Newrizons Federal Credit Union Navigated Rocky Times to Reach 50 Years and Thriving

Join Newrizons in celebrating 50 years, June 22-25. The first 50 new members get $50 to start saving, and new loans can choose today’s rate or draw a special rate from the last 50 years. On June 25 the credit union will have cake and door prizes to celebrate 50 years and Terry Fultz’s career and retirement.

Newrizons Federal Credit Union’s only branch is nestled on the outskirts of the small city of Hoquiam, a lumber town on Gray’s Harbor in western Washington. It sits on the parking lot of Lamb-Grays Harbor Co., the now defunct machinery company whose employees originally founded the credit union in 1965.

Behind Newrizons’ humble gray walls a small team is conducting a quiet revolution—or rather, hundreds of revolutions. With its free financial counseling and tax services, Newrizons is known in Grays Harbor County as a place that can help people turn their financial lives around.

But Newrizons itself almost didn’t make it.

Before it became Newrizons, the credit union was founded by 100 employees as Lamb-Grays Harbor Federal Credit Union, and it exclusively served the employees of the company. Original members recall Alice Schmidt, volunteer manager for the first 15 years, toting a briefcase from office to office, handing out checks to those who needed money from their savings.

“In the old days,” said Terry Fultz, the credit union’s first paid employee, who led it through its transition to Newrizons, “when the company hired someone they sent them straight to the credit union. The company wanted them to have that account.”

She said that when the credit union opened its building everyone got a Visa card. “Of course they had pretty small limits,” said Fultz.

She remembers an employee being stranded in Cincinnati, Ohio, unable to get home because his card was being declined. “I walked over to the company accounting office and it turned out they had forgotten to give us a check reimbursing the employee for expenses,” Fultz recounted. “So I took the check and cleared the employees account and got him home.”

The company began to falter in the 1990s, laying employees off sporadically. “Every payday people would wonder if they would get a pink slip,” said Fultz. The credit union board knew it had to make a plan.

“We didn’t know what to do,” said Fultz. “It took us several years to make up our minds.”

Eventually they settled on a plan: change the credit union’s name to Newrizons and open up membership to everyone in Grays Harbor County.

Some members didn’t like the change at first, but only a year later Lamb-Grays Harbor Co. abruptly shut its doors and laid off its remaining workforce – about 100 people.

“They were crushed at the beginning,” Fultz said, “but even though they were unemployed, they were very employable, and had a perfectly good reason to be looking for work.” She said that unemployment benefits were a huge help, as well as retraining.

“We set up generous program with them,” said Fultz. “My board was half-full of people who were laid off. We worked with each individual person to see what they needed. We did a lot of financial counseling.”

Some went back to school, some found new jobs. “After a year there was only one person I can think of who hadn’t moved on,” said Fultz. “And many said it was the best thing that ever happened to them. They didn’t have to live their lives in constant fear of a pink slip.”

The credit union, though, was on tricky ground. Without the sponsor that had been its bread and butter, newly-christened Newrizons had to reinvent itself.

The credit unoin set up shop in a new technology park, signing up about 100 members and setting up an office with a full-time employee. They also tried opening a small branch in Elma—which the credit union shared with a flower shop and a utilities payment station—that brought in a few more members. But neither of these options looked sustainable in the long run.

“One thing we did was get low-income designation from the NCUA,” she said. “If you’re low-income designated you get some concessions on your net worth when you’re under PCA. Plus it qualified us for some grants.”

The credit union got certified as a community development financial institution (CDFI) and received a grant from the U.S. Treasury.

Fultz also got involved in the community to get Newrizons’ name out. “The Lamb-Grays Harbor name held some negative connotations because of all the layoffs,” she said, “but one challenge was that when people heard the name Newrizons, they didn’t realize we had been serving members since 1965.”

Fultz joined the Rotary Club, became active with Habitat for Humanity, and is now the president of the board of directors for Personal Service Providers, a non-profit that provides assistance for elderly and disabled community members. She also networked with local businesses and would promote the credit union at employee meetings.

“Just the fact that we’re alive is a real feat,” said Fultz. She should know, as she guided the credit union through the enormous challenges of the transition.

When Newrizons hired its current CEO, Ynette Gibbs, in 2008, the board and management conducted an analysis of the Grays Harbor community to see what sorts of services might be especially helpful in helping people build financial strength.

“This wasn’t new at Newrizons,” said Gibbs. “We wanted to take a core competency of the credit union and explode it into something amazing.”

Through free financial counseling, free tax services, Spanish translation, products like individual development accounts, and much more, the Newrizons team have attracted new members and helped many people take control of their financial lives.

Gibbs says that this focus grows out of the culture that Fultz and Schmidt created at the credit union. “There was no end to what they would do for their members,” said Gibbs. “They gave education to all the staff who came in here that member-first is not just a series of words, but a pattern of behavior. That got imprinted on everybody, and it has kept Newrizons balanced between working from the heart, and working from the head. That’s a hard balance for a person, much less a whole credit union. But that’s what they created, and that’s what we’re taking forward. That’s our cornerstone.”

Fifty years after its founding, through the loss of its sponsor in a town hit hard by the lumber industry’s decline, Newrizons survived and, like the Lamb-Grays Harbor Co. employees it served and continues to serve, it found new life.

“When you think back on those original 100 employees,” said Fultz, “we still have a bunch of them as members. That says more about Newrizons than I ever could.”

Questions about this story? Contact James Pearson: 206.340.4790, jpearson@nwcua.org.

 

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