Great Lakes Credit Union
Serving and educating diverse members
Business View Magazine interviews Steven Bugg, Pres. & CEO of Great Lakes Credit Union, for our focus on Illinois Credit Unions
Helping people has been a theme since Great Lakes Credit Union (GLCU) was founded in 1938 by the union president of the National Federation of Federal Employees. The focus was to provide a financial institution for civil servants that were employed at the Great Lakes Naval Base in North Chicago.
At that time, there was not a financial institution in the North Chicago community and those civil servants were paid in cash. On payday, the Great Lakes Credit Union treasurer would actually stand at a desk at the end of the disbursing officer’s pay line to collect deposits, give member receipts, and accept loan repayments. The cash was placed in a tin box and deposited at another financial institution.
Steven Bugg, GLCU President and CEO, recounts, “The credit union was founded at that time to put members first, and to really allow those that were unbanked or underbanked to have an option to save money in a safe place and to reinvest those funds so others could borrow money. And those philosophies still hold true to us today.” As time went on, the credit union grew and took steps to expand its charter and geographic footprint. This led to new members and locations in the counties surrounding the greater Chicagoland area, from Kenosha County in Wisconsin, down through Chicago’s southern suburbs, including the City of Chicago. But the main branch is still located across the street from the Commissary, and that is the credit union’s busiest location.
The credit union’s board of directors also pursued aggressive acquisitions and mergers during that time, allowing it to grow membership and assets. This set Great Lakes Credit Union up for growth that continues to this day. GLCU is now among the top 10 largest in asset size within the State of Illinois, hovering right around $1 billion. It is state chartered and federally insured with 83,600 members nationwide. The majority of members are in the Illinois area, while the rest are scattered throughout the country. GLCU has 12 Chicagoland branch locations with 170 local ATMs and is also part of the CO-OP Shared Branching Network. This allows members to visit 5,600 institutions nationwide for their banking services. They can also use 30,000 fee-free CO-OP ATMs to access funds.
Great Lakes Credit Union has used the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic to separate itself from peers in a competitive marketplace. Like other financial institutions, GLCU had to temporarily close some branch locations early on. But it did not layoff any employees. Instead, it has been hiring aggressively during the pandemic. According to Bugg, “Employees at branches that were temporarily closed, usually because the building lacked a drive-through window, were reassigned to help support the credit union’s call and loan centers. The credit union did not have a formal remote-work program when the pandemic started, but it quickly developed one, primarily for call center employees and administrative support staff.”
Productivity was not impacted. In fact, things have gone so well that the remote-work program is continuing now that branches have reopened. Employees have come back, but on a rotating basis to limit exposure if there was an outbreak. But the improvements stemming from COVID-19 weren’t limited to internal operations. Great Lakes Credit Union is one of six credit unions in the nation that offers a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development-certified counseling program. “As you can well imagine, the need for financial counseling really scaled up,” says Bugg, “so we were fortunate enough to have these HUD-certified counselors that are able to provide counseling services, and we had to move from in-person to remote but that’s worked very well.”
GLCU was also one of 63 agencies in the state of Illinois that was selected to help the Illinois Department of Housing assist those that needed emergency assistance for rent or mortgage payments. Bugg reports, “We drove over 44,000 individuals to our GLCU website to find out how they could apply for assistance through the Illinois Dept. of Housing. We also were allowed to help them submit their applications online.” Another way Great Lakes Credit Union helped support the communities it serves during the pandemic was to take advantage of two opportunities through its partner Federal Home Loan Bank. One was to access grant funding. “We used those funds then to provide back to the community for the greatest needs,” Bugg explains, “based on the need for housing assistance and food assistance, and also to support women and minority owned businesses.”
Federal Home Loan Bank also offered member institutions a loan at a zero-percent interest rate. Great Lakes Credit Union used one of those loans to support its own lending but took the income it would have made on that credit line over a year and donated $90,000 to local nonprofits in the communities the credit union serves. Bugg admits, “We know in a year we’ll have to pay back that advance to the Federal Home Loan Bank, but in essence we took the income and provided it back to the local communities to help support them. So this helps us show the unique difference of the people-helping philosophy through Great Lakes Credit Union.”
About 51 percent of the credit union’s members are what Bugg describes as low-income, while the rest is high wealth. Great Lakes Credit Union prides itself on this diverse membership and has a wide variety of financial products to match. While it offers small business and commercial lending, consumer lending is the primary focus. It has an alternative to payday lending for low-income members and also offers unsecured loans for high-wealth members.
Great Lakes Credit Union is very active in the auto loan market, offering lending through its branches, online portal, and loan center. It also has a robust variety of mortgage products – from home equities all the way through second mortgages and first mortgages. On the deposit side, the credit union offers a free checking product. For higher income members, that same free product can earn high dividends. “But attached to that high-dividend earning checking account is what we call a companion money market,” Bugg notes. “So that money market is tied into high-yield checking. If you meet our requirements for that high-yield checking, we actually pay you an extra dividend on the funds you have within that companion money market account because you met the qualifications of the high dividend.”
GLCU is in the process of gathering member and employee feedback for the next generation of its online and mobile platforms. Journey mapping is also being employed to better understand how members utilize those specific products and services to ensure the upgrades are conducive to consumer needs. The goal of this evaluation and analysis is to improve the end user functions of those platforms and make the credit union’s website more informative.
Refining existing services and creating new ones out of necessity is how Great Lakes Credit Union plans to come out of the COVID-19 pandemic as a stronger institution. From philanthropic efforts to Housing and Urban Development counseling, the credit union’s efforts have resonated with the communities it serves and its member owners. Bugg shares, “It’s becoming very clear now how we are different and unique as a credit union that operates in this really highly competitive market and that has really served us well and it’s giving us that foundation to grow upon in the future.”
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AT A GLANCE
Great Lake Credit Union
What: One of the largest credit unions in Illinois
Where: Head office in Bannockburn, IL
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