BY VAL SCHOGER PHOTOS BY RICK COOPER
David Southall, CEO of Innovations Federal Credit Union, is everything you would expect of the leader of a financial institution. Except, there is nothing conventional about him. He speaks with passion about the ‘Innovations’ brand and, in the 10 years since taking the reins at Innovations FCU, he has increased recognition, has multiplied the membership base, and has seen tremendous success with a non-traditional approach to growing business. By providing better accessibility and with creative communication of their message, Innovations FCU is reaching young consumers and is taking an approach that is not typical. “Traditionally, credit unions are very conservative in their message and in how they conduct business. We decided to rename and rebrand our credit union. We had a vision, and then developed a mission and a strategic plan. We tripled our branch network and employees and increased our assets from 60 million to 160 million since 2005. It’s been an interesting 10 years. Risk pays off in the long run and we are providing a much better experience for our members,” he says.
While credit unions offer all of the services a bank offers, the key difference is they are member owned. David Southall explains, “Credit unions are run by a volunteer board and do not operate for profit. We take the profits we make, and return them back to our members in the form of higher dividends and lower loan rates.” Innovations FCU started out in 1952 in a desk drawer in building 110 at the Navy Base on Panama City Beach. Originally chartered as USNMCS Federal Credit Union, it was manned by only one person and open to Navy Base employees only one day of the week. At the end of the first year of operation, the credit union had $40,000 in assets and 432 members. Operations continued as NCSC Federal Credit Union until David Southall became the CEO in 2005. His team realized the limitations that an indistinct name can have. “We strategized about a name that would best describe who we were and reflect our personality. A lot of organizations lose sight of what is important. When you create a brand, you create an identity. The name “Innovations” can go anywhere. It was important to us to come up with a name that would not restrict us.”
Nomen est omen. Innovations currently operates six branches in Bay County, with a proven success in growing a younger membership base. So much so that other financial institutions are hoping to achieve the same results by following the concepts that have worked for Innovations. They realize that a good connection to young consumers equals future success.
Being progressive is key for Innovations. “Our first YouTube video went viral a few years ago and we had over 70,000 views,” David Southall remembers. He had a starring role in the video and several employees and the management team can be seen dancing and lip-syncing. Other productions followed and showed the Innovations’ team in a series of fun videos that they were clearly having fun producing.
Southall continues, “I think my personality lends well to the success of Innovations. I wanted to immerse myself in doing what young consumers like to do. You have to have someone at the top be involved with every aspect of communicating a message for it to be successful. It makes for a good workplace.”
At Innovations, it is a priority to stay aware of and adopt new technology early. Building trust and having social and corporate responsibility are key resolutions. In real life, this philosophy manifests itself in several educational programs that teach young people financial responsibility. David Southall explains, “With Mad City Money, we reach out to local high schools and do budget simulations with 9th graders. We give them a fictional identity and income and they go through a real life simulation with marriage and children. The results are astounding. We get to hear from the students ‘I did not realize my parents had to do this.’ Many of the young people don’t really understand the value of money. It is just a tool for them… we want to kick start that awareness so younger people will understand how to budget.”
“Different age groups represent different financial needs,” David Southall states. “Our members 18 years and older are looking to buy cars and are getting their first credit cards. Typical home buyers are in their 30s. These age groups like the convenience of online and mobile banking that we offer. We will introduce our new online banking system in early 2016 with a new app that will offer ‘picture pay.’ Members can simply take a photo of an invoice to pay it. There is no faster way to pay a bill.”
In recent years, David Southall has been invited to speak before credit unions in Canada, Costa Rica, and, most recently, Peru. “Each country has their own credit union system and each state has their own affiliated organizations. We are not intertwined but we share knowledge.” He explains that the World Council of Credit Unions works with credit union systems all over the world to help them with education and funding. The World Council will assist credit unions and their families in other countries after natural disasters or other catastrophes. The World Council is helping to build a credit union system in Afghanistan.” There are many remote locations in the world and the first step to autonomy and economical success is the organization and accessibility of finances. David Southall has witnessed infancy steps into financial autonomy. “Imagine a group of Afghan farmers sitting on the desert floor around a campfire conducting their first board meeting for their newly established credit union. The World Council helps them comply with international accounting standards and provides guidelines and active help. Some of the countries might still use trade systems. I have been to countries in parts of Central America where people are not aware of the technology that we are using. They have no idea what a ‘teller cash dispenser’ is.”
Every time he shares the Innovations’ message, he garners tremendous positive feedback. Most recently he was invited to share his strategies with other credit unions from around the world at the 8th Annual International Peruvian Credit Union Conference in Lima, Peru. During that trip, he was invited to visit Aelucoop, the Lima-based credit union that built an entire campus for their members, complete with an Olympic-size swimming pool, a baseball field, and a credit union branch inside a school. The students at the school are operating the branch. “What I learned while in other countries is that credit unions are similar all over the world. We all follow the credit union philosophy of ‘People helping People.’ South American credit unions want to help people in all aspects of their lives and I think that is a very strong message that could be brought back here to the United States. They do a very good job realizing what truly a credit union was meant to be. I think we can learn a lot from that.”
Each destination and foreign country offers a unique opportunity to learn about other credit unions. As traveling is one of David Southall’s hobbies, he makes a point of visiting credit union branches wherever he goes. When in France recently, he peeked inside one of the credit union branches in a small city. To his surprise, the teller was casually smoking a cigarette while at work. He chuckles as he tells the story. “I introduced myself and told her that I worked in an American credit union. My French isn’t too good, so I don’t think she understood.”
The conference in Lima was preceded by an invitation to Machu Picchu. Other than being a fascinating World Heritage Site, the remains of the Incan city offer a prime example for commercial success in a remote area. The site is Peru’s largest tourism destination and its economy solely depends on the hundreds of thousands of visitors that flock to the Andean mountains. Subsequently, commerce and retail have increased exponentially in the surrounding area. New hotels, restaurants and retailers are close by. Southall points at a snapshot of a group of indigenous Peruvians who are capitalizing by posing for photos with tourists. The girls and boys in their traditional garb look as if they should be in school. “In many countries I have visited, there is a clash of tourism and wealth on one side and people who are either unbanked or unbankable on the other. It is a clear step in the right direction to encourage the building of a credit union system around the world. It is a sign that a community will have financial responsibility and they are able to work together to help everyone succeed.”
See the Innovations message at https://www.youtube.com/user/sparkingchange.