Go digital or go home: The rise of digital banking at Wildfire Credit Union

“What could we do to make our members’ lives better?” That question, said Mark Shuiling, vice president of technology at $900 million Wildfire Credit Union in Saginaw, MI, is what set the institution on a quest to bring its members a unified, omnichannel banking experience. The quest began maybe five years ago.

It is now coming to fruition, with help from digital platform developer Backbase.

Here is the story of an institution that decided that digital was its future – if only because it is what the Millennials and Gen Z members of any credit union crave.  These are people who grew up with personal computers at their sides and the younger ones cannot remember a time when they did not have an iPhone or Android phone in their hands.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the wisdom of Wildfire’s decision became all the sharper, said Schuiling – it was suddenly obvious that digital is the future for all of us, simple as that. 

Understand, Wildfire is just now beginning to roll out its new unified banking platform and it will do it deliberately, carefully, said Schuiling.

Know too that Wildfire is way ahead of most credit unions in its digital journey. Sure, just about every credit union executive pays lipservice to the idea of digital banking, but the stark reality is that few have climbed aboard this movement. That’s why Vince Bezemer, head of strategy for Backbase, which also has worked with Navy Federal, Schools First, and State Employees’ Credit Union of North Carolina, estimates that maybe 10% of financial institutions really get what it means to be digital.

And 90% don’t.

Which side are you on?

Being digital does not mean having mobile and online banking, said Bezemer.  Of course they are essential building blocks. But being digital is about the institution’s soul and most today remain resolutely analog.

Those with an eye on tomorrow are the ones that are embracing a truly digital tomorrow.

A key goal for Wildfire: it wanted to provide members online and mobile experiences that are unique, that are specifically created to serve Wildfire members, and that are not just off the shelf cookie-cutter apps in use at literally hundreds of institutions.

Wildfire wanted uniqueness but it also wanted the ability to customize to specifically serve its members – and just about every credit union has a gripe about not being able to modify an off the shelf app with a feature it wanted.  

Go with a unified digital banking solution designed to fit your institution’s needs and personalization is yours.

Two big worries stop many credit unions from even attempting to go the custom route.

Worry 1: we are not big enough.

Maybe that was true five or ten years ago – then truly custom solutions were available only to the biggest institutions.  No more however. Backbase, for instance, says it works with a range of smaller institutions through third-party vendors.  Other developers say similar. Huge size no longer is a prerequisite for offering a custom digital solution.

Worry 2:  you fear your institution lacks the inhouse technical chops to deliver on an omnichannel promise? Schuiling, with three inhouse programmers, shared that fear so Wildfire hunted for a technology partner that could fill in the gaps. It went through lots of candidates before making a choice. Backbase is an example of a vendor that can do it all for clients that want that. But it also works with credit unions that want their own programmers to do significant work on the digital transformation project.  Other vendors say similar.  Nowadays, you can have omnichannel banking your way.

Know that even with a good digital partner, this journey remains lengthy for the credit unions that undertake it.  Why?  Executives, board members, line staff, members have to be brought along, carefully.  That is what Wildfire did and it proceeded with a patience that is remarkable.

But about now it is all paying off. Feature by feature, Wildfire is beginning a rollout of its new digital self to its members.  Doing it all at once would overwhelm many. Bring them along step by step and they will get excited by their new customer journey.

That’s Wildfire’s bet. It’s a smart bet. And it’s one just about every credit union should be making.

Want to hear what Schuiling and Bezemer say in their own words? You want to hear the dual CU2.0 Podcasts on the Omnichannel Journey. Bezemer is #110, Schuiling #111. Click the links for the audio.  Each runs around a half-hour.  What they say is thoughtful, realistic, and you will get a roadmap for the digital journey ahead.

Robert McGarvey

Robert McGarvey

A blogger and speaker, Robert McGarvey is a longtime journalist who has covered credit unions extensively, notably for Credit Union Times as well as the New York Times and TheStreet, ... Web: www.mcgarvey.net Details