Spire and Hiway plan to merge, creating the fourth largest credit union in Minnesota with $4 billion in assets.

If approved by members as expected, Spire and Hiway will have a much bigger Minnesota presence, ranking in size only behind Wings Financial, TruStone Financial and Affinity Plus credit unions.

Spire and Magnifi Financial have been jockeying for months for that coveted "fourth place" ranking in Minnesota. But the new merger will nearly double Spire's prior asset size and distance itself considerably from Magnifi.

"We are really excited," said Spire President and CEO Dan Stoltz.

While Falcon Heights-based Spire Credit Union has merged with 10 other credit unions in eight years, the Hiway deal would be its biggest in 89 years. The Spire board already has approved the deal.

The merged credit union would operate under Spire's charter, but the deal is proceeding as a merger of equals. Hiway Credit Union members must vote on the proposal on or before a meeting set for Sept. 13.

If all goes as planned, the newly merged entity will integrate and start operating under a yet-to-be decided name and brand by January. It would have 26 branches, 620 employees and 249,000 members.

For St. Paul-based Hiway Credit Union, a Spire partnership would offer its 92,000 members access to a much larger branch network and the chance to get more competitively priced loans and services, said Dave Boden, the credit union's CEO. Right now, Hiway only has four branches, including ones in Roseville and Woodbury that opened within the last two years.

Under the new plan, no workers will be displaced and no branches closed.

The two leaders have long worked together as partners of United Financials Capital, a consortium of four credit unions that combine assets to make the occasional large commercial loan.

For several years, they talked generally about a possible "one day" merger, but a year ago "we got serious, put pen to paper and asked what would a partnership really look like," Stoltz said. "Both credit unions are strong fundamentally and strong financially. So this was not an economic decision or saying that the economy is throwing us a curve. This just makes us more competitive. This is one plus one equals three."

The credit unions have similar business models in regard to customers, services, community engagement and charities, Boden said.

The merger already received preliminary approval from regulators at the National Credit Union Administration . Mollie Young Enterprises has been hired to develop a name and brand for the ongoing concern, Stoltz and Boden said during interviews.

Going forward, Stoltz and Boden envision doubling assets from $4 billion to $8 billion over the next 10 years by opening new branches within Minnesota.

After that, they'd consider growing into neighboring states. While Spire has traditionally opened one new branch per year, that pace would accelerate under a new game plan that leverages the best of both establishments.

The new entity will use Hiway's newer core processing system, and will probably add more of Hiway's experimental branches called ITMs, short for Interactive Teller Machines.

Hiway's newer Woodbury and Roseville locations operate under that model. ITMs are actual branches but ones with fewer staffers and more self-directed technologies for customers than a traditional branch, Boden and Stolz said.

Last year, Spire opened its first branch inside a supermarket — a Cub Food Store in St. Michael. If that experiment pans out, more such moves may follow, officials said.

The growth plans signal the latest of many changes in both institutions and the industry.

Spire was founded in 1934 and was previously called Twin City Co-ops Federal Credit Union. It was renamed Spire in 2008. With organic growth and acquisitions, it now boasts nearly $2.2 billion in assets, 157,000 members and 22 locations across the metro.

Hiway was founded in 1931 to serve employees of the Minnesota Department of Transportation. Today it has $1.7 billion in assets, 92,000 members and one branch each in St. Paul, Roseville, Minneapolis and Woodbury.

The linking of Spire and Hiway has company. Minnesota credit unions have rapidly combined forces in the last decade, causing the number of players to drop from 133 in 2013 to 87 this year, according to the Minnesota Credit Union Network.

Despite consolidating, credit unions here have continued to add physical branches, while also increasing online services and aggressive marketing — a business model Stoltz dubbed "bricks and clicks."

Credit unions' "add more branches" strategy contrasts with large banks, many of which are closing some branches as consumers increasingly turn to digital banking services that eliminate the need to walk into a building to handle financial affairs.

"This merger of two Minnesota-based credit unions will unite and provide their combined membership — and Minnesotans — further access to a Minnesota headquartered, not-for profit financial cooperative with affordable, accessible and personalized financial services," Mara Humphrey, president of the Minnesota Credit Union Network, said in a statement.