Grow Financial Federal Credit Union couldn't avoid the Great Recession. Members struggled to keep up with mortgage payments; new loans dropped as regulatory requirements tightened; expansion plans were shelved.
At least one thing was left virtually unscathed through the downturn: Grow's employees.
There were no layoffs, pay cuts or pay freezes. To the contrary, the plucky credit union persisted in doling out annual salary increases of typically 2 to 3 percent on top of giving a generous 401(k) match of up to 8 percent.
Even though the credit union lost money the first year of the recession, the notion of even a freeze on wages was "off the table," Grow Financial CEO Bob Fisher said.
"To me, the employees are the biggest asset of this institution," said Fisher, now in his 23rd year at the 58-year-old credit union. "You just want to see happy people when you walk into a (Grow Financial branch). So we've tried to really treat people fairly."
From amenities like an on-site fitness center open seven days a week to a strong culture of training and promoting from within, Grow Financial has gone the distance to keep up morale.
And it has paid off. Grow emerged this year as No. 1 among large companies in the Tampa Bay Times' employee survey of Top Workplaces.
The credit union's focus on worker well-being begins Day One.
Khenh Vong, a Web application developer, recalls her first week of orientation at Grow six years ago. Vong and her fellow newcomers spent three days on training that included personality tests to divine the work environment that best suits their individual style.
"I just thought how amazing it was for a company to give three days … to invest in you learning about yourself," said Vong, who spends much of her time working from home as a telecommuter. "That was my first impression — that the company really does care about you."
To keep employees engaged after that first week, nothing beats strong communication, Fisher said.
The CEO said there's a renewed effort this year in particular to be as transparent as possible with weekly newsletters posted online. More recently, Fisher began taping a monthly video for employees, thanks to the company's state-of-the-art video studio.
At last count, the institution had 561 employees serving 157,000 members — but that's a moving target. Grow Financial has been living up to its name in more ways than one.
It added 45 employees and three branches this year. It opened its 20th branch in Lakeland in March and another will open in Wesley Chapel in the fall.
Soon, the credit union is moving out of Florida for the first time, establishing a South Carolina beachhead with a branch in Columbia opening by September.
Eventually, it plans to create a call center in South Carolina as well, giving it flexibility that will come in handy in particular during hurricane season.
Its still relatively-new headquarters is a marble-floored, 140,000-square foot office building nestled on 26 acres near the junction of Interstate 75 and the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway.
The master plan calls for two more buildings, a total of 500,000-square feet in a U-shaped complex — room to eventually hold up to 2,000 employees.
Like that master plan, one of Grow's keys to success is staying ahead of the times.
It ditched the traditional branch tellers by the end of 2011, cross-training employees in all its branches to handle a broad range of customer services.
Next up, Fisher wants to roll out iPads at all branches, so customers can be handed the mobile device when they walk in the door and help steer them through any accounts they have or services they're interested in.
"It's going to be all about mobile; all about convenience," Fisher said. "I really want to create the next banking model of the future, whatever that is."
The futuristic talk seems far removed from the institution's humble origins in 1955 in the broom closet of an office building on MacDill Air Force Base.
The institution, known as MacDill Federal Credit Union, was originally just open on lunch hours, offering military members a place to safely borrow and save money on base.
Its popularity grew, thanks in part to loosened government rules that allowed credit unions to offer membership to a broader range of the population.
Before long it had outgrown its military roots. By 2006, MacDill Federal Credit Union had swelled to $1.6 billion in assets with 17 branches in the region catering to more than 1,000 local businesses.
The credit union's board voted to reflect that broader mission in 2007, changing the company's name to Grow Financial.
Today, only a small fraction of Grow membership is in the military, but those historical ties remain strong. "Stronger than they've ever been," says Fisher.
Among other efforts, Grow has given more than $50,000 to support base causes through the Friends of Military Families program.
With its new name firmly established, Grow more recently turned to trying to define just what it is that makes the place special.
Creating a traditional mission or vision statement "is so 20 minutes ago," Fisher said. He wanted something easy to memorize and yet still reflective of the company's core.
What emerged was a mere six words: Be Bold. Be Great. Have Fun.
Bold comes through investments into new technology and entering new markets like South Carolina.
Great comes into play with a push toward top customer service.
And having fun? As Fisher puts it: "If you can't have fun at work, what's the point?"
Take one stroll down the corridor lined with photos of smiling employees (dubbed [email protected]) and you get the sense this is a place that knows how to have a good time: Annual cookouts; bake sales; a dress-up Halloween contest; outings to USF baseball games and Tampa Bay Lightning hockey games; a visit from Radio Disney on Take Your Kid to Work Day; an employee gathering at Busch Gardens.
Ashley Henry, 28, a training specialist who has been with the credit union for more than six years, noted that Grow doles out up to four tickets per family to use at USF Bulls games and other outings. "To enjoy the Grow family with your own family is so great," she said.
One of the biggest annual events is a diversity festival in which workers bring in a variety of ethnic side dishes to share while the company supplies some of the main dishes. Grow management thrives on diversity, with its recruiting focused on finding a broad range of personalities and talents.
"I want personalities. Give me the personalities any time," Fisher said. "I can teach them everything they need to know to do banking."
Fisher, who turns 62 next year, has been grooming a recruit from Navy Federal Credit Union as a possible successor.
"At some point it will be time to go," Fisher concedes. But not just yet. He's too busy enjoying the work atmosphere and the ever-deepening ties between USF (where he's been a long-time booster) and Grow Financial.
Harkening back to the company's new mantra, Fisher said, "The 'Having Fun' part is really strong right now."
Jeff Harrington can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8242.