Special Report: The Credit Union Surge

The Portland Business Journal interviewed NWCUA President & CEO Troy Stang about Oregon credit unions’ membership surge.

Erik Siemers • Managing Editor • Portland Business Journal

It might have been a credit card company that embraced the tagline “membership has its privileges,” but only because credit unions didn’t get to it first.

Even so, credit unions are having success getting a similar message to consumers.

Credit unions nationwide last year added 3.8 million new members, which the Credit Union National Association calls the biggest annual increase in the industry’s history and more than twice the pace set a decade earlier.

The trend played out in Oregon, too, where credit union membership reached a new peak of nearly 1.6 million. The figure grow to 1.8 million when accounting for local membership in credit unions headquartered elsewhere, according to the Northwest Credit Union Association, the Portland-based regional trade group.

To understand more about the growth of credit unions in Oregon, we spoke with Troy Stang, president and CEO of the NCUA, who offered a few pieces of insight into the trend.

The first requires an understanding that most new financial relationships are triggered by some sort of major transaction, whether it be a house or a car or a remodeling project.

Most consumers held off on those purchases during the recession. But a vastly improved economy has provided an outlet for that pent-up demand, giving cause to consumers looking for capital to inquire about new banking relationships.

Stang’s second point centers on what he considers the Northwest’s inherent affinity for nonprofit cooperatives.

He believes this region of the country has, historically, embraced the notion of co-ops — whether they be farm or grocery co-ops — to the point where they’ve become some sort of cultural tenet. Banking with a credit union, he contends, is a natural extension of that belief system.

Banks might blanche at his next point, but Stang also argues that the economic downturn made consumers think twice about who they do business with and where they lay their money.

“Instead of returning a profit back to Wall Street, credit unions divvy it up to consumers in the form of rates with lower fees or lower rates on loans,” he said.

It’s a good sales pitch, and it seems to be working.