SC Telco banks 80 years of Upstate growth

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[ ABOVE: SC Telco’s management team meets in the lobby of their new office. Clockwise from left to right: COO Brian McKay, President and CEO Steve Harkins, CFO Toni Davis and CAO Patti Seymore. ]

The credit union now has more than 40,000 members and over $260 million in assets – but hasn’t forgotten its roots in the Great Depression

 

Whenever William Wirt Stover rolled into a parking lot in his station wagon 80 years ago, people knew he was open for business. He popped his trunk not to sell cutlery or encyclopedias, but banking services. He took loan applications and deposit slips, and helped start what is now SC Telco Federal Credit Union.

SC Telco’s current president, Steve Harkins, said Wirt and 18 employees of Southern Bell Telephone & Telegraph organized and chartered Greenville Telco Federal Credit Union in 1935, pooling their resources in order to better address their financial needs. It was the same year that Babe Ruth hit his final home run, FDR signed the Social Security Act into law, and Amelia Earhart made the world’s first solo flight from Honolulu to Oakland, California. By the end of it, the bank had $5,000 in assets.

The credit union was a volunteer organization until the 1950s, Harkins said. By 1962 Greenville Telco’s assets had reached $600,000. A 2003 merger with NP Employees Credit Union brought assets up to $100 million.

Today SC Telco has $261 million in assets and about 47,000 members. Harkins expects that number to reach 50,000 this year.

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Hard times, big opportunities

 

Born out of the Great Depression, SC Telco weathered the recent Great Recession as well. “I credit the board with not rolling up in a fetal position at the outset of the recession,” Harkins said. Instead, board members chose not to pull back lending when it was determined that the bank was healthy.

“The Great Recession really led people to examine who they were doing business with,” Harkins said. Some realized they felt more secure with smaller institutions and the idea that they could be partial owners, contributing to SC Telco’s growth, he said.

SC Telco, in return, strives for the personal touch. Harkins said the bank does not rely on automated results when it comes to making decisions about lending. Banking services for “underserved areas” are a priority, he said, and make up a sector where the credit union has seen a great deal of growth. About two-thirds of the bank’s members live at 80 percent of the median household income.

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Many members might have dealt previously with payday and other short-term lenders in the past. Harkins said it’s not uncommon for staff to encourage an impromptu counseling session when people are about to dip into savings the bank knows they’ve worked to build.

“We try to look beyond the numbers,” he said. “We do take more risk. We’ll do a $200 personal loan all the way up to jumbo mortgages if it makes sense and they can bring something to the cooperative.”

There is some small-business lending, but these days SC Telco is driven by consumer lending, especially car loans.

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Outlook for growth

 

Harkins said a few members who knew Stover, the company’s original “mobile banking” expert, are still around today. SC Telco tries to maintain some of the original spirit. The credit union recently moved to a new space on Park Avenue in downtown Greenville and just finished the renovation with a bright, contemporary design. But one of the first things visitors see in the lobby is a vintage telephone pole, weathered, solid and spanning the height of the room.

“It reminds us who we are, where we came from,” Harkins said.

Not too far from that is a small lending library, admittedly an unusual site for a financial institution. Harkins said it contains books about banking and business, some of which have multiple copies for group study among the staff. Employees sign books out in a simple notebook that serves as a testament to their understanding that their skills and knowledge will have to continually change with the times.

The bank has come a long way from car trunks, Harkins said, as regulatory requirements brought more complexity and cost to running the bank, prompting an attendant increase in staff size.

Last year the South Carolina Chamber of Commerce named SC Telco the fourth best place to work among small/medium-sized employers. At the same time, “being a smaller niche player in a scale-driven business remains a challenge,” Harkins said.

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Community involvement has evolved over time as well. SC Telco sponsored a Habitat for Humanity home for the first time last year, and is in the early stages of looking at how it could participate in social impact investing.

The outlook for 2015 includes a new branch, an enhanced platform to speed up the lending process, and keeping an eye on how developments such as Apple Pay impact the state and the credit union’s members, Harkins said. The new space will house seven tenants besides SC Telco. There is a lot of extra room in SC Telco’s part of the building that Harkins said will house operations and support “well into the future.”

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