Connecting the dots

Posted on Sep 1, 2011 :: Cover Story
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

Community First puts members front and center

When Cathie Tierney took a job as a teller at the Appleton Credit Union Service Center 35 years ago, she had no idea what the future held.

“I had no intention of making financial services my career,” says Tierney, sitting in her office at Community First Credit Union, where she’s served as president and chief executive officer since 1994. “It’s interesting how people come into their careers. For many of us, it just happens. I was fortunate I got the opportunity to grow along with Community First. I grew up with the company.”

And grow they have.

Community First got its start in the 1950s as the Outagamie County Credit Union. Through the years, mergers and organic growth have turned Community First into the state’s third largest credit union with more than $1.5 billion in deposits.

Headquartered in Appleton and serving 12 counties across northeast and north central Wisconsin, Community First under Tierney’s guidance has become not only a community and business leader, but also a player on the national stage.

As for that young teller, experience on the school newspaper paid dividends and opened up doors she never thought possible.


More than just a name

tierney moved from being a teller into marketing after noticing Maurice Dresang — the credit union’s leader – struggling with the financial institution’s newsletter. “I went up to him and said ‘I can do this – I worked on the school newspaper.’”

She helped with the newsletter and after that slowly added marketing to her duties at the credit union. “I did brochures, flyers, stuff like that. At the time, it was very unique – financial institutions weren’t doing a lot of marketing. Now look at it, everywhere you go, there’s marketing,” she laughs.

In the early 1980s, as the 12 credit unions using the Appleton Credit Union Service Center planned to merge into one entity – one of the largest mergers ever in the history of credit unions – discussion soon began on what to call it.

Working in marketing, this question was front and center for Tierney. “We were batting around ideas and the one we came up with, there was already another institution out there with the name. Next, someone brought up First Community as a name,” she recalls. “I thought ‘that’s not quite right, but Community First is.’”

With that, the credit union had its name. “We have always talked a lot about what we do here is different – we focus on providing the best service to our members and from there, to do what we can to make the communities where our members live to be the best they can be,” she says.

One way Community First does that is to actively give to non-profits throughout the 12 counties where it has operations. Tierney says they use a formula based on where their members live to determine how much money to allot to causes in a particular area. “That way, we make sure everywhere we have members, we are contributing to the community,” she says.

While some businesses curtailed their giving during the recent economic slowdown, Community First held firm. “I understand why some businesses went that route (stopped giving.) It’s hard, but making our communities a great place to live is part of who we are and we couldn’t walk away from that,” Tierney says.

And while organizations serving basic needs receive funding, Tierney is also passionate about two other areas that are usually on the short end of the stick when companies decide to cut giving: the arts and education, with a special focus on financial literacy.

Susan Stockton, president of the Fox Cities Performing Arts Center in Appleton, says Community First supported the center from the beginning and was a part of the initial capital campaign as well as an annual business partner and special events sponsor.

“Cathie Tierney and her team at Community First are committed to putting the community first. Their organization has a vision of making the Fox Cities an inspiring place to live, and they have the foresight to make that vision a reality with financial support and their enthusiasm for a healthy, vibrant community,” she says. “Community First Credit Union is a leader in the Fox Cities, setting an example for other businesses and individuals to support what they value in their lives.”

Community First was the first financial institution in the area to start a credit union at a local high school and use the student-run branches as a way to educate students about finances. Tierney also worked with the Appleton Area School District on developing and implementing a requirement that all students take a personal financial literacy course before graduation. Today, there are four student-run credit union branches with a fifth in the works.

“Students graduated high school without any clear idea of how to handle their finances and without that knowledge, you can get into trouble down the road, especially with how easy it is to get credit cards,” she says.

For her efforts on promoting financial literacy among not only students, but adults through free financial workshops at the credit union, Tierney received the Governor’s Council on Financial Literacy Award in 2008.


Fighting on the national stage

For someone who didn’t know much about financial institutions when she started working in one, today, Tierney is a strong credit union supporter. She is vocal when it comes to educating members about what it means to belong to a cooperative.

“Some of my peers at other credit unions don’t really talk about what it means to be a part of a co-op, which is what we are. I think education is an important part of the equation and will help us only grow stronger,” Tierney says.

When Tierney didn’t agree with a decision by the Internal Revenue Service, she challenged the federal government in court. She didn’t believe the IRS was correct in saying certain insurance products offered to members weren’t part of a credit union’s mission and should be taxed.

After deliberating less than two hours, jurors decided in Community First’s favor and U.S. District Judge William Griesbach entered a judgment in favor of the credit union for $54,604 —the full amount the credit union was seeking, plus costs. (The amount represents the taxes paid on credit life and credit disability insurance and guaranteed asset protection.)

While Tierney says suing the IRS was a leap of faith, other credit union leaders praised her bravery, bestowing on her the 2009 Credit Union Hero of the Year by Credit Union Magazine.

“For Cathie, it wasn’t about the dollar settlement,” says Dan Mica, former Credit Union National Association (CUNA) president and CEO. “It was about what’s right for credit unions. It’s been said that a hero is someone who would ‘argue with gods, and so awakens devils to argue’ with their vision. Cathie showed she was willing – and able – to do both.”

The CUNA Hero Award is just one of several national honors Tierney and Community First have received in recent years. Other honors include the Pierre Jay Award from the National Association of State Chartered Credit Unions, the Governor’s Council on Financial Literacy Award and a Futuremakers Partner Award from the Wisconsin Technical College System.

“Community First has been a great partner for the college. They are involved with a lot of things here on campus, including having their own branch, and have been supportive of various projects,” says Susan May, president of Fox Valley Technical College. “They are a wonderful community supporter.”


Focused on members

As Community First grew in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Tierney moved from marketing into customer relations – something that’s still close to her heart. “We need to know what our members want if we want to provide them with the best possible service, which is our goal,” she says.

Tierney and her team take the information gathered from regular member surveys to look at a number of issues from branch location to services offered. “We heard from our members they would rather have a branch closer to their home rather than work so that’s why, for example, you’ll find our Darboy branch at the end of the commercial development closer to homes than sitting right in the middle of a bunch of retailers,” Tierney says.

In the early 1990s, Community First’s volunteer board of directors selected Tierney as part of a succession plan to replace Dresang as the institution’s leader. “Traditionally in financial services, the CEOs come from the operations or lending side of things, not marketing, so it was definitely unique,” says Tierney, who augmented her education by attending a special credit union education program for leaders at Stanford University.

“We invest heavily in marketing and advertising at Community First, but it’s a way we can get out our name and our mission of putting people first and giving back to our communities and making them the best place possible,” she says.

For Tierney, it’s the little things that count, such as having a real person rather than an automated system answer the phone during business hours. “I always tell members during our annual meetings that as long as I’m here, a real person will answer the phone. It might cost us a bit more than an automated service, but it’s worth it because we’re delivering better customer service,” she says.

And at a time when financial institutions – banks in particular – are not seen in the best light because of the financial meltdown and mortgage crisis, Tierney says the personal customer touch, along with sound business practices, helped Community First weather the tough economic storm of the past few years.

While some banks have closed or merged, the organization saw its net income in 2009 increase to $17.7 million, up from $11.6 million in 2009. Tierney attributes part of that growth to the main difference between banks and credit unions: Banks must answer to their shareholders while credit unions do not.

“Banks are sometimes in a tough spot. You have to manage owners (shareholders) vs. the customers and you don’t have the opportunity to take the longer-term view like you do in a credit union,” she says. “I never have to choose between my shareholders and my customers because they are one in the same.”

That flexibility will come in handy as the financial industry tackles its next challenge: regulations about fees associated with using credit or debit cards. The retailing industry now covers any fees generated when customers swipe their debit card at the grocery store, but are pushing to have financial institutions pick up the cost. The issue, which is being debated in Washington, may lead some banks and credit unions to eliminate free checking accounts to help make up the difference.

“We sit and watch and have decided not to do anything right now” about eliminating free checking accounts, Tierney says.

New regulations from Washington – mostly created because of the financial meltdown – are also putting more pressure on financial institutions, Tierney says. “Trying to keep up with regulations is very difficult. Things are constantly changing and we aren’t getting any input,” she says.

Despite industry difficulties in recent years, Community First was able to shine thanks to its focus on the community and the way it does business, Tierney says.

“The past few years have been challenging for the financial industry, but it has also allowed us to show off our strengths, which is putting our members and customers first and keeping our focus on the communities we serve.”