JANESVILLE, Wis. — Blackhawk Community Credit Union's East Milwaukee Street branch lobby buzzed with customer activity on a recent Friday afternoon, so much so that several customers waited their turn by taking a pit stop for a cup of hot coffee and a cookie in the building's lounge.
Janesville resident David Dean, a member of the credit union since it was founded in the mid-1960s, watched a long line of customers — members of the credit union — waiting for a teller. There were several middle-aged people, three sets of young parents with children and a few college-age men and women in exercise gear.
Dean, who retired after 42 years at the former General Motors Janesville assembly plant, didn't mind the bustle or the wait.
In fact, he waited while a friend he knew chatted with a branch manager. All was good. Dean had a cup of coffee and a sugar cookie.
"There's really something to be said about being a credit union member here," Dean told The Janesville Gazette .
He punctuated the comment by hoisting the cookie to his lips.
The lively customer action at Blackhawk is case in point of a national and statewide trend — the rising popularity of the credit union. The Janesville-based union's assets and its footprint have nearly doubled in Wisconsin since the beginning of the decade.
It's now a $590-million institution — up from $346 million in 2011. Its 12 branches throughout the southern part of the state serve 51,000 members. That represents a footprint about three times the size of the average state or nationally-chartered credit union, according to records at the National Credit Union Administration.
Blackhawk Community Credit Union has grown so much in recent years that it now ranks among the 15 largest of the approximately 130 credit unions in the state.
For a community credit union, that's big. But belying that burgeoning size, maybe, is the little things.
At one of its branch offices, the Janesville-based credit union has an electronic marquee telling passers-by that the lobby has fresh, hot pumpkin spice coffee. So come on in and try a cup, the sign advertises.
"People come in just for that coffee," said Lisa Palma, Blackhawk Community Credit Union's chief experience officer. "And that's great. As a member of the credit union, you own the credit union. The coffee, and the credit union itself, is yours."
Blackhawk Community Credit Union within the next year plans to break ground on a $30 million complex along the riverfront in downtown Janesville. The building will house a new corporate headquarters, a branch office and a legacy center meant to honor the credit union's founding members — thousands of union auto workers who once staffed the General Motors assembly plant in Janesville.
Blackhawk Community Credit Union's growth mirrors a national trend of burgeoning credit union popularity and assets.
Data from the Credit Union National Association shows the number of customers at credit unions nationwide has grown 21 percent since 2012.
During the same six-year period, the average assets per credit union has swelled from $149 million to $259 million — an increase of about 74 percent, according to the credit union association.
Some of that growth has come from consolidation, a national trend as some smaller credit unions and banks seek deals to survive in an era of changing technology and big branch banking networks. Other small financial institutions might choose consolidating because they might not have a clear line of succession to replace aging leaders.
National data show about 1,000 fewer credit unions in the U.S. now than in 2012. Even so, the average credit union still operates four branches (the Wisconsin average is five branches), although some are more sizeable.
Advia Credit Union based in Kalamazoo, Michigan, with a branch in Janesville, has 29 branches in the Midwest. In the last two years, Advia has opened several new branches, including in Janesville, Elkhorn and Williams Bay. Those branches came as Advia acquired two small banks, Peoples Bank in Elkhorn and Mid-America Bank, formerly named Footville Bank.
Credit unions differ from banks in one major way: They operate as cooperatives owned by members — customers whose use of loans, savings accounts and other products give them a stake in the company.
Credit unions pay their earnings back to members in the form of dividends. Typically, members have voting authority in a credit union's decisions, and most often credit unions are governed by volunteer board members who are elected.
That's different from banks, which are run as for-profit businesses and often are governed by paid board members who answer to the banks' main investors or shareholders. For their involvement, shareholders expect a return on their investments. About 170 banks operate in Wisconsin.
Brett Thompson, the CEO of the Wisconsin Credit Union League, said Wisconsin now has about 3.2 million credit union members. He said that far outpaces national averages, and it's a high proportion of people, considering Wisconsin has about 5.7 million residents. Some people are members of more than one credit union or may also work through traditional banks.
Bob Nenno, a spokesman for the state Department of Financial Institutions, said growth in credit unions in Wisconsin has tallied in the double digits so far this year, with net income growth among all 126 state-chartered credit unions jumping 16 percent compared to the first nine months of 2017.
Nenno said perhaps the biggest factor in the growth is the overall improvement in the economy, leading to more people working and more people borrowing money.
Palma said Blackhawk Community Credit Union's growth the last several years has come alongside an economic recovery.
Emerging mortgage lending in a hot housing market has been a big driver in the credit union's recent growth, Palma said. But throughout the recovery, her credit union has offered loan programs that help people with past credit problems rebuild their financial lives, she said.
Thompson said Wisconsin, in part because of its largely rural population, has long been a hearth for credit unions, particularly ones with local roots.
"So much of that has come from the fact that the cooperative movement in Wisconsin has been such as strong economic and social component from the time the state was formed in the 1800s."
Thompson pointed out that many Wisconsin residents still get electricity from electric cooperatives, many shop at food co-ops, and a large share of dairy farmers work through dairy cooperatives.
"The cooperative structure isn't a secret, here, and the value of it is not a secret. That helps credit unions, which at their core are really just a financial cooperative," Thompson said.
Thompson said credit unions have come more into vogue in the years following the Great Recession in part because there was a growing class of people who seemed to distrust some large, national banking institutions — particularly ones that had gotten embroiled in scandals in the housing collapse in 2008.
Palma, who once worked for a large, national banking firm, said her credit union has never tried to build a name for itself by pitting itself against the traditional banking sector.
She said Blackhawk has grown in large part through local membership in and around the Janesville area. Membership growth has come as the credit union segued away from serving mostly GM employees.
Now, the credit union has customers across a broad span of age and income demographics with a growing number of baby boomer and millennial customers.
She said her credit union has focused on maintaining and expanding branch locations, even if that bucks a trend toward less brick-and-mortar in an era of digital banking and financial services by phone.
"What's interesting is we still have lines in our branches," Palma said. "Lots of people might research their finances online, but they still want to talk come in and talk to someone."
An AP Member Exchange shared by The Janesville Gazette.