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Want growth? Seize opportunities to serve

Jim Schrimpf


Guest column by Jim Schrimpf


Smaller credit unions face many challenges: the oppressive deluge of new regulations, lack of a spread, slow loan demand, challenges to succession planning, and more. But there are small credit unions that are doing great and have a bright future. One way to get there is to meet overlooked financial needs, and in doing so, improve service penetration and cultivate member loyalty.


My credit union, Brewery CU, is a low income-designated and Community Development Financial Institution serving primarily the central city of Milwaukee. After losing money for four straight years in the late 90s, we decided to sell our branch in a suburban location to concentrate our efforts in the near downtown area, comprised chiefly of lower-income households. Does that seem counterintuitive?


Since that move, we have more than doubled our assets (with no mergers), have a capital ratio of 17%, membership has grown from 3,800 to 7,600 and we maintain a very strong ALLL with a loan-to-share ratio of 95%. Ours is one of just a few five star-rated credit unions by


Most of these statistics fly in the face of conventional wisdom, that serving predominantly modest income and working poor people is just too difficult to be successful long term. Our experience tells us otherwise and it begins with:

  • A dedicated and compassionate board and staff.


  • Putting higher risk loans on the books but pricing them according to risk.


  • Strong community involvement. We are founding members of Local First Milwaukee and won the 2012 Business Journal Central City Business award.


  • Offering products and services that uniquely address members' needs.   For example, we offer bus passes, stamps, low cost money orders, instant debit and ATM card issue, mobile banking, Fresh Start Checking (a second chance type of account), a payday loan alternative, secured credit cards, credit builder loans and mortgage loans under $25K. Our Fast Cash payday loan alternative has saved our membership over $900,000 in fees that they would have paid to traditional payday lenders.



  • Looking for reasonable ways to say "yes" instead of simply saying "no."


This is the core philosophy that has worked for us over the years and we are more than happy to share our best practices with any credit union that asks. But there's always more we can do; we need to follow up on many of the action steps in our movement's nationwide campaign for growth, Unite for Good.


I'd encourage Wisconsin credit unions to attend The League's Innovators In Outreach Roundtable on September 18, which will feature panel discussions on proven outreach strategies and wealth of resources to help you identify needs that, when met, can help credit unions grow. The League is also planning a webinar October 16 on risk-based lending that can reveal more ways of evaluating risk and saying "yes" to members.


The bottom line is that the world is changing fast and change is difficult in many ways. But for those who can see the needs all around them that have gone unaddressed, the future is ripe with opportunity.


Jim Schrimpf  is CEO of Brewery CU in Milwaukee. He can be reached at (414) 273-3170, Ext. 121. If you have a perspective on an industry issue you'd like to share with our readers, contact the editor.



The Unite for Good effort is an internal growth strategy developed by CUNA in conjunction with its Board, state leagues, credit unions and system partners. The plan's action steps – to remove barriers, increase awareness and foster service excellence–are aimed at helping more credit unions become their members' primary financial institution by compelling members to see credit unions as their best financial partner. Read more articles in our Unite for Good series.

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