SCOTT PFEIFFER | CONTRIBUTOR
On March 29, 1941, seven employees of the City of Greenville pooled their savings and formed one of the first federal credit unions in the Upstate. The Greenville City Employees Federal Credit Union was chartered under the relatively new Federal Credit Union Act of 1934, a vital piece of New Deal legislation aimed at helping ordinary people improve their lives by combining their savings and making loans to neighbors and co-workers. Today, Greenville Heritage Federal Credit Union has more than 12,000 members and continues the work its founders began 75 years ago.
Credit unions differ from banks in important ways. Forming a bank requires a significant fund of capital, raised from investors. In the 1930s, such capital was scarce, and banks were failing. Credit unions have no shareholders and require no starting capital; they are financial cooperatives of the depositors themselves. Banks are for-profit institutions, operated for the benefit of their shareholders. Credit unions are nonprofit associations, operated for the benefit of their depositors. Banks, historically, focus on delivering profitable services to the wealthy and to businesses. Credit unions are focused more on the common worker.
From Depression to WWII to Cold War
South Carolina was no exception to the struggles of the Depression. Four Greenville banks had closed their doors between 1926 and 1931. By 1941, however, South Carolina was beginning to recover as a result of successful New Deal programs that were putting people to work.
Only nine months after the city employees chartered their credit union, the Empire of Japan bombed Pearl Harbor and the United States entered World War II. The war increased demand for cotton and textiles, and South Carolina’s economy boomed. By the end of the 1940s, the credit union had expanded from the original seven depositors to 271.
The city, and the credit union, continued to grow through the Cold War era. In the early 1970s, B.F. Dillard, one of the original seven founders who had managed the credit union part-time while remaining a city employee, retired. The credit union’s first full-time manager, Mildred Julian, replaced him. Julian managed the credit union for the nearly 20 years. During that time, the credit union grew to over 2,000 members.
A merger to serve both city and county
From its inception in 1941 until the mid-’90s, the credit union was located in City Hall and primarily served city workers. In the mid-’90s, the Greenville, S.C. City Employees Federal Credit Union merged with the Greenville County Federal Credit Union and began to serve both city and county employees. The credit union left City Hall and opened offices on Reedy View Drive and at County Square. The core membership remained the city and county administrative workers, police officers, firefighters and sanitation workers that were the backbone of the community.
The credit union changed again in 2002. Taking advantage of new laws that expanded the availability of credit union membership, the credit union changed from a “Select Employee Group,” serving only employees of Greenville City and County, to a “Community Charter,” open to serving all citizens who live, work or worship in Greenville County.Alan Berry, the current president, was hired in 2007 — only the third full-time manager of the credit union in its 75 years. Under his leadership, the credit union has grown from just over 7,000 members to nearly 13,000, has moved its headquarters into the beautifully restored old Employment Security Commission building from 1951 on Washington Street, and operates four branches.
The credit union continues to serve the original mission of its founders, however, “the core of our customers remain those police officers, municipal workers and firefighters that the City and County Credit Unions served originally,” said Berry.
Along with being a cooperative association of members comes an obligation of service. Berry takes this obligation seriously.
“There is a significant service element to what we do,” Berry said. As a nonprofit, the credit union can offer members better loan and interest rates. “No bank can touch us” on interest rates, said Berry.
The credit union offers free financial education to members. “We don’t just make a credit decision on your credit score, and if that score is below 660, too bad. We take the time to educate our members about the need for good credit, the difficulties of bad credit and, more importantly, how to improve their credit score,” Berry said.
The credit union also takes seriously its responsibility to give back to Greenville, its home. Greenville Heritage FCU partners with The Children’s Miracle Network and the local Shriner’s hospital, gives to the Cancer Center of Greenville County and Miracle Hill, and is the named sponsor of Greenville’s longest-running and most successful event, Main Street Fridays, according to Tina Ray, the credit union’s marketing director.
Greenville Heritage FCU has taken great pains to reach out to and serve Greenville’s most vulnerable. The credit union has earned both the “low-income designation,” which requires more than 50 percent of its membership to have a family income of 80 percent or less of the median family income for the area, and certification as a Community Development Financial Institution.
“We’re always looking for ways to give back to Greenville and serve our members,” Ray said.
For 75 years, the Greenville Heritage Federal Credit Union has succeeded.
75 years with Greenville Heritage Federal Credit Union
March 29, 1941 – Greenville City Employees Federal Credit Union chartered.
December 7, 1941 – Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor; USA enters World War II.
1970s – Credit union reaches 1,000 members and $1 million in assets and hires its first full-time manager, Mildred Julian.
1981 – Credit union expands its membership beyond city employees, adding Greenville Water System, Greenville Housing Authority (1983), Legal Services and Phillis Wheatley (1985), Metropolitan Sewer District (1989), Appalachian Council of Governments (1990) and Greater Greenville Sanitation Commission (1995).
1980s – Credit union exceeds 2,000 members and $5 million in assets and hires its second full-time manager, Judith Raines.
1994 – Credit union leaves its original offices in City Hall and opens a new office at 75 Reedy View Drive
1996 – Credit union merges with Greenville County FCU, and now serves city and county employees. The newly combined credit union ended 1996 with 3,685 members and nearly $12 million in assets.
2001-2002 – Changes name to Greenville Heritage FCU and expands its membership to all who live, work or worship in Greenville County.
2007 – Judith Raines retires, and Alan Berry, the current president and CEO, is hired as only the third full-time manager in the credit union’s history. The Credit Union ends the decade with nearly 8,000 members and $36 million in assets.
2014 – Credit union sells its property at 75 Reedy View Drive to make way for the new District West Apartments project, and purchases and renovates the old Employment Security Commission building, built in 1951, as its new headquarters.
2016 – GHFCU celebrates its Diamond Anniversary. It now has nearly 13,000 members and more than $88 million in assets.