Growth surge continues at WECU

New Holly Street loan center needed as local credit union outgrows present facilities; growth pace far outstrips national average

ABOVE: WECU’s Jennifer Kutcher and Robert Langei in front of the credit union’s new loan center, currently under construction on Holly Street.

   A thin web of wooden framework supports a grout-dusted brick wall. Workers in white and red hard hats duck around the slow swing of a shiny red crane as others carry heavy, gray structural frames.
   Here, at the site of Whatcom Educational Credit Union’s (WECU’s) new loan center, WECU’s assistant vice president, Robert Langei, wants to lay a foundation for WECU’s influx of new members — one that is responsible to its members, community, environment and employees.
   After launching a marketing campaign last year focused on informing county residents that WECU membership is open to anyone who lives, works, worships or attends school in Whatcom County, as well as members’ relatives, the credit union saw a 50 percent jump in new membership in 2005 compared to new membership in 2004, said Jennifer Kutcher, assistant vice president of finance/controller.
   Langei, a Bellingham native, started working at WECU when he was 12 years old — weeding, scraping bubble gum off sidewalks and picking up trash for his father, Wayne Langei, WECU’s CEO.
   Coming from anyone else, the phrase, “We deliver members’ dreams,” might sound canned or insincere. But Langei earnestly delivers this line with sincerity and has the statistics to back it up.
   Last year, WECU surpassed the national credit union total membership growth average of 1.7 percent by increasing its total membership by more than 10 percent. WECU also opened three branches and plans to open two more this year; disbursement of real estate loans grew 27 percent, and business loans rose by 65 percent.
   Along with that growth, WECU, a member-owned cooperative credit union since 1936, continues to offer low usage fees to members and donates money to local causes through its social responsibility committee.
   Langei wants WECU to become a leader in green design and building. Its new Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) registered loan center may become the first LEED certified building in Whatcom County when completed at the end of this year.
   He also said the credit union attempts to retain employees with a benefit package that includes a pension plan, personal growth classes and employee recognition programs.

The little credit union that could
   In 2005, WECU’s membership increased by 3,700 members to a total of 40,000 members — a 10 percent jump in total membership and 50 percent more than the previous year’s added membership. In comparison, national credit union total membership grew at an average of 1.7 percent, according to National Credit Union Administration reports, said Kutcher.
   Reflecting this growth, WECU opened new branches in Lynden, Blaine and Fairhaven last year, and will open ones in Everson and in Bellis Fair mall this year.
   “We also own land in Sunset Marketplace (Shopping Center) and on Barrett Road in Ferndale where we want to build full service branches,” Langei says.
   Another visible indication of WECU’s growth is its apparent takeover of almost the entire 500 block of Holly Street. There, the new loan center under construction is next door to the Holly Street branch, across the street from the education center which is down the way from the old Baskin-Robbins building being renovated for more office space.
   WECU also owns the parking lot in front of Tokyo House — a graveled corner patch that will transform into a “green” parking lot at the end of the year, complete with rain gardens that filter stormwater runoff.
   After WECU increased its real-estate and business loan disbursements significantly last year, the construction of a new loan center was a natural progression, Kutcher said. She anticipates a similar amount in loan disbursements this year.
   “We’ve just run out of room here,” she said. “The new center will be more accessible and centralized for members.”
   Because of all this growth, Langei says WECU added 25 employees last year and he anticipates hiring approximately 15 employees this year.
   Langei expects those new employees to embrace his motto: “If there’s a way to do it for a member, do it. Success comes along with that.”
   WECU also manifests its community involvement in direct monetary contributions to local causes. Through its social responsibility committee, individual staff members and presidential/CEO donation fund, the credit union donated over $85,000 to Whatcom County nonprofits, school sports teams, groups and scholarships, Kutcher said.

BELOW: The credit union’s new loan center is scheduled for completion around the end of 2006. Parking will be handled at the nearby lot on Holly Street, across from Kinko’s.

An environmentally sound workplace
   Langei, working with Zervas Group Architects, Pearson Construction and Be Green Consulting, hopes WECU’s new loan center will help create a standard for green building in Whatcom County.
   “We feel we are socially responsible people in the community and we wanted to be a leader of that type of building in Whatcom County,” Langei said.
   Brennan Schumacher, owner of Be Green Consulting, says he is sure the U.S. Green Building Council will award the already LEED-registered loan center a LEED certification, making it the first LEED-certified building in Bellingham. Certification is a higher level of green building achievement, Schumacher says.
   Only five buildings in Bellingham are LEED-registered, and none are LEED-certified, says Matthew Huber, LEED program assistant for the U.S. Green Building Council based in Washington, D.C.
   Features such as “extensive daylighting” — a process by which the building is tested and built to absorb as much outside light as possible via windows — and a per-room adjustable under-floor air distribution system, reduce the building’s environmental impact. Access to daylight and ability to adjust room temperature are also shown to increase employee productivity, said Schumacher.

Happy employees, increased retention
   WECU employees may be happy with their new well-lit offices heated or cooled to their individual desire, but their job satisfaction is sustained by a host of job perks that workers rarely see these days, Kutcher said.
   They include full medical and dental benefits, an optional 401(k) plan, a competitive salary, routine bonuses, employee events and birthday and date of hire anniversary recognitions, Kutcher said.
   WECU also gives its employees a pension plan — a near-relic in workplaces these days — as well as a monthly budget for “personal growth classes,” known as WECU University, said Kutcher. This program allows employees to take pilates, cooking and computer classes, among others.
   “For me, it’s going home at the end of the day and feeling good about my work,” Kutcher says.
   She’s not alone. Most employees stick around WECU their entire working career, Langei said.
   “I remember when Jennifer came in on her first day of her internship with us, and I knew then there was a good chance we’d be working together for the next 30 years,” he said. “And look, here it is seven years later, and she’s still here.”



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