In a region with no shortage of major financial services companies, it is easy to overlook Members Credit Union.
“We are just under $30 million in assets,” said Kathy Chartier, president and CEO of the Cos Cob-based institution. “We are a small credit union by anyone’s standards.”
But unlike the money center and regional banks that are eager to attract deep-pocketed customers, Members Credit Union puts its focus on the most financially vulnerable people within Fairfield County: immigrants, workers who are paid in cash, and residents who find themselves treated shabbily by the larger lenders.
“I don’t want to name names, but we had a member who just came in here because this big bank started charging a $12 monthly fee,” Chartier said. “The customer went in and said they wanted to close their checking account and the bank said they would ruin their credit if they did. Of course, it wouldn’t.
“We’ve had people who try to buy cars and are intimidated into believing that they cannot get financing,” she continued. “They will take an 18 percent credit rate on their loans, but when they come in here we find they have excellent credit and can take a 2.99 percent credit rate, and we’ll turn their loans around for them.
“We didn’t realize they weren’t being treated with respect and honesty in very many places,” Chartier added. “We didn’t realize it was so apparent.”
The company began in 1935 as the Greenwich CT Federal Teachers Credit Union to serve the teachers and employees of Greenwich schools. In 2001, the name was changed to Members Credit Union and membership eligibility was broadened to include anyone who lives, works, worships or attends school in Fairfield County, with an emphasis on those who faced significant monetary problems.
Chartier joined in 1987 as its first full-time employee, and now works with a 10-person staff.
“More than 40 percent of the country would not be able to cover a financial emergency,” she declared, noting Members staff can offer in-depth assistance in Spanish as well as English.
“Everyone on the staff, except our newest full-timer, is a certified financial counselor,” she continued. “When a member comes in, everyone is more empathetic to what they are going through. And we do a lot of financial education in different organizations. On July 24, we will be doing a financial seminar in Spanish at Children’s Learning Center.”
To further connect with the local Hispanic community, Members last year became the first credit union in Connecticut to earn a Juntos Avanzamos (Together We Advance) designation from the National Federation of Community Development Credit Unions, which aims to help borrowers gain financial security while avoiding predatory lenders. Chartier noted that the institution is considering undergoing the process of becoming a Community Development Financial Institution, which would further expand its mission.
Members also holds low-income designation from the National Credit Union Administration (NCUA), the federal regulator for the credit union industry, which enables it to receive certain legislated benefits. However, the NCUA was initially skeptical that a credit union in Cos Cob had a low-income population.
“We are in one of the richest places in the country, but Fairfield County has a lot of people who don’t have a lot of money,” Chartier observed. “I knew we wanted to go in this direction, but you have to work through NCUA to do this. They go through your membership base and look through the ZIP code tracts — but there is no low-income ZIP code tract here.”
Nevertheless, she said, after three passes Members finally received the NCUA designation.
One challenge that Members faced was standing out in front of the public. When it shifted to a community focus in 2001, it operated a street-level branch office in Cos Cob and a branch near Stamford Hospital.
But in the aftermath of the 2008 recession, Members found itself in a pinch because half of its loans were in home equity, which suffered as rates dropped to near-zero. By 2013, Members was forced to close its branches and relocate to its original location in a second-floor office at 126 E. Putnam Ave., upstairs from a CVS pharmacy.
“When we closed the Stamford office, we lost hundreds of members because it wasn’t easy for them to come here,” Chartier said. “But since we started doing Hispanic outreach, when we take someone who can’t get services anywhere else and is not treated with respect, they tell everybody that they know. Now that we’ve really gotten our word out, 50 percent of our members are coming from Stamford, and a lot from Norwalk and Bridgeport as well.”
Members has also gained national attention within its industry. This year, the trade journal Credit Union Times honored the institution with its Trailblazer Award for Outstanding Service to the Underserved while Chartier was selected as a finalist for the Credit Union Hero of the Year honors by the Credit Union National Association, a trade organization.
Looking forward, Chartier said she is eager to set up a street-level interactive kiosk that can better serve the credit union’s membership.
“Many members are paid with cash, so many of them have to come here because we don’t have an ATM that accepts cash,” she explained. “We are seeing on our dream horizon where they can put in their cash and talk to staff members face to face from this kiosk.”