October 20th, 2021
Throughout the pandemic, we’ve been interviewing exemplary credit unions across the nation, asking them to share their stories and provide insight into their challenges, goals, and survival tactics during an immense time of uncertainty. This month, we’d like to feature a credit union who is truly going above and beyond for their members and the community. $139M Tucson Old Pueblo CU (TOPCU) proves to be a stellar example of the credit union principles, leaning into the needs of their own struggling members, desperate shared branching guest members, and employees doing the best they can.
I sat down with Marianne Scarzello, Human Resources Director at TOPCU and head of the internal COVID-19 Committee. Immediately, Marianne praises the COVID-19 Committee – their quick actions and strong messages to employees and members. She tells me a variety of team members were deliberately appointed to the COVID-19 Committee to provide a holistic view of the credit union’s needs. I wanted to learn about TOPCU’s internal culture, struggles, accomplishments, and philosophy on shared branching over the past eight months. Let’s dive in.
Alicia Disantis, Brand Manager at Aux (AD): Tell me about how your credit union is handling the pandemic, from a member perspective.
Marianne Scarzello (MS): We have two branches, both in Tucson, and we opted to keep our main branch lobby open throughout the pandemic (our East branch was open by appointment). We added health and safety measures, but we have a lot of members that come to the branch on foot or via public transportation. It was important for us to show the members that we want them to be able to access their money as best as possible. We don’t think it’s safe to have pedestrians go through the drive-thru.
AD: I never thought about how drive-thru only access would impact members without vehicles!
MS: Yes, a significant proportion of our members do not have access to a vehicle, internet, or a computer. We have a bus stop right outside of our branch and many members commute via bus. We also have a lot of older members that don’t necessarily feel they can learn online banking. They often come in every day to complete transactions at the teller line and our tellers get to know them personally. It’s better that we can serve our membership in the way that they need us to, rather than trying to force them to bank in a way they are unable to. It was important for us to give them access to their money to show them that we’re still there for them. It would have been easy to shut down the lobby but we wanted to prioritize them.
On the other hand, we did increase our online telephone banking services. We added a chat feature to our website and added texting. We increased the opportunity for members to interact with us without being face-to-face.
AD: Can you tell me more about how your online chat function was received by staff and members?
MS: Our Marketing Manager, David, had a look at other credit unions and found that many of them tend to hide the chat feature on their websites. However, he decided to make it noticeable and easy to access and so he put it right on the front page. We assigned a couple of employees to work directly with the chat; those that had more flexibility in their role or were more high risk with regards to COVID-19 (to reduce their face-to-face interaction). We had a lot of good feedback and many questions from members. It led to an increase in appointments being made.
AD: Let’s talk a little bit about shared branching. What has been your credit union’s strategy for shared branching during COVID?
MS: TOPCU’s strategy remains the same. We had a number of members who, like our own members, were struggling to get their money in other states due to credit unions closing their lobbies. We’ve encouraged our employees to go above and beyond for those members. We had one example where a Contact Center Representative ended up calling another credit union’s branch manager to encourage them to allow the member to have access to shared branching due to extenuating circumstances. That was the only way they could get their money. They weren’t being allowed access to it through shared branching, which was very frustrating for them.
After hearing that side of the story, we decided that it was important that the shared branch members are seen as an extension of our members.
They should have the same access that our members have. We did extend shared branching to the drive thru so that they could have non face-to-face interaction if they chose to. But because we remained open – we were one of the only local credit unions in the area that did so – we actually ended up having quite a few new members open accounts with us because they were impressed at how we handled the situation. It worked out very well for us and we’ve decided to continue allowing shared branching in the drive thru.
AD: That’s wonderful! You are keeping the credit union mission close to heart amidst this crisis. Treating guest members as an extension of your own members: Is that part of your vision? Is it ingrained in your credit union’s culture?
MS: Yes, it is. We have a fantastic teller team who are all very willing to help whoever, whenever – it doesn’t matter whether they’re members or not. And we know that if our members go to a different credit union to do some transactions, we hope that they would be treated the same as they are here.
By that philosophy, we try to ensure that anyone that comes to us are treated as if they were members at TOPCU. They’re treated with the same respect and the same enthusiasm that that we offer for our own members. Our CEO (Vern Babilon) is very good about ensuring the employees understand that our members are our foundation. He encourages us to go above and beyond.
He also requires that our employees are treated with respect by our members so as to maintain a positive atmosphere for them – it’s a win-win situation.
Our CEO sees the shared branching as a service, we have a duty to our members, and by extension, the shared branch members, to meet their financial needs. That is our mission, and without that community focus we wouldn’t be a credit union.
AD: What have been some of your biggest challenges and accomplishments over the past 8 months?
MS: I’d like to discuss three. One: we found that a big challenge was morale, both employee and member-based. We focused on the increased communication and virtual banking strategies, which I’ve spoken with you about before. And because of that, we were able to get more buy-in from the employees to figure out how to make this both safe and a positive experience for our members.
The most recent example I can give would be Halloween. We have a lot of people that were not doing anything for Halloween because of the pandemic, and it makes the kids pretty sad. We have a culture committee in the company whose role is to see how we can serve our members better, like what we can do that will affect them in a positive manner, but also increase the morale of our employees. They created a candy shoot with a little pipe that was six feet long, had the kids hold the bag under the shoot, and we shot candy down it. The kids got to visit in their outfits and Trick or Treat. It was rewarding to see the kids doing that and having fun.
AD: I bet the staff and the kids must have loved that.
MS: I know I enjoyed throwing things down a shoot and seeing the smiles!
AD: Nothing like seeing a bunch of little kids in costumes, without a care in the world, to boost morale!
MS: The second challenge has been balancing members needs with our employees’ safety. There have been quite a few behavioral changes needed on both member and employee parts, like requesting masks to be worn before it was mandated in the city, and just little things like staying further apart. We ended up closing our restroom, which some members were also frustrated about, but at the same time it helped with the sanitary needs. Members could now see us going out and sanitizing every half hour or every time someone has been on the counter.
The last challenge would be the loans. That was both a challenge and an accomplishment as we had senior management team attend quite a few webinars to understand what was needed, because a pandemic loan program got rolled out before there was any actual guidelines. They encouraged employees to talk with members to express financial concerns about their businesses and provide them with information regarding the forgiveness portion. They were on top of all the changes, which was no easy feat. The commercial lending manager and team were then able to prioritize the loans once we were approved to produce them. They ended up having over 60 loans funded in two weeks, which helped the community. It was an insane effort and honestly a great accomplishment.
AD: That is press-worthy!
MS: We actually ended up opening quite a few business accounts because of the loans. People moved assets over to us because of how good of a job our commercial lending team did. Our commercial manager loves his job and he does it for the people.
AD: What has surprised you about your members’ behavior during this time?
MS: That there were still members who wanted to visit the branch daily. They wanted to prioritize the face-to-face interaction and conversations with tellers over being in the safety of their home or choosing to do their finances once a week. It was surprising that they have that much of a drive to come into the branch and talk with people. It made us realize that it was imperative that we pay attention to their behaviors as well and focus on their needs.
AD: It’s interesting how engrained your organization is in their lives.
MS: Yeah, members wait in line specifically to talk to one of our tellers; they just absolutely adore him. They will come back every day. Members love being in the credit union, talking to our team. Many of these people are high risk. You would think that they would want to keep themselves as safe as possible, but they just relish their daily interaction with the team.
AD: Knowing what you know now, what would you have done differently in March and April ?
MS: You know, honestly, I don’t think we would have done anything differently. I think we acted in the best interest of our members and employees as best as we could with the information we had. It’s always easy to say you shoulda, woulda, coulda. Maybe we could have been faster implementing some actions. It would have been easy to close the lobby, but that wouldn’t have helped our members in the long run. What really mattered was our ability to adapt and provide alternatives, and I think that we did that really well.
AD: You’ll be stronger as an organization moving forward.
MS: Absolutely. All of the long-term strategies we put into effect are going to be helpful in the future.
AD: We’ve talked previously on what you’ve done for shared branching members and TOPCU’s philosophy on the service. Do you feel shared branching is still important?
MS: Shared branching is definitely still important. The number of members that have been grateful for the service when other lobbies were closed and weren’t letting in the shared branching guests is tremendous.
When you see the gratitude firsthand and hear the conversations on how they have been struggling to get their finances sorted, it really does strengthen your resolve about putting these extended members first. In addition to this, Tucson is a snowbird town. We have a lot of out of town visitors during winter that appreciate shared branching. It helps credit unions to compete with the big banks. It’s definitely a valuable service.
AD: That’s great to hear. I can’t imagine the terror of not being able to access your money during this time.
MS: Exactly. The amount of shared branching people that came in, realizing we were the first one that they found was actually open – it was just such a relief for them. We had people say, “I’m moving to you guys because of how you’ve handled the situation. We really, really appreciate everything that you’ve done.”
AD: What are you thinking about as we move into 2021 to strengthen your bond with your membership, guest members and the community?
MS: We have continued to volunteer and raise money for local charities as we can, even though most of the events have been canceled. We’ve still had an employee donation to the food bank. We’ve had the Virtual Lymphoma Leukemia Society (LLS) Light the Night Walk. I really hope that the events come back so that our employees can get out there and see the difference that they’re making and actually be part of the community again rather than from a virtual standpoint. We will continue to work on our internal procedures and technological advances so that we can help our members when they need it and be there for them virtually.
A big thanks to Marianne Scarzello and the team at TOPCU for their willingness to chat with us. Her story embodies the credit union principles and we are proud to have TOPCU as a client.
About Tucson Old Pueblo CU
One of Arizona’s oldest credit unions, Tucson Old Pueblo Credit Union opened its doors in 1935 with 19 members and $30.75 in assets. Established by Tucson Firefighters, Police and City employees, TOPCU was originally located at Fire Station #1 in downtown Tucson. Through the years, we have expanded services and our field of membership to serve the greater Tucson community.
Today TOPCU serves more than 13,000 members with over $140 million in assets. While we remain committed to our founding philosophy of Serving Those Who Serve, we also strive to keep pace with the changing technology and services to better serve all of our members.