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Saturday, June 15, 2024

Whitefish Credit Union Employs a Time-Honored Business Model to Serve Its Communities With Care

Whitefish Credit Union Serves Its Communities With Care
Andrew Allen

Written by: Andrew Allen

Andrew Allen
Andrew Allen

For nearly 20 years, Andrew has worked for financial institutions ranging from regional investment organizations to some of the largest banks in the world. At Wells Fargo, Andrew was a Consultant within the Insight and Innovation division. A graduate of the University of Georgia’s Terry College of Business, Andrew’s goal has been promoting personal financial wellness and solid money decisions. As a Staff Writer for CardRates, Andrew seeks to inform readers of solutions to help them on their path to financial freedom.

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Edited by: Lillian Guevara-Castro

Lillian Guevara-Castro
Lillian Guevara-Castro

Lillian Guevara-Castro brings more than 30 years of editing and journalism experience to the CardRates team. She has written and edited for major news organizations, including The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the New York Times, and she previously served as an adjunct journalism instructor at the University of Florida. Today, Lillian edits all CardRates content for clarity, accuracy, and reader engagement.

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In a Nutshell: Credit unions provide more than financial products and services that can improve consumers’ lives — they support local communities. Whitefish Credit Union serves Montanans by offering personalized service and minimizing account fees. The credit union’s community initiatives include supporting access to public lands and helping keep trails clean. Whitefish Credit Union assists local schools by sponsoring field trips and booster clubs.

When a company discovers a business method that benefits its customers and the company’s bottom line, it’s doing something right. A company that alters its formula for success may face backlash from its customers if it also changes its products or services.

In the 1980s, the Coca-Cola Company changed the recipe of its signature cola. The soda-consuming public reacted negatively to the new recipe, and Coca-Cola brought back its original cola recipe within months.

Whitefish Credit Union (WCU) is a financial institution serving residents of Montana. We spoke with Josh Wilson, WCU’s Senior Vice President of Marketing, to learn how the credit union serves its communities by honoring its past. 

Whitefish Credit Union logo

Wilson said WCU has had the same business model since the organization first opened its doors for business in 1934. The credit union makes money via a model that emphasizes  earning interest income and lending to borrowers at advantageous rates. WCU doesn’t receive significant revenue from non-interest income such as fees.

Wilson said WCU lends money locally to support home and car-buying opportunities for Montanans. The credit union has expanded its offerings in recent years.

“We’ve grown over the last few years,” Wilson said. “We now have a really robust online banking system. We’ve also expanded branch locations, added more services, enhanced our loan products, and really tried to appeal more broadly to every financial need a consumer can have. Consumers have a lot of options for their banking needs, so we need to offer services and technology that can compete with the largest financial institutions in the country.”

WCU has more than $2 billion in assets and employs more than 200 individuals. The credit union operates seven branches in Northwest Montana and serves more than 60,000 members.

Lending Products Align With Member Needs

WCU’s Member Dividends account pays accountholders dividend earnings twice per year — once at the end of December and once in the summer. Wilson said WCU’s board of directors analyzes the credit union’s earnings and declares a dividend at the end of each six-month period. 

“We’ve always paid a deposit dividend rate that’s much, much higher than the national average for savings accounts,” Wilson said. “That’s been the driver of why we’ve led the market in deposit rates for savings accounts. There’s no fixed rate, and there aren’t any penalties for early withdrawals. It’s a flexible account that pays more than the savings accounts other financial institutions offer.”

Josh Wilson
Josh Wilson is WCU’s Senior Vice President of Marketing.

WCU doesn’t restrict members from accessing its Member Dividends account. Wilson said a new member can open a Member Dividends account, and all members receive the same rate regardless of their balances.

WCU’s lending products help members save money. The credit union doesn’t charge lender origination fees or private mortgage insurance. Wilson said keeping fees low on mortgage products helps first-time homebuyers and people who don’t have a substantial amount of money set aside for a down payment on a new home. WCU doesn’t sell any portion of its mortgage portfolio on secondary markets.

The credit union employs innovative strategies to help borrowers access financing opportunities. Wilson said WCU’s approach to underwriting allows the organization to offer loans to customers who lack the tax forms many lenders require.

“We approve borrowers that a lot of lenders wouldn’t approve,” Wilson said. “We have members working in the trades who are declined for loans by national lenders because they don’t understand those who work in rural areas. We’re able to help those who work in those industries so they can get into a home or car that they can afford.”

Helping Protect Montana’s Natural Beauty

WCU works closely with its members to help them reach their financial goals. Wilson said branch employees know the members they serve, and community members can visit one of WCU’s branches to review their finances with an expert on the credit union’s staff. 

“People can come in and talk to one of our experts for an hour or longer if they need to,” Wilson said. “Members can go through all their financial concerns with us. We offer that local, personal connection. Our employees know our members and what’s going on on their farms and ranches. You have to establish local connections to know what’s going on in your communities. We see branch presence as a way to help do that and get people talking to one another about finances.”

WCU’s brick-and-mortar locations help the credit union reach Montanans in diverse communities. WCU plans to open a new branch in Missoula, Montana, in 2025.

Montana’s rugged beauty and wide-open spaces attract tourists from around the world. WCU’s brand harnesses the energy of Montana’s wilderness. The credit union’s branches incorporate elements of the state’s unique landscape and wilderness. Wilson said Montana is an expensive place to live, and many people move to the state to take advantage of its abundance of outdoor activities. 

WCU branch interior
Branch interiors honor Montana’s beauty.

WCU supports organizations that promote access to public lands in Montana. Wilson said that only a few private landowners grant the public access to their land.

“Access to public lands and conservation are hugely important to Montanans, so we support initiatives that uphold those causes,” Wilson said. “That can include projects such as sending crews to clean public trails.”

WCU also supports Montanans experiencing food insecurity by donating to local food banks, said Wilson. More than half of Montana’s 56 counties are considered food deserts, which means residents there do not have access to affordable and/or fresh food.

The credit union produces short documentary films highlighting individuals and issues in its communities. Wilson said WCU screens the documentaries at local film festivals, and its films have won numerous awards. One film it created focuses on how WCU supports efforts to end food scarcity in Montana.

Supporting Educational Programs and Youth Athletics

WCU supports youth education by donating $5 to local schools each time a member opens one of the credit union’s High School Spirit Debit Cards

Wilson said WCU further supports educational institutions in Montana by sponsoring booster clubs, athletic courts, and student field trips. WCU uses its resources to help schools solve various problems.

“One of the schools that we worked with last year was in need of help to create a logo,” Wilson explained. “We used our design resources to help them create a logo they can use on shirts. We try to extend our resources out to our communities in that way.”

Wilson said some people may think of credit unions as financial institutions that only appeal to older members of society, but WCU’s products and services can benefit members of every generation. Although large banks serve a wider footprint than regional financial institutions, they don’t always support local communities the same way smaller financial institutions do.

“It’s a big challenge for the credit union industry to try to extend an olive branch to younger generations and show them they can benefit from our products and services,” Wilson said. “Credit unions aren’t just for older consumers. For people who are looking for a financial partner that engages with its community, they have options. But you’re not going to see ads or banners for national banks at your local softball field. They’re not supporting your local team, but we are.”