The state's credit unions are on a roll, and nowhere is it more apparent than the Roseville branch that Affinity Plus Federal Credit Union just opened.
The co-op's $6 million two-story building near Rosedale is something of a showcase of the latest thinking in customer comfort. An open layout with scattered stand-or-sit stations replaces the traditional bank of teller windows. Comfy waiting areas offer something for everyone: television, plastic bowling pins, game table, iPads, computers and a paper shredder ... even complimentary greeting cards.
Need a spot for your community group to hold some seminars? Head upstairs. There's a large classroom-style conference room on the second floor of the 22,000-square-foot building, fully wired and with a kitchen, all free for the public to reserve at no cost.
To Kyle Markland, Affinity Plus' longtime CEO, it's all about building relationships with customers.
"We've tried to perfect this concept," said Markland, showing off the stand-sit stations.
Affinity Plus, known for its aggressive "Ditch Your Bank" ad campaign, said the investment in the new branch -- the old one sits across the parking lot -- made sense given its growth and strong membership base in Roseville. The new building, which it owns, will actually cost less to operate than the old leased one, Markland said.
The St. Paul-based credit union is having a record year as the state's 140 credit unions grab market share from community banks.
A historic rivalry
Fallout from the financial crisis and fierce demand for loans in a creaky economy has only stoked resentment between the historic lending rivals. Credit unions are clearly reaping rewards from the backlash against big banks, a sentiment that crystallized around Facebook-launched Bank Transfer Day groundswell on Nov. 5, 2011.
In the first half of 2012, assets at Minnesota credit unions grew 5.7 percent. By contrast, assets at community banks chartered in Minnesota fell 1.8 percent.
In general, the nation's credit unions have emerged from the crisis better than community banks, said Ben Rogers, research director at the Filene Research Institute, a Madison, Wis., think tank focused on credit unions. Performance is "lumpy," he said, but the overall numbers are very good.
"I'd say it's a Golden Era, but still tinged with angst," said Rogers. "I think you're probably in one of the epicenters."
Altogether, Minnesota credit unions added 30,000 new members in the first half of the year -- a sevenfold increase from the 3,000 they added in all of 2011. A good portion of this year's membership surge, about 12,000, came from Affinity Plus, which is the state's second-largest credit union with $1.6 billion in assets.
Affinity's loan volume is up 5.6 percent and total assets have climbed 8.7 percent, higher than the state average. In May it opened a completely new branch in Coon Rapids.
Much of Affinity's loan growth is from car loans, credit cards and various lines of credit, Markland said. Until now, Affinity's primary focus has been consumer lending but it plans to expand into small business loans by the end of the year.
Argument over mission
The industry uptick has bankers seeing red.
The Minnesota Bankers Association has all but declared war, arguing unfair competition because of the tax advantages credit unions enjoy. Credit unions, not-for-profit financial cooperatives charged with a mission to serve people of modest means, are exempt from federal and most state taxes. Bankers argue the credit union mission is creeping as they expand.
Credit unions deny mission creep, arguing there's nothing saying they must serve only people of modest means. In some ways, the credit union road is tougher. As member-owned institutions, credit unions can't raise money by issuing shares to investors, for instance, and can build capital only by retaining profits.
Markland said banks are clouding the issue. The rise in market share of credit unions is directly attributable to consumers voting with their checkbooks, he said. They're tired of all the fees and poor service, he said.
"Consumers want to work with a financial institution that has their best interest at heart and provides them with an extraordinary experience. Plain and simple."
Jennifer Bjorhus • 612-673-4683