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Florists’ credit union finds niche

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Credit unions like the one serving florists nationwide from New Mexico are rare these days. The Florist Federal Credit Union assists 1,000 members from this residence in Roswell. (COURTESY THE FLORIST FCU)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The Florist Federal Credit Union may not be mighty in terms of technology, locations and assets, but it’s certainly not lacking in the spirit of cultivating member success.

One of New Mexico’s smallest credit unions, its membership and assets are but a mere fraction of some of the larger organizations in the state, but with an “associational” field of membership, the organization stays busy helping its nearly 1,000 members buy flowers and vans for their businesses in states as far-flung as New Mexico, North Carolina and Connecticut.

While some of the state’s better-known credit unions have been on a growth spurt the last couple of years, the old-fashioned, niche credit unions serving very specific industries are still hanging on.

New Mexico’s 10 smallest make up less than 1 percent of the $8 billion in assets held by the state’s credit unions. Operating with occupational charters rather than community designations, working in their favor is the opportunity to build relationships with targeted groups and their families.

Like Florist FCU, which is based in a small home in Roswell, Belen Railway Employees Credit Union was founded to serve a core group of employees, in this case, employees of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe. Ditto for Colfax School Employees Credit Union in Raton — the smallest of them all — with just 170 members and $300,000 in assets. The “office” is located in a filing cabinet behind CEO Carolyn Hestand’s desk at Raton High School, where she is also works as the district’s special education secretary.

Without credit unions like Colfax, a lot of working people in the state’s smaller communities would not have access to credit or financial services, said Hestand. Many members are retirees.

“They like the way we do business,” said Hestand of loans for cars, horse trailers and vacations.

Florist FCU has $8 million in assets, said Kenn Bell, president of the credit union, the only one chartered in the U.S. to serve the floral industry. “What makes us unique as a small credit union is we know more members by name, their stories, their challenges,” said Bell, whose three-person staff wears a lot of hats. “I know over half our members and can recognize their voices (on the phone),” he said.

Members tend to be low- to middle-income earners, Bell said. They are designers and drivers, often single parents or the sole bread winner in their families. “As such, many often don’t have great credit scores, so we have had to change up our model for lending,” said Bell.

Services important to members are remote deposit capture, mobile banking and access to an ATM service through the Illinois Credit Union League because it’s very focused on serving the needs of small credit unions.

“We have a very robust ACA (Automated Clearing House) program with another vendor,” said Bell. “We are an $8 million credit union, but we send and receive about $16 million in transfers each year,” said Bell.

Started in 1955, Belen Railway Credit Union has outgrown the living room of one of its founders and several other locations to serve its 2,000 members, which include railroaders and their families as well as vendors serving the industry.

Automated banking is very important to railroaders, since many are out of town a lot, said Gerry Troyer, CEO and president of the seven-employee credit union with $28 million in assets.

“If a smaller credit union can find a niche and a purpose, you are going to be OK. But you’ve got to find that niche,” Troyer said.

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