. Most of our credit unions have been chartered for at least 50 years (many more than 80). That’s a considerable period of time for any business. To get to this point, each credit union had to adapt over time. But adaptation is not a “one and done” process – it’s an ongoing process to adapt in response to our changing habitat. And our habitat is changing more rapidly today than ever before. I suspect five years from now, the number of credit unions will drop by one-third. Truly, the future is reserved for credit unions that adapt and change. This applies to credit unions of any size.

Members Credit Union (Cos Cob, Connecticut) is a current best-practice credit union that had to dramatically change its priority target market in order to adapt to significant environmental changes. MCU is a $29-million credit union located in one of the most economically polarized areas of the country: Greenwich, Connecticut. The credit union was chartered in 1935 to serve the educational community and served this group well for many years. However, during the past decade, the credit union has struggled to grow due to increased competition and an aging membership (sound familiar?).

Four years ago marked a reflection point for the credit union’s leadership. They realized that if they wanted to remain relevant, they would need to make some changes (i.e., adapt). This adaptation included finding a new target market group within their field of membership, with high consumer-loan demand to serve. Leadership identified a lower-income, Latino target market in their field of membership that was underserved and largely unserved. This lower-income, minority group was the polar opposite of the predominately white, middle class (and aging) membership they had experience serving for 80-plus years. It was a sober realization that a lot needed to change to serve this new demographic. But leadership was energized by the prospect of serving a population who really needed a credit union – their credit union. If successful, they would have a market with less competition, greater potential for growth, better earnings, and, most importantly, greater service and community impact. Long story short, during the past three years, MCU has adapted its lending practices to better support risk-based lending. They have become knowledgeable in immigration matters to better serve non-citizens with accounts and loans. They committed to having ALL staff becoming CUNA FiCEP Certified Financial Counselors so that each employee had the tools they needed to teach and coach a new, underserved market. Their efforts expanded staff and board diversity and increased community partnerships to reach this new market. And to more fully demonstrate their commitment to serving their growing Spanish-speaking community, the entire non-Spanish speaking staff volunteered to take Spanish language classes to improve their ability to communicate with the people they value and serve.

Like most $29-million credit unions, MCU lacks many resources afforded to larger credit unions, and it would have been easy to give up. Rather than faint at the prospect of more work, this credit union – from the board to member-facing staff – were motivated by a desire to help people, and not only survive but thrive in their ability to serve the next generation. There has been a significant cultural shift (it’s an amazing place to work), ROAA has doubled since 2017, used auto loans have increased 80 percent, and net membership growth is a positive 2.6 percent. The credit union pursued a methodical and prudent process to accomplish this significant strategic shift. It’s managing growth, limiting loan losses, and increasing average loan yield. It’s so popular now, new members are driving across the county to get to the credit union’s only branch office. During 2018, the credit union was nationally recognized by Inclusiv with the Juntos Avanzamos (Together We Advance) designation, acknowledging its commitment to serving its local Latino community. During 2019, its success was further validated by the U.S. Treasury CDFI with a $120,000 grant that will be used to hire an additional loan officer to keep up with consumer loan demand.

Loan growth is generating extra income. The extra income is being reinvested into marketing, technology, and human resource development to ensure the credit union can continue to adapt as quickly as possible. Truly, Members Credit Union is an inspiration and best practice, showing that even the smallest of credit unions can adapt and remain relevant.

Why it matters

The environment we operate in is changing rapidly. I’ve seen a lot of changes during my 35-year credit union career. The changes we’re experiencing today are probably the greatest the credit union movement has ever faced. The good news is that consumers, especially the lower-income and working-class (a growing market segment), still need credit unions. I would argue that with the continued income polarization and a shrinking middle class, credit unions have never been needed more.

It’s the beginning of a new decade. Now is the time for an honest assessment. If your credit union is not consistently growing or generating the level of revenue needed to invest in tomorrow, what are you willing to do or change to be successful? If your leadership and culture are willing to adapt and change, there are many opportunities out there – but, like anything worth having, it won’t be easy.

Credit union pioneer, Edward Filene summed up the need for adaptation best: “Progress is the constant replacing of the best there is with something still better.” All credit unions, regardless of size or business model, need to be in constant search for something “still better” to compete and ensure our credit unions and the movement we serve are still here to welcome in the next decade.