Neighbors FCU – Small Beginnings Lead to Big Success

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By Mia Freneaux
Sitting in a National Federal Credit Union Convention in Las Vegas in 2000, Central resident Graydon Walker was amused to note the speaker was referring to another credit union that started just like Neighbors Federal Credit Union. The speaker was referring to a credit union that began with enough money to fill a shoe box. Graydon recalled the time when Neighbors’ (then Baton Rouge Teacher’s Federal Credit Union) first Board of Directors sat around a table in one of the member’s spare bedrooms in Port Allen and contemplated all $150.00 that existed in its coffers. "That was in 1954," Graydon remembered. "5 school teachers put up that $150.00 to begin the credit union. It was literally kept in a shoe box. It cost members 25 cents to join." At first, the Credit Union had a small office in the School Board office on Foster Drive. "We were fortunate that the Superintendent believed in the credit union and was himself a member, " shared Graydon. Graydon joined the Board of Directors when he was elected to serve in 1956. Thus began a 50 plus year relationship.

Sitting in the convention, Graydon listened intently as the speaker continued with the story of the credit union. They were about to announce the Director of the Year award, and Graydon was interested to see which credit union would be recognized. "I was totally shocked when they announced my name," he said with a big smile," I had told my wife to stay at the hotel because nothing significant would be going on. She showed up anyway because other members of the board told her she had to."

Graydon has watched Neighbors grow from $150 in assets in 1954, to $500,000,000 in 2011! Kathi Gill, Neighbors’ CEO, said with a smile, "We call him the ‘Godfather of Neighbors’." From the tiny office at the School Board to the 10 branches it serves from Zachary to Ascension, Neighbors has faithfully kept the mission it started all those years ago: "Not for profit, not for charity, but for service." Kathi stated, "57 years later, from a shoebox to half a billion dollars, the focus is still the same: on our members’ financial well being and giving them the service plus 1 they deserve."

Kathi herself has a history with Neighbors. She joined the team in 1981 as head teller, and worked her way up the ladder. When the previous CEO retired in 2007, Graydon convinced the Board to keep their search among locals. Kathi won the position. "Mr. Walker is the longest tenured volunteer in the Credit Union, and I am the longest tenured employee. Our management team has over 150 years’ experience. This is a passion for us. We are all proud of our success. If anyone knows credit unions, we do."

This year, at the Southeast Regional Directors’ Conference in Nashville, Neighbors was recognized for its many successes. "They consistently held us up as the standard, because we, as they put it, ‘Keep doing the right things’," Graydon stated proudly, "They said they always keep an eye on Neighbors because we are such a great success – they want to copy what we’re doing because we ‘just get it’." What is the secret of their success? "We know and understand our mission, we have great employees, and our Board is very supportive of all management tries to do," shared Graydon. "Our mission," Kathi added, "is to be our members’ financial partner, to be part of the communities we serve, and to be THE employer of choice. In order to accomplish that last goal, we create an environment where our employees feel valued."

Neighbors participates in many community support efforts throughout the area. Their "Nate the Squirrel" mascot goes into local elementary schools and teaches the students about money and savings through their Financial Literacy Program. Both Port Allen and Walker High Schools actually house a branch of Neighbors. Students there are hired to work in the branch during school hours under the supervision of a Neighbors’ employee. They learn marketable skills in 4 weeks of training such as how to run a teller box, and many go on to work at Neighbors after graduation. This experience also teaches students about job interviews and resume writing while giving them real life work experience. Neighbors is hoping to work out a similar arrangement with Central High School.

Neighbors is the largest credit union in Baton Rouge, the second largest in the state. Kathi said, "Growth doesn’t happen unless you’re doing things right. The difference is the partnership we create with our members." In 2003, the credit union acquired a community charter and changed its name to "Neighbors". In the last twelve months Shiloh Baptist Federal Credit Union and Geismar Employees Association Federal Credit Union have merged with Neighbors. In December of this year, Neighbors will relocate its existing leased branch from Hooper Road to its modern prototype at the corner of Wax and Sullivan Road. "We want to serve our members in the way they want to be served," Kathi said, "We offer all the newest products and conveniences, such as online banking and Mobile Money on PDA’s. We’ve also expanded into business services; we now have 500 businesses in our membership." Graydon stated, "The question is – Do you bring value? The staff brings ideas, the Board allows them to follow through. We are constantly challenging the leadership to be on the cutting edge; it’s a new day tomorrow with new challenges. We don’t ever want to become complacent."

Neighbors is full-service credit union. They offer a wide array of deposit products such as savings accounts, share certificates, IRA’s, money market and checking accounts as well as loans for any prudent purpose. These loans include credit cards, lines of credit, autos, RV’s, boats, as well as mortgage loans that can be used for purchase, construction, refinances or simply a home equity line of credit. Neighbors also has business services which include an array of deposit products as well as loans for small businesses. With 10 locations to meet your needs, Neighbors also has a strong commitment to provide online services that include free online banking and bill paying. You can open a new account, fund the account and apply for a loan in the convenience of your home. So, check out Neighbors at…..The credit union for EVERYONE!!!!

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