Credit union drums up loan business

By Yifang (Evonne) Liu

Sanket Patel, a store manager at 541 N. Fairbanks Ct., near Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago’s Streeterville neighborhood, came from India two years ago.

Unlike most of people, he opened his first U.S. account at First Northern Credit Union, instead of a bank.

“I like credit union better and very much,” Patel said. “It’s very convenient, very friendly and very helpful. Staff here always look happy.”

Credit unions are comparatively informal. Here, employee cubicles at First Northern Credit Union’s Streeterville branch. (Yifang (Evonne) Liu/MEDILL).

Vonda Harwell, a patient registration representative at Northwestern Medicine for 16 years, said she really enjoys the services provided by First Northern Credit Union.

“It seems like the credit union is more personal, more family-like, and has excellent programs. Initially I really started because it has a Christmas club that allowed me to put away money for Christmas shopping for my kids, so that was a big convenience. I didn’t have to put all that stuff in my cards, so that’s really why I started,” she said.

David Tognarelli, business development manager of First Northern Credit Union, said the reason to use credit unions is because they answer only to their members, who are both the customers and the owners of the credit union.

“We function as a non-profit financial co-operative, so all of our members as I said are part owners, and they are sharing the revenue the credit union generates through a form of lower interest rates on loans, higher rates paid on a deposit account, fewer and cheaper service fees. So essentially, they are working cooperatively with one another, renting one another’s money and receiving interest from one another when they have deposit funds in the credit union,” Tognarelli said. First Northern makes loans to members for autos, homes and other personal purposes, but not for business.

For a share account opened at First Northern Credit union, members with a deposit less than $25,000 earn 0.10 percent interest and the credit union pays quarterly dividends, said James Grevenites, controller of First Northern Credit Union. With a share account over $25,000, the rate is 0.15 percent. According to the FDIC, the average savings deposit rate for banks is 0.06 percent right now.

First Northern Credit Union started in 1944 to serve Commonwealth Edison Co. employees, later reaching out to serve employees of other companies and residents of communities throughout northern Illinois. On Dec. 31, 2003, First Northern merged with Northwestern University Credit Union, serving faculty, staff, students and alumni of Northwestern University and Northwestern Medicine.

Total assets of First Northern Credit Union were $317 million at the end of 2016, compared with $313 million a year earlier, according to Grevenites.

“The reason why people might not use the credit union and just go to the bank instead is because they just don’t know about credit unions,” Tognarelli said.

First Northern Credit Union now also serves people living or working in Evanston and in Boone, Dekalb, DuPage, Grundy, Kane, Kendall, Lee, McHenry, Ogle, Stephenson, Will and Winnebago counties.

First Northern Credit Union Streeterville office is located at 541 N. Fairbanks Ct.

First Northern also serves tenants and employees at 541 N. Fairbanks Ct., where the credit union has a branch, and in its headquarters building at 230 W. Monroe St. in the Loop.

On Dec. 2016, there were 22,792 membership accounts, compared with 22,748 a year ago.

“We don’t necessarily have a large budget for advertising as the banks would have because they are for-profit and we tend to fund our revenue back to our members to make sure they are getting the best deal of financial products, like auto loans, home loans, credit cards and checking accounts, that sort of thing,” Tognarelli said.

However, Grevenites said the budget for marketing and promotion in 2017 has increased 28 percent compared with the 2016 budget.

“My department is responsible for driving new membership,” said Tognarelli. “We want to keep our focus on the communities we serve. Within the selected group we serve, and the communities we serve, we worked with our contacts at Northwestern Medicine, Northwestern University, Exelon, the parent company of Commonwealth Edison, to plan events and promotions for their employees to learn about the credit union and give them incentives and special offers of our products and services.”

James Grevenites, controller of First Northern Credit Union, at his office at 230 W. Monroe St. (Yifang (Evonne) Liu/MEDILL).

At year-end 2016, total loans of First Northern Credit Union were $149.7 million, a 9.8 percent increase from $136.4 million a year ago.

Over one-third of loans were mortgage loans. According to the statistics provided by Grevenites, the mortgage loans at year-end were $57 million, up 32.6 percent from $43 million.

The second largest portion of loans is vehicle loans, $51.5 million at year-end, slightly up, by $500,000.

“We don’t offer business lending, only consumer-based lending,” Tognarelli said. We haven’t chosen to offer business lending although some credit unions do offer. Again, we have enough to focus on with consumer base lending, that’s just not the priority for us.”

A credit union may also invest in certain limited products that are eligible under the regulations of the National Credit Union Administration.

“We are limited in what we can invest. We can’t buy stocks but are allowed to buy U.S. Treasuries, etc.,” Grevenite said. “But we really want to invest in our members. We want our members to borrow the excess funds we have. We don’t invest in products that are longer than 5-year maturity. We only do short-term investments.”

Stephanie Butler, a clinic engineer at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, has been using First Northern for ten years. She became a member of the credit union when she needed to refinance her car loans and First Northern gave her a better interest rate. However, besides using the credit union, she also opened an account at Chase Bank.

“I like the credit union but my son banks at Chase. Because at that time it’s the only ATM at his school, SIU [Southern Illinois University], so I just got an account there too so it’s easier for me to transfer money to him. He has a First Northern too, but the credit union didn’t have an ATM there.”

But credit unions do have ATMs. “We joined surcharge-free ATM networks that have over 70,000 ATMs nationwide,” Tognarelli said. “That would have more ATMs than commercial banks have. We have a credit unions co-operative and share each other’s branches,” he said.

First Northern Credit Union is trying to make online banking more convenient for its members, according to David Tognarelli, business development manager of First Northern Credit Union. (Yifang (Evonne) Liu/MEDILL).

“Sometimes we cannot compete with the amount of locations they have,” said Yadi Vargas, branch financial sales and service manager of First Northern Credit Union. “So it’s more of letting them know when is the last time you actually went to a bank. Things are changing as far as having access to your money, so it’s a matter of explaining things are becoming a little bit more virtual now and you really don’t have to go to the bank to get your business done.”

Looking ahead, Tognarelli and Grevenites said the credit union will concentrate on making loans within the companies and communities they are serving now.

“Just keep making loans is our biggest focus for the last few years,” Grevenites said. “The loan market is getting better. During the recession, a lot of people just did not want to borrow. . . . We see vehicle loans picking up again and mortgage loans still staying very strong. Even though rates are coming up a little bit since November, we still have a good pipeline of mortgage loans going.”

Photo at top: The headquarters office of First Northern Credit Union at 230 W. Monroe St., Suite 2850, Chicago. (Yifang (Evonne) Liu)/MEDILL)