For the first time since moving to its current location in downtown Grand Rapids, MI in 1988, Kent County Credit Union is undergoing a major renovation. Completely gutting their building, they have been working for almost a year to expand and renovate with the goal of being more efficient and inviting – all while remaining open and available for their members and community. While the construction is ongoing, CUSO Magazine took a look around and sat down with KCCU CEO, Barbara Page, to get details on the process of the renovation, and what she would recommend for other credit unions looking to do the same thing.
CUSO MAGAZINE: First things first, what motivated the decision to do a renovation?
BARB PAGE: There were a few reasons we were motivated to renovate. The interior of the office was outdated and arranged inefficiently. We had people scattered all over the building. The member service area was not particularly inviting, and some members of the lending team were tucked away in back corners of the building. We had team members sharing offices and one working out of a storage room! Externally, we knew we needed to make some changes because the facility was remodeled before we expanded our charter in 2002 and definitely had the look and feel of a county building. It was important for us to present a different image to our neighborhood to help potential members understand that we are here to serve the community.
CUSO MAGAZINE: The building looks great so far, it’s a completely new image! On that topic, how important would you say brand and appearance are to a smaller credit union?
BARB: It’s very important to us. Strategically, we recognize that developing our brand and image is critical to growth. Admittedly, we didn’t really have a brand before we expanded our charter because we were “The County” so we didn’t think about it too much. But as time goes on, the industry is changing; branding and imaging have to become important to you to survive in this market, because that is what everyone is doing, they’re changing by creating brands.
CUSO MAGAZINE: So you could see there was a need, but what about the decision process? With respect to the board, how difficult was it to get their approval for the renovation?
BARB: We have been discussing the need for a renovation for quite some time. The board was pretty engaged right from the beginning, so there was no real resistance to the idea itself. It was obvious that we needed to do something. The most important thing for them was making sure we were doing the right thing for our members when it comes to spending their money and maintaining our fiduciary responsibilities. But we needed to show that we had a full understanding of the expected cost of the project and the impact such a large investment would have financially. We worked closely with our ALM advisor to develop a pro forma analysis of the balance sheet impact, with an emphasis on ROA. Then we projected for the worst-case scenario and prepared budgets around that scenario.
We tried to think about every aspect. It wasn’t just the building, but upgrading technology and computers and such. Things that weren’t necessarily tied to the renovation, but were going along with it. So, we wanted to make sure we had a full laundry list of costs we were going to be looking at so we could get a real, full picture of how that was going to impact us.
Once the board was able to see that the credit union could not only withstand the financial impact, but also that it would provide us fuel for future growth, we got the green light.
CUSO MAGAZINE: There is obviously a lot going on here, what does the entire renovation include?
BARB: A major goal of this renovation was to add some space; not only to make room for our current team, but to provide some room for growth. We knew this was going to be a challenge since we are very limited in the size of our property. Our brilliant architects figured out a way to not only get us that extra space, but to also design a true front/back office concept. This meant an entire gut of the interior. The view from the outside has changed drastically as well. The parking lot and street sides of the building that used to be mainly brick are now mainly glass. We’ve also added elevation and accents with composite metal panels. We are adding a walk-up ATM, replaced our fencing, resurfaced the pavement, and will be bringing in new signage. There’s nothing that’s gone untouched!
CUSO MAGAZINE: Of course, with any big project, you are going to face challenges and setbacks. What difficulties did you encounter during the renovation? Was it difficult to find contractors? Did the renovation proceed on schedule?
BARB: The biggest challenge we faced was figuring out how we were going to stay in the space and stay open for our membership during the entire renovation. We only have two branches, so we were not in a position to close or reduce the service we could provide in any way. When we first embarked on the project, we had difficulty finding the right contractor who was willing to work within these requirements. In an incredible stroke of luck, during these negotiations, we welcomed Al Jano to our board, who just happens to be the Facilities Management Director of Kent County. He was able to provide invaluable insight and multiple options for firms that we could count on to work with us in the way we needed them to. In the end, we chose McGraw Construction, a design and build firm, that has been incredible to work with.
We’ve also had a few delays due to unforeseen issues and weather, but overall, the process has gone about as smoothly as we could have expected.
CUSO MAGAZINE: Did you have a contingency plan for operating during the renovation? I mean, you’ve got construction starting and there are workers everywhere, but you’re also still serving members. What challenges did this present?
BARB: Coordinating the movement and placement of our team members, the delivery and removal of furniture, a new safe, and temporary storage for assets we’re keeping has definitely been a challenge during the different phases of construction. Fortunately, we had taken steps earlier to establish full VPN access for our corporate devices and develop a work from home policy, so two employees are working full time from home.
Not to mention we had to scan all our loan and paper files which took about four to five months. During all of this time, our front-line tellers and lenders have taken the brunt of the stress, noise, dust, and the smells of progress. When the contractors were working on the new roof, it was so loud in here you could hardly hear anything on the phone, but our team has all been simply amazing dealing with it, and we can’t thank them enough for their dedication.
CUSO MAGAZINE: Earlier you mentioned adding new technology along with the renovation. What new technologies did you add? What was the process of getting those technologies, and how will they better serve members?
BARB: We discussed “branch of the future” type technologies when planning the renovation, but ultimately decided that our traditional service delivery still plays a big part for our main office location. Prior to renovation, we did make the transition to a hosted Voice Over IP phone system which allowed us to remove a lot of outdated equipment from our IT room and improve service to our members. We’re also committed to continually improving our eServices for those members who prefer to do business with us electronically. We’ll keep moving forward in this area, making improvements to our mobile app and remote lending.
CUSO MAGAZINE: With all the changes going on, what has been the member response? Have the members been excited for the renovation? Were there any complaints?
BARB: We have received some very positive feedback from our members. For the most part, they have been really encouraging and almost starry eyed at times. They, like us, knew it was time for a renovation and they have been right there with us for the last nine months, many of them seeing it develop step-by-step. Sometimes, a member walks in who hasn’t visited us in a while and just looks around in amazement, it’s hard to believe it’s the same building. It’s been really fun interacting with those members… I think they are excited for us.
Of course, there will always be some complaints. The first phase was challenging because the entrance location changed more than once and many were confused about if we were open or not. Plus, members have different ideas of how we should invest their money. But we feel very confident that we will be providing the greatest benefit to the greatest number of members both now and in the future because of this renovation.
CUSO MAGAZINE: It’s clearly been a long but exciting process. Looking back, what would you have done differently?
BARB: I look back on a long meeting we had early on with the architects to make decisions on details, after the major design had been approved. We touched on nearly every aspect of the renovation during that meeting, from paint colors to doorknobs to fixtures, and we did it all very quickly. We made decisions we don’t even remember making! It was a bit overwhelming. Given the chance to do that again, I would have asked for a second meeting to recap the discussion and the decisions.
CUSO MAGAZINE: And looking forward? What aspect of the renovation are you most excited about?
BARB: Overall, the finish line! Construction started in March, so at almost nine months in (plus eight to nine months of prep work), we are all very anxious to see everything come together and settle into our new spaces. In specific regards to the renovation itself, I love the light, the openness. What was basically brick before has completely opened up, lightening the mood in here.
We’re also extremely excited to be a part of the growth and change of our neighborhood. The Creston neighborhood in the “North Quarter” of Grand Rapids has been revitalized and is growing in many ways. It’s a point of pride for us to contribute to these positive changes and show our neighborhood’s residents and businesses that we are committed being Creston’s credit union.
CUSO MAGAZINE: You’ve mentioned how important this community is for KCCU. How are you addressing local Grand Rapids needs with the renovation?
BARB: By opening our doors and our windows up to the community, we are making sure the community knows that we are here for them. That’s important and beneficial to the people of this community. A few people asked why we didn’t just find a plot of land somewhere and build a completely new building. But this is our community, this is where we are at and we are proud of it, and we want to contribute to the revitalization of this neighborhood. In the end, it might have been easier and just as expensive but this is our community and we want to be here.
CUSO MAGAZINE: If another credit union were considering its own renovation, what tips would you provide them?
BARB: The relationship with the contractor is so incredibly important. If you don’t feel your concerns and questions are being appropriately addressed, you can’t be afraid to re-evaluate, step back, and even start over if necessary. Even if it pushes your construction back, you have to do what is best for your members. You have to leave room for give and take at the same time. We knew this job was going to be a challenge for our contractor, so although we have been very engaged in every step of the process, we also had to know when to step back and let the professionals work. One more thing: no matter how long you think it’s going to take, add four months!
CUSO MAGAZINE: Thank you so much for taking the time to meet with us, Barb! Any last thoughts you want to share?
I really just want to thank my team for their patience and understanding through this huge change. Our tellers and lenders have really taken the worst of the noise and the dust, and have maintained such professionalism throughout. We’re all starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel, and I think we’ll be an even stronger team having been through this together.