Freedom Credit Union Marks Milestone
When asked what might happen next to Freedom Credit Union, Glenn Welch simply replied, “We will continue to do what we have been doing for 100 years.
By that he meant…well, a lot of things, from continued growth and innovation to the adoption of new technologies; from growing the client base to expanding the institution’s geographic reach; to find new ways to serve members to give back to the community.
There will be more of this, said Welch, president and CEO of Freedom, which offered what amounted to a “state of the credit union” report for BusinessWest on its 100th anniversary. anniversary.
The milestone (July 22 was the official anniversary) was marked in a variety of ways – from a 100-day summer food drive that raised $4,100 for the Western Massachusetts Food Bank and raised 930 pounds of food for the Gray House, to a week of ice cream in all branches at the end of July for members and employees; from raffles and giveaways for members to special offers on loans and CDs.
“It’s a big milestone these days for a financial institution to be around this long,” Welch said. “So we wanted to celebrate with the community.”
For the most part, however, the institution has quietly pursued the patterns of behavior listed above, he added, noting that he and his team are both innovative and enterprising as they prepare to writing the next chapter in a story that began with an institution known as the Western Massachusetts Telephone Workers Credit Union, formed when Warren Harding was patrolling the White House.
“It’s a big milestone these days for a financial institution to exist for so long. So we wanted to celebrate with the community.
Listing examples of both, he said Freedom will soon introduce its first automated teller machine (ITM) as well as credit cards and a new debit card product. Meanwhile, he continues and expands his push into Connecticut with the opening of a loan production office on Elm Street in Enfield. In addition, the credit union, which now has approximately $650 million in assets, more than 32,000 members and 10 branches in the Massive West, has made inroads into service companies across the vast industry of ever-expanding cannabis in the mass west., while continuing to aggressively pursue more business on the commercial lending side of the ledger.
Along with the cannabis business, the credit union recently began providing depository and cash management services to companies of different types of businesses, Welch said, adding that this could become a growth driver for Freedom.
“We have several customers who have signed up with us and we have a pretty good backlog of companies looking to join us,” Welch said, noting that the credit union is working with its regulator to ensure it complies. . with guidelines for doing business with those in this sector.
It is certainly not the only institution looking to attract cannabis customers, he continued, adding that as competition intensifies, Freedom will strive to stay competitive and secure its share of market in an industry where new businesses are opening every month, if not every week.
Cannabis was recently made legal for recreational use in the Nutmeg State, he continued, adding that this could be another avenue for growth in this market. “We believe we are in a good position with our expansion into this market.”
Overall, Freedom is still finding its footing in Connecticut, he said, adding that over the next few years he will explore opportunities to diversify south of the border, both clean and figuratively.
“We will explore our options in Connecticut as we get a foothold there,” he explained. “There could be a possibility of branching out there; we signed a two-year lease at Enfield, and we want to explore the market first with loan production; we thought it was a good way to get a foothold.
For this issue and its focus on banking and financial services, BusinessWest spoke at length with Welch about the first 100 years of Freedom Credit Union and what’s next for this Western Mass institution.
Answer the call
Tracing the history of the credit union, Welch said it started in a small office in the telephone company building on Worthington Street, serving only employees in this large, fast-growing industry.
In 1978, the institution moved to a new home on Main Street in Springfield’s North End, which still serves as its headquarters today. In 1987, the Western Massachusetts Telephone Workers Credit Union merged with the Monarch Credit Union. As demand for the benefits of a credit union grew, the institution applied for a community charter. In January 2001, membership eligibility was expanded to include anyone who lived or worked in Hampden, Hampshire, Franklin or Berkshire county, and in early 2020 a further expansion of membership eligibility membership included Hartford and Tolland counties in Connecticut.
In 2004, the institution merged with FHBT Credit Union, and the name of the larger entity became Freedom Credit Union. And with this new name came geographic expansion, with new branches in Chicopee, Northampton, and, later, Turners Falls, Greenfield, Feeding Hills, Easthampton, the Sixteen Acres neighborhood of Springfield, Ludlow, West Springfield (after a merger with West Springfield Credit Union in 2019), then Connecticut.
Throughout its history, Freedom has constantly sought new opportunities to grow and bring its products, services and mission to new ZIP Codes, Welch said, while seeking new and better ways to serve its members, said Welch, adding that these trends continue today.
Especially with its push into Connecticut, but also with its work to attract residents and businesses to its service area who are looking for options following a seemingly endless series of bank mergers, the latest being the takeover by M&T of People’s United Bank.
“We will explore our options in Connecticut as we get a foothold there.”
Connecticut has become the next frontier for many Western Massachusetts-based banks and credit unions, as has Freedom, Welch said, adding that the new Enfield office, which opened earlier this month- ci, will include both a commercial loan officer and a mortgage originator.
“We had a lot of people in Connecticut who wanted to do business with us, which is why we expanded our charter in 2020,” he said, adding that COVID obviously slowed the pace of progress in that state, but with the easing of the pandemic in most cases. By any measure, the credit union expects to see membership growth across the border.
Meanwhile, Freedom will continue and intensify what has been an aggressive push into the commercial loan market on both sides of the border, another initiative that has been slowed somewhat by COVID.
“We’re trying to grow commercially, but obviously not ignoring consumers,” he told BusinessWest. “We hired a new lender for the Connecticut market; we believe there are a lot of opportunities out there, both on the commercial side and on the consumer side.
Overall, the credit union began making inroads into the commercial market about seven years ago, he said, adding that it has made good inroads since, with two lenders in that market and now that of Connecticut.
Its legal lending limit is $7 million, with a wide sweet spot of $2 million to $5 million, Welch explained, adding that this range leaves plenty of potential for growth in a dominated region, on both sides of the border. , by small businesses.
“We have a very experienced lending team – we’ve been in the market for a long time,” he said, adding that Freedom will be launching new products in the coming months that will make it easier for businesses to get small-loans. to businesses.
“We have partnered with a credit union service organization with an online application where people can go, and they will make the credit decision for us, based on our guidelines in place,” he said. Explain. “This is how we hope to help small businesses in the region.
Another new service soon to be unveiled by Freedom will allow area retailers to offer financing for the purchase of their products through the credit union, a move it says will help small businesses while creating potential new members for the credit union on the consumer side.
Overall, member growth has been steady, at perhaps 1% per year on average, which is typical of credit unions in this market, he said, adding that Freedom is trying to take advantage of ongoing consolidation in the banking market and mergers like the headlines involving M&T and People’s United, which by most accounts have not gone smoothly.
“I think this is our biggest opportunity, especially in Connecticut, with M&T and People’s United being such big players in that market,” he said, adding that the credit union was running campaigns to marketing targeting the clients of these institutions.
Meanwhile, as previously reported, the credit union will soon launch its own credit card as well as a new debit card product, its first ITM, and other products and services aimed at making banking easier and more practices for members.
“We continue to automate things as we try to make it easier for our members to do business with us,” Welch explained. “A lot of things are done online, and I think we have very competitive products for that; if people want to apply for loans or open accounts they can do it in their spare time, but we certainly have the branch system in place to support them when they need help.
By all accounts
Reviewing the business plan for the next few years, Welch said Freedom is looking at a number of growth opportunities — in Massachusetts, Connecticut, in the cannabis industry, in commercial lending, and with several new consumer products.
It moves on many different fronts at once, with the goal of expanding its membership base, providing new and better products and services, and taking its mission in new directions.
These initiatives are new in some ways, but overall they are just a continuation of what the institution now known as Freedom has been doing for a century.
George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]