If trust alone drew clients to financial advisors, credit union-based advice and execution programs would probably dominate the wealth management landscape.
But clearly these not-for-profit cooperatives don’t tower over the field. In plain terms, it seems trust alone doesn’t trump perceptions of expertise and clout by investors looking beyond their deposit and borrowing needs for help with their retirement nest eggs.
While credit unions get elbowed out of contention for wealth management business by just about every other channel, experts such as bank business consultant Kelly Thomas Coughlin think it’s short-sighted to count them out — especially if you’re a competitor that targets mass-affluent customers.
“It’s an area they’re just getting into,” Minneapolis-based Coughlin says of credit unions’ wealth management efforts. “When credit unions got into lending forty years ago the banks said they’d never get traction,” he points out. “But they’ve made great progress there, with car loans especially and to some extent mortgages.”
And like other smaller players — including independent RIAs that, as a channel, rack up more assets per FA than any other — credit unions benefit from new technologies that enable more access, responsiveness and customization for their clients.
“The technology that’s available now to credit unions has leveled the playing field with regard to big competitors,” says Coughlin, who used to run GlobalBridge, an investment platform and technology provider to banks and brokerages.
And of course credit unions have it made in the shade when it comes to trust.
Seventy-seven percent of Americans say credit unions are trustworthy, according to market researcher Harris Interactive. That makes them the most trusted financial institutions in the U.S.
Meanwhile trust — specifically “winning and maintaining” it — is identified by the CFA Institute as the biggest single challenge to private wealth advisors — ahead of top-of-mind obstacles like regulatory changes and advisor-client communications.
But credit unions, though more esteemed than other channels, are also synonymous with bare-bones service offerings. Only 42% of those surveyed by Harris Interactive realize credit unions process mortgages, and just 45% understand they offer mobile and online banking — as, in fact, almost all of them do. Respondents weren’t even asked about wealth and retirement offerings.
Rob Comfort, head of Waverly, Iowa-based CUNA Brokerage Services, Inc., or CBSI, is looking to give investment and planning services a higher profile at credit unions.
Comfort, whose firm provides wealth management services exclusively through credit unions, says only 16% of 6,000 or so credit unions in the U.S. “have wealth management programs.” This leaves most of their approximately 100 million members — about 45% of the economically active U.S. population, according to a five-year-old report by the World Council of Credit Unions — getting their investment and planning “needs met elsewhere, or not at all,” he adds.
For the credit unions themselves, CBSI says providing wealth services is also good for core business lines. Credit union members who use credit union-sponsored wealth services are 58% more likely to have a credit card provided by the cooperative and 122% more likely to have a first mortgage through it, according to CBSI. The brokerage also tells credit unions wealth services can help them double their loan balances and attract millennials and Gen-Xers.
In getting credit unions and their members to use brokerage and advice services, “our biggest challenge is awareness,” says Comfort, who used to head LPL Financial’s outreach to credit unions and community banks. “Members say, ‘Hey, I’d be willing to work with an advisor here, but I didn’t know the credit union was in that business.’”
But that’s an obstacle worth climbing over, says Comfort. In his view the clearest opportunity for credit unions is with middle-class clientele, a large market that national and regional brokerages don’t typically target outside their call centers and digital platforms.
Fortunately for advisors zeroing in these investors at credit unions, these institutions seem hardwired to reflect middle-market preferences, according to Filene Research Institute. “Middle-income investors want a financial advisor who is local and trustworthy,” the Madison, Wisc.-based research provider says in a 2016 report. And while it views quality service as a must-have, Filene is just as keen that would-be advisors to middle-class clients understand “the importance of keeping things simple.”
In contrast to rivals at better-known firms, CBSI brokers in credit union branches provide face-to-face service in credit union branches. And to help these embedded brokers with marketing, the home office provides them with what Comfort calls “deep and robust data and analytics” on credit union members to “bring much more awareness of our services through awareness campaigns.”
Justin Dams is a CBSI broker who has been affiliated with Waterloo, Iowa-based Veridian Credit Union for the past 10 years.
With about $175 million under management and an eye to making that $250 million before he stops taking new clients, Dams says a credit union is a perfect fit for why he’s an advisor.
“I’m a local, face-to-face guy helping real people who might otherwise be ignored with real problems they need solved,” says Dams. “I’m talking about the death of family members, people having to go into nursing homes, layoffs — we help people through those things.”
Adds Dams: “It sounds corny, I know it, but for me the best paycheck is a sincere thanks.”
Corny or not, it’s the very approach to client service that makes Coughlin think credit unions have a secret weapon at their disposal, at least with “unsophisticated” customers. They stand out, he says, because “they’re not real pushy, they’re not slippery brokers.”
So while Coughlin believes credit union-based FAs are unlikely to pin down much in the way of “serious wealth” — the stuff mainstream firms can’t get enough of — they still get a heartfelt endorsement from him.
“If I wasn’t around to help my mother, I’d hope she was at a credit union,” says Coughlin. “I’d know they wouldn’t rip her off on fees or put her into too much risk.”