Tuesday, January 16, 2018
Business

Achieva Credit Union juggles new headquarters, expansion into Hillsborough County and its 100,000th member

Achieva Credit Union is obviously steeped in numbers. • But here's the challenge: Try to choose its most significant numerical milestone. Amid celebrating its 75th anniversary, the Clearwater institution just signed up its 100,000th member shortly after it briefly breached the $1 billion mark in assets.

Achieva, known as Pinellas County Teachers Credit Union in an earlier incarnation, also is opening its first Hillsborough County branch after years of debate about crossing the bay.

Then there's this number: $10 million-plus.

That's how much Achieva is spending to relocate its headquarters. Achieva bought a former Nielsen Media complex in Dunedin and is renovating it over the next year into a 67,000-square-foot headquarters for 140 of its 250 employees. Making matters more hectic, Achieva just unveiled a new brand and new slogan: "Banking for Good."

Achieva has vacated its former Clearwater headquarters so, during the Dunedin makeover, its leadership team is dispersed throughout the region.

The Tampa Bay Times caught up with Achieva president and CEO Gary Regoli at his interim office in a Palm Harbor branch. Regoli, 54, hit on multiple topics, including how to lure a new generation of members unfamiliar with credit unions and why he thinks credit unions haven't grown too big to remain tax-exempt, as rival banks contend.

How did you get started in the industry?

I've been in credit union land for 27 years. I started at a credit union in Gainesville that … served the University of Florida staff. … I came here in 2008.

Why stick with credit unions instead of banking?

Credit unions are banking with a mission. It's the not-for-profit cooperative business structure that's attractive. It meshes well with my personal values. The more I was involved, the more I realized this was different.

What strikes you most about how the industry has evolved?

Credit unions are more complex. They've ventured into just about every retail (area) and a few commercial areas that we would never have thought about in my early days. And it's mostly been because of consumer demand.

Banks say credit unions have gotten so large and diverse they've gone beyond their original mission and become a direct competitor. So, they should have to pay corporate income taxes. Is that valid?

First of all, the original mission is to serve as many people as possible. We are tax exempt … because of our business model. Our board members are volunteers. Our mission is not: "How can we increase our stockholder value?" There are a lot of great business people working in for-profit banks. They're doing great things in the community. It's just a different business model.

Still, your members receive the benefits of cheaper rates and lower cost of business from your structure. So why isn't that structure paying taxes?

Well, the structure is paying taxes. We pay a lot of taxes. We pay sales taxes; we pay property taxes; we pay payroll taxes. The only one we don't pay is corporate income tax. And there's a move afoot among community bankers to convert to sub-S (corporations). Why? So they can avoid corporate income taxes. How bad is that if that's an objective of a lot of community banks? And a lot of big banks don't pay taxes either because of tax law.

How many branches are you up to?

We have 14 branches, from New Port Richey down to Venice. We just got (permission) to go into Lee and Collier counties … Fort Myers/Naples.

When are you moving into Hillsborough County?

Our Westchase branch will be opened next week at Linebaugh and Countryway. No other ones (in Hillsborough) yet. That will be our first ever. Believe it or not, this credit union has been on this side of the bay until 2012 with that huge market sitting across the bay. It was a little perplexing to me when I came.

There are more people in that market (than Lee and Collier counties), but there also is more competition. We're excited about the opportunities in Hillsborough. There are a lot of people paying more for their checking accounts over there than they should and we'd like to see some of them take advantage of our benefits. On the other hand, we like to go into markets that are kind of underserved or at least not as penetrated.

Your latest marketing campaign focuses on younger demographics. Why?

That's a bloody market because everybody seems to be focusing on lowering the median age of their members. But the younger they are, they less they know about credit unions. Gone are the days for the most part where you had to work somewhere to join a credit union. It's watered down our story.

So we're making a concerted effort to let people know. Younger people understand our business model. They understand — probably better than we give them credit for — that not-for-profit means we may be more consumer-centric.

Let's talk small-business loans. A recent survey found 82 percent of small-business owners did not seek lending in 2012. Of those that did, only a third had trouble getting a loan. So is the bigger problem that companies don't want loans instead of banks and credit unions not lending?

You know the word that everyone, everyone mentions in discussions is uncertainty. So if we do away with the uncertainty it would make a big difference.

There are so many factors, whether its Europe or the election or unemployment or everything the media keeps dousing us with.

Is residential lending coming back?

Our mortgage department set a record last month. We've never had more first mortgages ever in all our years.… Definitely the majority is (refinancings) and we're doing really good with second mortgages as well.

Where are we in the economic cycle?

We've hit the bottom and are rebounding. But it's a puny rebound. When we sell a foreclosure now … we're actually seeing bidding wars. But we've got a long way to go.

Members who are hurting are still hurting. So many people are underemployed and have given up. We see them. They come to us and say, "I've hit a bump in the road. My credit is impaired and I just can't make the money I used to make. What can you do for me?"

Jeff Harrington can be reached at (727) 893-8242 or [email protected]

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