Q&A with Marine Credit Union on Growth and Honing Your Focus

October 1, 2018 by Sue Schroeder

Shawn Hanson, CEO of Marine Credit Union in Wisconsin, knows a thing or two about growth.  Over the past 18 years as CEO, Shawn and his team have the grown the credit union significantly, both organically and through acquisitions. In addition, he has developed a clear vision to reach the underserved.

I spoke with Shawn to get his perspective and insights about growth, risk and the underserved.

Here’s what he had to say:

Marine Credit Union has grown from $120M to $789M over the past 18 years under your leadership.  What have been the top 2-3 actions you’ve taken to fuel this growth?

The past two decades of growth have included a lot of successes, but also some key failures. Failures that taught us some hard lessons in who we are – and who we are not. If I can point to one action that has had the most impact on our growth, it is the refinement of our focus. We clarified our mission, vision and strategy and aligned our business decisions accordingly.

Over the past 18 years as CEO, what has been your proudest moment? (Or proudest moments?)

I reach out to employees on a regular basis and ask them to share with me a story of how they impacted a member’s life. I hear stories of people who never thought they would dig themselves out of a financial hole, and people we are helping to save thousands of dollars each month in bill payments. I feel so fortunate that I get to hear these stories every day. So, to answer your question, my proudest moment will happen today when I hear that next story. Then again tomorrow. And again, the next day.

What drove Marine’s decision to focus on serving the underserved?

I started my career in the consumer finance industry, so it is where my roots lie. Over time, we have come to discover that serving the underserved is not only a good business to be in, it is a business that is good. A business that is doing well while doing good – performing financially while giving back to its communities – is a business that people want to be around.

How does your credit union define underserved?  What services does your staff offer members that are unique?

We define the underserved as people who cannot typically get help down the block. While this most often means individuals, who are credit-challenged, it is more than that. Our underserved can be an overleveraged borrower who needs some help simplifying their life and streamlining bill payments. We have a debt consolidation product that’s a perfect fit for that situation. Our underserved can be a self-employed borrower whose income statements don’t fit inside a neat box, a homebuyer with an unconventional property. or an immigrant with alternative documentation. Our in-house underwriting and decentralized decision-making structure give us more flexibility to serve our underserved.

Given your credit union’s history of growth through acquisitions, how have you preserved the culture of reaching the underserved?

We are experienced, but we are not perfect. When it comes to the integration of employees, we learn through each acquisition. Our strategy is very different from other financial institutions, and we know this creates a learning curve for merging employees. Cultural integration is incredibly important to us. We have taken this too slow, too fast and everywhere in between. What we know for certain is that one size does not fit all. Whatever approach we decide on for a cultural integration, we do it with intention and two key principles in mind: do what’s best for the employees and the members.

Why do you think credit unions are uniquely positioned to reach & serve the underserved?

Talk about roots; this is where we were born. Serving the underserved is in our credit union DNA. Beyond our history, it is what we are known for: people helping people. Credit unions have built a legacy of trust with the communities we serve. Trust has become a coveted commodity.

What is the biggest misperception among credit unions regarding the topic of serving the underserved?

It’s too risky.

One of the underpinnings of the credit union movement is providing a path to affordable credit.  What should risk-adverse credit unions think about when evaluating their mission?

Think about the role you play in your community; how would the world be poorer, but for your presence? If you can answer with clarity, you’re serving a need. Everybody seems to be chasing the most qualified borrowers today. We’re focused on being there for the rest.

Marine’s mission is to “create a better future for themselves and their families”.  What has been the biggest surprise for you serving the underserved?

We call it “the snowball effect.” Repeatedly, we have seen one small “yes” turn into a remarkably different life for a member we have helped. A car loan led to transportation to work, which led to a steady job, which led to a promotion, which led to buying a home. I never underestimate the power of a chance.

How has your board helped to accelerate the mission to reach the underserved?  What advice do you have for boards who are concerned of taking on more perceived risk?

I feel very fortunate to work with a Board of Directors who has accelerated our mission in many ways, but most importantly, by having an open mind and allowing themselves to think differently. Our Board is always learning and always pushing me, one another and the credit union to be better.

Strategic planning season is upon us.  What advice do you have for credit unions looking to lend deeper?

Hone your focus. Know who you are and who you are not. Know who you serve and who you do not. Get aligned on where you want to be 5, 10 and 20 years from now, and work backward. What do you need to be focusing on in 2019 to achieve your long-term goals, and what do you need to stop wasting energy on?

Ensure your people, products and processes are aligned and scaled to support a diversification or transition. This can take years to build or evolve. Walk, don’t run.

About Shawn Hanson

Shawn Hanson is the CEO of Marine Credit Union. He has been with the credit union since April 2000 when the credit union had two offices and $37 million in assets. Hanson’s vision for the future is a differentiated financial institution that provides services to a broad geographic base with the best service. Hanson has also held positions at Citizens Community Federal Credit Union and AVCO Financial Services.

Learn more about the array of alternative credit data sources available to financial institutions to reach your underserved populations.