By John Wolcott SCBJ Freelance Writer
EVERETT — Seventy-seven-year-old Boeing Employees Credit Union, once exclusively for Boeing Co. employees, now welcomes anyone living in Washington state and credits its growth to 750,000 members more by its “people helping people” philosophy than by increased customer territory.
Tom Berquist, BECU’s senior vice president for member strategies, told the SCBJ in an interview at the credit union’s south Everett financial center that the concept of focusing on members rather than stockholders is the key reason for its popularity and success.
“We exist for our members and we want to do everything possible to deliver the same service and values as in the past,” he said. “Another big factor is that with the financial crisis people have been going through the last three years, they’re paying more attention and comparing financial institutions. That’s when they discover why the credit union model resonates with people.”
BECU, for instance, is lending money while many of Snohomish County’s commercial banks appear to be less inclined to make loans, judging from anecdotal information and news articles. It’s reminiscent of the financial environment that created credit unions during the Great Depression of the 1930s.
Because banks weren’t lending money, BECU was founded in 1935 by people who wanted to form their own financial institution dedicated to helping its members. Reflective of the tough times, high unemployment and low pay, the 19 founding members each put in 50 cents, creating assets of just over $9. The credit union’s original loan limit was $2.50.
Today, BECU needs computers rather than a room full of paper ledgers and accountants with green eyeshades to tally its resources, but nine still figures prominently for the institution. From $9 in assets in 1935, BECU reported assets of $9.9 billion in 2012.
In Snohomish County, BECU has nine offices, including two inside the Everett Boeing plant with services limited to ATMs and new accounts. Its largest county facility is the Everett Financial Center at Highway 99 and 112th Street SW, offering 10 teller windows and six drive-through lanes.
“From a density standpoint, Snohomish County is our No. 1 county,” Berquist said. “That’s 158,000 of our 750,000 members, about 21 percent.”
On the long list of services and benefits for its members are 28,000 ATMs nationwide, “many more than Bank of America or Chase,” Berquist said.
“Today we have many smaller customer centers in places like Safeway stores but the trend now is to move from those places to larger standalone facilities,” he said. “Our 400-square-foot branch in the Silver Lake Safeway, for instance, is moving this spring to the corner of Mill Creek Boulevard and 164th Street, where we’ll have a 2,000-square-foot office. Safeway has been a great partner but we have a lot more members now and want to provide a better experience and more services.”
During 2011, BECU tallied tremendous growth, adding 100,000 members during the year, Berquist said.
Until a few years ago, many people still asked “What is BECU?” he said. “But our growth in members, more branded buildings and our promotions have raised awareness about BECU … and when the big banks propose more fees on their credit cards and banks are caught up in mergers and name changes, it’s created a very positive market for community banks and credit unions.”
When Bank of America announced new fees for using its debit cards, a move since rescinded after experiencing coast-to-coast outrage from customers, “we saw BECU enrollments pick up dramatically the next day,” said Berquist.
As a result of its rapid growth, BECU will increase staffing levels across its branch network this year, he said. Also, new financial centers will open in Maple Valley and Factoria in King County.
“Every decision we make is to help our members and to improve our services for them,” he said. “That’s a different viewpoint than you’ll find in stockholder-owned banks.”
Included in BECU’s array of ATMs nationwide are 28,000 surcharge-free ATMs in the CO-OP Network, ATMs in many 7-Eleven stores and more than 1,400 in other credit union branch locations, he said. Soon, BECU will launch an online locator service to show ATM options on a single computer screen.
Another change coming in April is the arrival of a new president, Benson Porter, now president and CEO of First Tech Credit Union in Palo Alto, Calif., the nation’s 15th largest credit union. He will succeed president and CEO Gary Oakland, who is retiring after 25 years at Tukwila-based BECU.
BECU is a state-chartered, federally insured credit union that is monitored by state examiners and the National Credit Union Administration, the organization that insures credit union accounts. Once BECU passes the $10 billion benchmark in assets, it will also be inspected by federal government auditors, he said.