Credit Union industry slams unfettered greed of Arizona Federal Credit Union, which damages the “credit union” name

Arizona FCU’s Membership Fee Breaks New Ground, Some Members Flee

By Peter Strozniak

May 2, 2013

  • Arizona      FCU loses 15,000 members because of new fee.
  • Aimed      at building primary loyalty, credit union contends the strategy is      working.
  • Critics      say fee runs counter to credit union ethos.

Although there are more than 93 million credit union members, only 40 million use a credit union as their primary financial institution. So is there any way to convince the remaining 53 million members to bank at a credit union for their day-to-day financial needs?

It severely damages the credit union movement when one credit union tries to be more greedy than not only all other credit unions, but also more greedy than most banks with their uncalled for, unavoidable, $3 monthly membership fee.  How is that going to convince potential members that a credit union is the place to be?  Did Ron Westad, CEO of Arizona FCU, ask Ron Johnson, ex-CEO of JC Penney, for tips on how JC Penney’s revenues dropped 25% and how to anger customers?  If one examines the precipitous decline in Total Assets and Total Members at Arizona FCU, one might wonder why Ron Westad still has a job?  When did running off members , destroying goodwill, and damaging the brand become a wise management move?

The $1.2 billion Arizona Federal Credit Union in Phoenix said it is the first financial services cooperative to try a new but controversial solution to this long-standing industry-wide dilemma: Require all of your members to pay a monthly membership fee.

Since the $3 a month membership dues requirement was announced in last December, about 15,000 members closed their accounts, and some of them expressed their anger over the new fee on Facebook. Other members sent letters, emails and made calls to the credit union. Even though the membership decline was expected, the credit union contends its new strategy is working.

The new strategy is working?  Did not listening to customers work for JC Penney?  If angering your member-owner or customer base is the goal, then Arizona FCU has succeeded.  If making credit unions appear to be greediest financial institution, then Arizona FCU has succeeded.  If damaging the goodwill of Arizona FCU is the goal, then they have succeeded.  How soon before Harvard Business Review does a case study of one of the most destructive business decisions of a financial institution?

However, industry experts said Arizona FCU’s membership fee contradicts what credit unions are all about. Moreover, they also don’t like the idea of charging a membership fee to people who have already contributed capital to the credit union when they opened an account to become members.

The idea that credit unions serve people of modest means and care for their communities matters not to Ron Westad, who dumped his values and beliefs, along with 15,000+ members, under the bus.   Is Ron Westad more concerned with the metrics that these ripoff fees will mean to his bonus?  Did the Board of Directors structure his bonus solely on average fee income per member, while completely ignoring total assets, number of members served, and reputation in the community?  What happens to an organization when they focus solely on the short-term instead of the long-term?

So why did Arizona FCU decide to charge a new membership fee when consumers, fed up with too many commercial bank fees, were motivated in droves to join credit unions over the last two years?

“Our entire purpose in doing this is to increase the percentage of members to actively use the services of the credit union and contribute to the cooperative,” said Steve Kelley, senior director of marketing. “We think [it is] an application of one of the seven cooperatives principles, members’ economic participation, [which] says members contribute to the capital of the organization, and this is an opportunity for our members to do that, to invest in the credit union and stand to reap the benefit of the returns that come from that investment.”

How is running off over 15,000 members causing them to use the credit union more?  A non-member will not be doing ANY business with the credit union.  Did Steve Kelley copy the playbook of the laughable Iraqi Information Minister with his tall tales?

His last public appearance as Information Minister was on April 8, 2003, when he said that the Americans “are going to surrender or be burned in their tanks. They will surrender, it is they who will surrender.  I triple guarantee you, there are no American soldiers in Baghdad.  We are winning!”

Arizona FCU contends its membership fee is one solution that is addressing the credit union industry’s longstanding challenge of how to increase profitable members.

Wrong.  This greedy unavoidable monthly fee is running off members, many of which will never return when they seek loans.   Why not make the monthly membership fee $30 per month?  Why stop at $3 per month?  Wouldn’t that make Arizona FCU even more profitable and Ron Westad’s bonus even higher than with a “mere” $3 monthly membership fee?

“Our goal was that [members] would start using services that brought them at least $3 in value, or that they would go ahead and close their membership so that in one way or another, the rest of the members weren’t continuing to carry the load on their behalf,” he said. “So far, that is what we see happening.”

How is charging members $3 per month going to make them feel better about the credit union and want to do more business with Arizona FCU?  Terrible service, terrible rates, fewer branch locations, now adding a monthly $3 weasel fee is going to build member loyalty?

About 25% of the credit union’s members are profitable. The credit union is financially sound, reporting a net income of $44 million in 2012 and $45 million in 2011. It also has lifted its net worth to assets ratio from 6.43% in 2011 to 9.73% in 2012, according to NCUA financial performance reports.

But Dennis Witherspoon, a bank and credit union executive for nearly 30 years, said the membership fee is not consistent with the credit union movement.

“What they are doing is treating this like a for-profit business, and they are chasing out those members that are not profitable,” said Witherspoon, an associate professor of finance at Northwood University in Midland, Mich. “The credit union is saying we don’t want that kind of [unprofitable] member anymore. We just want members that we are going to make money off of. That goes against the grain of the credit union movement, which is to be there for all members regardless of financial wealth.”

While we agree with Witherspoon, it shouldn’t take a professor of finance to say that the members know the $3 monthly weasel fee is an outrage.  Tell us again why credit unions have a tax exemption?  Isn’t it in large part because credit unions serve people of modest means in their communities? 

Credit union industry consultant Tom Glatt Jr. said the membership fee is an interesting but punitive attempt to change behavior of members.

“Regardless, I can see how [the credit union] could argue that it needs to do this to conform members to active relationships,” observed Glatt. “But the fact that they had so many members close their accounts is telling, and I also think it is not a credit union friendly solution.”

He also questioned the wisdom of charging a fee for the privilege of membership when members have already contributed capital to open their accounts when they joined the credit union.

Compare and contrast how other credit unions feel about their members.  We would like to salute TruWest Credit Union for taking the correct approach.

“In regards to fees, TruWest believes that the entire membership should not finance the costs of products or services that only a small portion of the membership uses. Fees are intended to offset the costs associated with a product or service, not to increase the Credit Union’s income. TruWest uses fees to influence member behavior patterns and product selection. Fees are also used to reduce adverse and costly member practices, such as routinely writing checks against insufficient funds. TruWest’s fee programs are designed in such a way that the membership can employ fee “avoidance” or fee “alternative” techniques.”

“I don’t particularly like the idea,” he said. “I understand why they are doing it. I think they can find a better solution, in my opinion.”

Arizona FCU launched its $3 membership fee policy last August at one branch and rolled it out to another of its 14 locations every two weeks. When new members signed up at branches, they were informed about the cooperative business model, that in addition to receiving lower priced products and services, members would receive free identity theft protection and restoration services by opening a checking account with an issued-at-the-branch debit card.

New members were also told they could share in credit union dividends at the end of the year based on their relationship with the credit union and its net profitability at the end of the year. Arizona FCU distributed $3 million to 77,000 of its then 161,965 members. Every member received a base dividend payment of $12.82, but the average dividend payment totaled $38. Some members received several hundred dollars.

Many members received no bonus at all.  How can you say every member received at least $12.82, immediately after stating that $3 million was distributed to 77,000 of 161,965 members?  161,965 total members – 77,000 members who received a bonus = 84,965 members that did not get any bonus. 

Currently, the credit union said its membership stands at a little over 152,000 but expects the membership losses to stabilize. It said it has been gaining 1,000 to 1,500 new members every month. Though the credit union insists the membership fee is not a revenue play, it will generate $5.4 million annually at its current membership level.

Despite the denials by Kelley, this is a “fee them up” strategy.  If you look at the growth in fee income per member, it will be plain to see.

Kelley said the new member acceptance rate of paying the $3 membership fee is more than 80%, and less than 20% rejected joining because of the fee.

We have no way of verifying this.  However, based on other statements by Kelley, we call into question how he tries to spin the issue.

“For folks who take time to do the math, when they take a look at that and say who else that I’m doing business with is going to pay me back when they have a surplus at the end of the year….[the $3 membership fee[ makes sense,” Kelley said.

For folks who take time to see that there are many competing financial institutions with far better service and rates, with no required $3 monthly weasel fee, they will also leave Arizona Federal Credit Union.

But when Arizona FCU announced the new membership fee in December, it didn’t make sense to some members, including members who joined the credit union 10 or 20 years ago.

“It’s unfortunate, but you will be losing at least one customer that you had for at least 20 years,” wrote member Christina Koehn on the credit union’s Facebook page. “And in those 20 years, I’ve only earned interest income (like a bank), not ‘excess income.’” The attraction of your institution was no fees. Now that will go away.”

“Personally, the credit union responses in an attempt to justify the fee have only made me more confident moving my money is the way to go! It is sad as I have also been with AZFCU over 20 years!” member Jacque Torbyn Reeves wrote on Facebook.

Among the 12 members who posted comments on Facebook, 10 said they would close their accounts, one was neutral and only one was positive.

This is incorrect.  Credit Union Times said they found 12 comments that were not deleted by Arizona FCU.  Many members that posted comments to Arizona FCU’s Facebook page had their comments censored by being deleted by Arizona FCU.

“I love Arizona Federal credit union and I think that the 3.00 a month membership fee is very reasonable for the personalized service they offer,” wrote member Valerie Long Kurth.

In January, when Arizona FCU announced that it had distributed $3 million in dividend payments, five members expressed thanks, but 10 credit union members were not so appreciative.

“Here’s $12 (dividend payment) but we’re going to start charging you $3 a month which amounts to $36 a year, so really your members are paying you,” wrote member Laure Altenes. “Too many choices out there with credit unions and banks for that matter that as long as you have direct deposit of at least $250 a month will not charge you. Bye Bye AZFCU!!!!”

AZFCU did not censor any Facebook posts and responded to several of them explaining its rationale behind the fee.

What is the basis for writing that “AZFCU did not censor any Facebook posts?”  A great many comments were deleted by Arizona FCU!  Do you not consider a deleted post a censored post?  The members who had their posts deleted felt they were censored!

Nevertheless, Witherspoon questioned whether the loss of thousands of members and the negative public relations in the credit union’s marketplace would be worth it.

“Once you lose that favorite status with your members, once you lose that feel-good [status] about your credit union, it’s hard to get that back,” Witherspoon said.

Witherspoon is far smarter on this issue than Westad.  Maybe Arizona FCU should hire him as Westad’s replacement.

About Arizona Federal Credit Union Members United

Arizona Federal Credit Union Members United is a group of over 100 members and former members who care about our credit union being run fairly. The leadership of the credit union has failed to represent us properly by enacting a new and unnecessary, unavoidable, unconscionable, $3 monthly membership fee that we did not want. The members did not ask for this. Before implementing such a counter-productive fee, the proposal should have been put up for a vote to all the members to decide, so the will of the people is followed. The member-owners of Arizona FCU should not be taxed $3 monthly, simply for being a member. We want all the $3 monthly member fees refunded to all current and past members, the elimination of the fee going forward, and the elimination of the $25 rejoining fee. We are against any financial institution charging an unavoidable ongoing membership fee, simply for being a member. This is the wrong approach. Members and customers should be valued, not punished. We want to see Arizona FCU succeed, not fail. Imposing unfair policies that are detrimental to the long-run success of the credit union and detrimental to society should be abolished.
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