Get Smart about credit unions

by DGO Web Administrator

Ever wondered just what in the blazes a credit union is? Let Emily Ter Maat, CEO of Southwest Federal Credit Union tell you what they are, what they do, and why they might be worth a second look.

How long have you been with credit unions?I’ve been here for 35 years, and was at another for six years before that. I started as the bookkeeper fresh out of college, went through the ranks there to become the CEO, and then moved back to Durango because it’s my home. I was born and grew up here.

What do you like about them?The philosophy; the way they’re run. They’re a “not-for-profit” business and so we don’t have monthly sales goals or numbers to hit, and you’re not constantly trying to sell someone products or services they don’t want. You don’t have to do those kinds of things to make the bottom line. All we have to do is make our expenses and pay our dividends to our shareholders. Everyone’s happy.

How do they differ from traditional banks?We’re owned by our members, not stockholders. When you buy a share in a credit union – which is $50 – you’re a part-owner, and as such, you can run for the board of directors or be on a committee, if you want to. You have a say at the annual meeting, you even have a vote. So that means that we’re really locally-owned. Our board of directors are all locals and volunteers who aren’t paid, so they really have our members’ interests at heart.

When you say members, you mean people who bank here?Yep. A member must live, work, or go to school in the five counties of southwest Colorado, and to keep your account active, all you need is $50 deposited. You can keep your account forever, too. Move to Washington D.C. and we’re still there for you. Keep the account open, and you’re still a member, which then allows your family to join as well. Say you had a parent that lived in California. Because of your affiliation, they could join us too. The person who has $500,000 on deposit gets one vote, just like the person who has $50. Everybody has an equal say in how we’re run.

How many members do you have?We have about 3,500, and our assets are just over 50 million.

What services do you offer?Pretty much everything: Savings, deposits, checking, certificates of deposit. We do any type of loan – auto, RV, boat – and even mortgages.

So you’re fully insured?It’s a comparable fund to the FDIC, but it’s run by the National Credit Union Association, which insures people’s accounts to $250,000, just like the FDIC, but ours is actually a stronger fund when you compare them dollar-to-dollar. We have more on deposit to fund potential losses.

What’s most satisfying about running a credit union?I’ve seen a lot of people grow because we take the time to educate them. They might come in and say, “I need $500 for snow tires,” and we’ll look at their whole picture and say, “You know, that’s really not going to help you. It’ll just add one more debt. Let’s work through this and figure out another way besides a loan to get you taken care of.” It’s a real pleasure to get to work alongside people to help them understand their financial picture, and make their lives better. We’ve got a gentleman who comes in to do free consultations with people about investing. He’ll work with them to see their whole picture – whether they’ve come into some money that they don’t know what to do with, or some other thing – and help move it forward. We’re glad to see the money leave us, if it’s going to benefit them and help someone do something that will make their lives better.

What is the most common misconception about credit unions?I think the biggest problem is that most people think that in order to be in a credit union, they have to belong to some employer group or union or work for the federal government. We got a community charter in 2000, which means that anyone in the community can join. But people still walk in saying, “I thought you had to be part of the federal government.”

What pleases you most about the day-to-day?We know our members by name, and we have great relationships with them. We strive for great member service, giving them our complete and best attention, and we love hearing their stories. We take the time to interact and enjoy each of them. The credit union’s mantra is “Not for profit, not for charity, but for service.” We want to serve people not because we have to make profit, but we won’t just give our services away either. We want to be intelligent and run a responsible organization, but we want to provide great service and products to our members every day.

Cyle Talley is unsettled by rain in January. So it goes. If there’s something you’d like to GET SMART about, email him at: [email protected]

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